Sussex vs University California Santa Barbara: Exam madness and the value of mince pies.

Assessments are weird in the USA , or so I think anyway. I have regularly discussed with friends here about how different our education systems are and I think it an important factor to take in to account for anyone thinking of a year abroad.

As someone who strives to do well and is now in their third year of higher education, I feel like I have the UK system pretty well understood. Readings for seminars are important but I would love to meet the person who can honestly say they have never skipped the odd article. Or to meet a person who can say they have never been in a seminar where a significant portion of the class is clearly suffering after Oceana Wednesdays. (I had a 9am Thursday seminar in my first two years, and for some reason, attendance by others was always low!)US-UK-blend

In my experience at Sussex, we tended to have very few assessments, with most of them weighted heavily. Admittedly, I know that Law is a bit worse for this than others. I still remember last summer revising with fear for my 3 hour Land Law exam, which determined 100% of a yearlong course. Essays are written, edited, re-edited and despaired upon by many. January and June are stressful months, and Christmas usually involves sulking at a sizable pile of revision whilst eating too many mince pies. Generally though, the UK student can get away without studying as hard during term time because there are big gaps between learning something, and being tested on it.

On the other side of the world however you have UMERICA (hehe), which couldn’t be more different.  At UCSB I am on the quarter system. I am here for three, ten week terms. In each term I can pick 3 or 4 classes in any subject area and the teacher will have a different form of assessment in each.

I have found that active class participation and preparation can count for anything from 5% to as much as 35% of my overall grade. What your teacher thinks of you seriously matters out here. On top of near daily homework, a UCSB student between weeks 4 and 7, will suffer through midterm exams (usually worth roughly 25% of a grade). Then there is FINALS WEEK. This is the subject of many a meme but pretty much is immediately at the end of each term and involves your normal exam shenanigans. There is no month of revision beforehand to stuff your face with your favourite revision snack, or more importantly, catch up on anything you may have forgotten. American students are tested ALL the time, or so it feels anyway.

Each system has their advantages and disadvantages. In the UK, it is possible to be flakey. I know people who only cram in the last two weeks and are bright enough (frustratingly) to somehow always stay at a good 2.1. On the other hand, I know people who don’t do so well, because of the pressure they put on themselves on exam day. I don’t think this says a lot for the UK.

In America, consistency is key. Laziness is not so easily tolerated, and the best bit, holidays are yours to enjoy. The break is an actual break because you aren’t about to be tested as soon as you return to university, and that is really refreshing.

Even saying all this, I still think the UK system is academically harder. I probably won’t win many friends for saying this, but because the work is so constant in America, and each piece doesn’t count for a lot, the work tends to be broader and less focused on quality. Teachers give marks far more easily. UCSB students have general education requirements, and so one will often have a Chemistry major, sat in their Islamic Law class, or visa versa. This means the depth that you get from focusing solely on your subject for three years, doesn’t materialize in the same way.

I am very aware that others disagree with me on this, and I am sure I am biased to value home more! But if you are thinking of doing a term or a year abroad, do think about the kind of student you are and the sort of working environment you suit best.

Either way, if you do come out to the Californian coast, it is always fun to pop to the beach after a long day at the library writing essays, as I did the day before writing this! 



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