When I arrived at my Napier student accommodation in September, I was excited to meet my new flat mates. I knew that they would be fellow exchange students, but I didn’t know where they would be from or who they would be. With no way for me to contact any of them beforehand, I let my imagination take over as to what they would be like.
I knew I would be sharing a common area with seven other people. That’s a possibility for seven friends from seven countries sharing their seven cultures with each other and exploring this beautiful country together.
Upon arrival, I realized that it was a mistake to have such wishful thinking.
Not only are we all from America, the diversity of the group was even limited by our names. All together, our names are Maddy, Maddy, Maddi, Maggie, Maggie, Alice, Allie, and Jessica.
Of course, the culture shock hit as soon as classes started and I was thrown into a new system of teaching and learning.
The way classes are run is quite different than in America and has been difficult to adjust to. “Modules” run in two parts: a lecture (one hour) and a tutorial (two hours). These can be spread out during one day, allowing for students to go home for lunch, have a wee bit of study time, or get it all done at once and have the rest of the day to yourself. Each class only meets once a week, and you typically have only one class a day.
The lecture is self-explanatory; you sit quietly in a room as the lecturer regurgitates information from a PowerPoint presentation. The tutorials are more discussion-based and group-oriented. Often students are broken up into smaller groups to discuss topics or ideas for assignments. Debates often happen during this time, or people will give presentations.
It doesn’t help that I’m enrolled in classes that are focused on journalism, policy and politics. Any time America is mentioned (which is quite a lot) the professor points at me and has a dialogue with me, putting me on the spot in every class period.
At one point I was even asked to recite the American Pledge of Allegiance during a discussion about nationalism.
When people find out that I’m American, they have all these questions for me about social life, a lot of which centers around my school experience. As my new Scottish friends got to know me, they started asking questions about things that they had seen on TV, and other common stereotypes about Americans. They’ve grown up with American movies, Nickleodeon, and our major news events as a generalization for what our lives are really like. They usually have a look of surprise when we tell them which things are and are not true.
As a result of these generalizations and stereotyping through media, America and its school system in particular was often looked down upon. Qamar Zaman, who grew up in Edinburgh, said that a lot of what he had heard about Americans was pretty bad. “I remember growing up through secondary school and even teachers would mock American schools, saying we are smarter than the average American adult. I was only at the age of 14 at the time,” he says.
Another thing that everyone wants to know about is what it’s like going to school while the US has an uptick in school shootings. Scottish law prohibits guns as well as excessive knives, so it is no wonder they would be so interested in the matter.
Although I find myself getting called out a lot, having students from all over the world definitely adds to the classroom experience. “They [exchange students] add perspective, diversity, interest, and I think our own students like it as well when outsiders come in,” says Professor of Information Policy at Edinburgh Napier University, Alistair Duff.
Especially when American students come in, it adds to the conversation. “Having American students brings a dynamic into the classroom because of America’s preeminence as a cultural and political power,” says Duff, “It’s quite exciting to have Americans among us that we can give a kicking to or learn from.”
“In my lectures, I sometimes single Americans out,” explains Duff, “Partly because America’s soft and hard power, it’s in everybody’s faces. So we have a right to speak about it and to give our opinions about American politics because it’s shoved down our throats.”
There is a lot of comparison made between local and American news like Boris Johnson versus Donald Trump, or no Constitution versus a Constitution. Sharing the same language as Scotland and being filled with politics, drama, and entertainment makes America a very popular topic to discuss in any setting.
The schedule seems a lot more laid back, and sometimes professors will tell you that you don’t need to attend the lecture in the morning as long as you keep up with the material.
For a student who has often been marked for attendance and sometimes given extra credit for attending every one of the classes, that caught me off guard.
Alice Yu is another exchange student from University of Missouri and she finds the attitude of classes a little shocking. “From what I’ve noticed, it’s definitely a lot more lax,” says Yu. “For example, today I went to my tutorial class…I was one of three students who showed up, the other being another American exchange student and the third being a Russian exchange student. People simply just don’t show up, and there really isn’t a penalty for it.”
Getting used to the schedule was one thing, but the assignments were another big thing to get used to, and now that we are nearing the end of the semester, it can become quite stressful for a lot of students.
You typically only have two or three assignments for each class that affect your grade. This stresses me out as an American student who is used to having something due at least every week that will go toward your grade.
They loom over you until the last month of classes, when they are all due at once. There definitely is some development of time management skills so you don’t have too many papers due at the same time.
“At home, we had a lot of assignments, so I felt like I was constantly stressed,” says Yu, “but here, I wasn’t stressed at the beginning, but now I look at my calendar and I want to scream because it’s really punching me in the gut that I only have two assignments to determine my entire grade for this class, and that’s not a lot. So stress is at peak level right now. It’s pretty much an accumulation of all the stress I should’ve had in a normal semester back at Mizzou.”
But if you space all the work out over the semester and do a little bit of the assignment each week, you feel better about the papers that you turn in and the projects that you present. Sidd Mistry, originally from Ontario College of Art and Design University in Canada says he has a lot of time to work on his projects during class as well. “Because I have less courses, I have more time to properly do [assignments],” says Mistry. “The project I’m doing now, I’m actually happy with because I’ve been able to have all that time, whereas at home they cram it all.”
Also, because of the scheduling, students are more attentive, are less stressed out, and generally have a good time learning. There’s also time to get food and have a breather before getting back into it in tutorial, which I think contributes a lot to the attentiveness.
Despite the relaxed schedule and the low standards for attendance, when it counts, students are ready to go.
Students actually seem to know the topics of discussion when they are asked to give their input. They seem to be more passionate about what they’re learning as well.
This interactive environment makes students really think. “It has this, ‘break the system’ energy almost,” said Yu, “Whereas my courses at Mizzou, some do that, but most are just like, ‘Here’s the theory, and then I’m going to test you on it.’ More critical thinking happens here.”
Another major culture shock occurs when these assignments start being due. The system of grading is different, which can be beneficial for pointing out more academically achieving students, but overall is criticized.
Essentially, the grading system is out of 80 percent, rather than 100. They also have class degrees for markings which are broken up into classes 1-3, and then if you are below the standard for a third class mark, you fail. So, if you receive a 70 percent or higher on an assignment, that is looked at as a first-class mark. It is looked at as the equivalent of an American 95 percent. This means that you could get a 50 percent and still be doing relatively well in the class, hovering in the lower second-class range.
Getting my first assignment back definitely took me by surprise when I saw a mark that would have merited a mental breakdown back home. But in the teacher’s notes it said, “Good job!”
When asked about the grading system and how he felt about it, Duff called it “stupid” and said he really didn’t know why they keep it around because it really doesn’t achieve anything.
Fortunately for me, I get a pass/fail grade for these courses when I get home, but if someone ever asks to see the real grades I received, I will have some explaining to do.