Academic Culture the Biggest Shock

A month into the school year here in Hong Kong, I’ve realized that adapting to the academic life here is actually the most difficult part of studying abroad. Not the completely foreign language, very…interesting food, different customs, or any other aspect of life has so far presented me with the most discomfort or struggle.

Why?

Let me start with a few caveats –

1) Switching to a different university at all in the middle of college takes serious adjustment. It’s like being a freshman all over again except no one is going out of their way to help you ease in or figure it out. You’re simply thrown into classes alongside students who already have gotten the hang of things.

2) All five of my courses are transferring back to my home university for credit with the grades I receive counting towards my GPA. Coming from a highly competitive academic background, I’m naturally inclined to stress more about academics than other aspects since it “counts.” Not feeling on top of my work, something probably quite normal when suddenly switching institutions, is bound to make me uncomfortable or worried.

Having admitted those other factors at play, I believe that certain aspects of education here that differ from those I’m used to are still significant contributors to my “academic culture shock.” Besides, I have found the difference quite interesting, causing me to think quite a bit about methods of education and the implications it has post-graduation.

When creating my schedule for the semester, I was excited to find I could easily keep my Friday class-free (easier for weekend trips!) since most courses only meet once or twice a week. At home, such a thing would never have been possible for my major and only possible for other majors with significant planning. The catch? This means that lectures can be two or three hours long. Even when the third hour is a discussion-based tutorial, my attention span simply does not last that long. I find myself impatient and irritated by the time lecture ends, even when I started fully alert and genuinely interested in learning the material. Perhaps I’m just used to having a maximum of 1.5 hours lectures, but I suspect most college students, even the brightest or most motivated (or well-rested), struggle to seriously absorb and critically engage material all the way to the end of a two or three hour lecture.

The infrequency of meeting times followed by a pounding of new material also seems to be a highly inefficient way to learn. If I’m only thinking about the material once, maybe twice a week, it’s hard for the concept to really sink in, especially when those one or two meetings are absolutely crammed with content.

Perhaps this wouldn’t be such an issue, however, if the assignments for class weren’t also so infrequent. After all, back home plenty of courses only meet twice a week. Here, many of my syllabi read like this:

5 Assignments 30%

Midterm 30%

Final 40%

And then substitute midterm and final for a single paper and assignments for a single written reflection or presentation to create the rest of my syllabi. How can I grasp the material without engaging it, either in lecture, assignments, or, ideally, both? The combination of infrequent but long lecture meetings with very few, heavily weighted assignments has left me suddenly worried about academics. When that one big assignment is due, I realize that maybe I didn’t quite absorb the lecture material after all, despite it making perfect sense at the time. Not thinking about the subject often through more frequent lecture meetings and/or assignments means concepts that I understood in lecture fade from my mind since I don’t revisit or use them soon enough.

I never thought that I would say it, but I miss the workload back home. It forces me to engage the subject matter and stay on top of what’s going on in class. Of course, fewer assignments gives a high level of flexibility for travel and fun while abroad, but I would not want to spend all four years of college in such an environment. Essentially, it takes much more personal motivation and self-imposed structure to accomplish the same outcome; props to the many, many students here who have that. Still, I think that a university should be trying to help its students, and none of the trends above seem to work towards that end in the most efficient way.

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