“Classes are so much easier abroad!”
This is a common refrain from students recently returning to campus after studying abroad, and is perhaps one of the most consistent observations among them. But is it true?
Although my program’s schedule requirements limit the amount of free time I have for homework and other activities, this situation is mostly unique, and I have found that the amount of work assigned for each class is often less than at the 5Cs.
However, classes abroad involve new and distinct obstacles which have, in some ways, made them more challenging.
Instruction abroad, particularly in Europe, is generally more lecture-based than at American liberal arts colleges. Even in my program, which holds its own courses independent of any local university, the teaching style is vastly different.
While some professors attempt to engage students by posing factual questions about discrete points in readings, I have had many course sessions that consisted of 90 minutes of uninterrupted lecturing. Some students may enjoy this, but I personally prefer active learning and discussion — one of the reasons I chose to attend Pomona College.
While listening and taking notes, rather than engaging my critical analysis skills regularly in the classroom, may sound like less effort, adjusting to a new lecture-based style of learning is also difficult.
Staying focused through a 90-minute lecture is a challenge. At the 5Cs, discussing and analysing material with my peers and professors helped me understand and absorb it. The lack of opportunities to do so abroad has often made classes in Germany harder.
Add on my professors’ thick accents and occasional gaps in English proficiency, and remaining engaged becomes even more arduous.
Even when professors hold class discussions, the change in format can make them more challenging. They usually do not participate in or facilitate the conversation. Additionally, my classmates come from a wide variety of colleges and universities across the United States, some of which emphasize lecture over discussion.
This makes some of them — through no fault of their own — more hesitant to participate. These factors combined can make discussions less fruitful than an average class discussion at the 5Cs.
The heavy lecturing and lack of significant class discussions has, however, pushed me to contribute more in class when given the opportunity, and do more critical thinking on my own.
It has also been more difficult to find help from professors, even outside of classes. At the 5Cs, I greatly value the amount of engagement I am able to have with professors as well as their willingness to meet with me and discuss topics from class. Their thoughts on my personal work and performance have always improved my academic experience.
Here, none of my professors offer open office hours. They will occasionally arrange time to meet with students, but usually have limited availability. This lack of engagement has been a challenge, which in turn has forced me to become more academically self-reliant.
Exposing myself to different forms of learning and instruction is by no means negative. Nor are additional obstacles in the classroom inherently bad. Both factors have forced me to think and absorb information in different ways. These experiences add to my analytic and academic toolbox, which will serve me well both back at the 5Cs and in the future.
However, becoming accustomed to these changes does take time and effort. It can be exhausting and, at times, frustrating or disappointing. Even when the out-of-class workload is smaller, study abroad can require additional work within the classroom.
Students going abroad — many of whom, like me, chose the 5Cs at least in part because of their liberal arts focus — should be cognisant of the academic differences they will face and prepare for them accordingly, rather than expecting an effortless semester.
Marc Rod is an international relations major at Pomona College, studying the European Union in Freiburg, Germany. Fittingly, he enjoys travel and journalism.