Thursday, November 4, 2010

US vs. Spain: Academic Differences

Here's the latest from Cara, our Career Services Ambassador, currently studying abroad in Madrid...

My first day of class at La Universidad de Alcala went a little something like this. After about 3 wrong turns, I finally stumbled upon La Facultad de Filosophia y Letras, the University’s brown-brick humanity center planted near the city’s main square. It takes seven or so minutes to find my history class, located within a marble-floored matrix of fancy aulas and swervy stairs. When I finally push through its doors, the room is bathed in darkness; a lone four other Tufts students are squatted in their seats, puzzlement draped across their faces. We must be in the wrong room, we collectively decide. Or maybe History class doesn’t start until next week?

Ten baffling minutes later, our professor open
s the doors, snaps on the lights, and strolls inside. Five minutes later, a straggling sea of students joins our beginning crew. By the time our animated professor lunges into his “Intro to Class” speech, it’s been about 20 minutes since the start-time so boldly printed in our agenda. Welcome to Spain.

Unlike the US, where a ten-minute late start warrants a high-five and mad-dash back to the dorms, it’s all-too-common for a Spanish professor to arrive 20 minutes late to class. Or 30. To the blessed advantage of the late-riser, it’s often considered okay here to leave start and end times a bit more hazy. It’s just intrinsically accepted standard Spanish code.

Among more “lenient” tardiness rules, there are other differences that distinguish Spain academics from our own homey system. The first I’ll tick off: academic course structure. As we all know, first-day-of-class US-style entails a “this-is-what-you’re-in-for” syllabus—brimming with lengthy reading assignments, project dates, and looming tests. But oftentimes, the only “beware” date that Spanish professors impart to jittery students is one, make-or-break final exam. The other assignments that comprise the rest of the course? More or less left up to the individual whims of the student, for better or for worse.

This is not to say there’s no out-of-class work, in Spain. Please, if only. There will always be recommended reading in the typical Spanish course, a supplement to what’s taught in lecture. Many even offer optional extra assignments, an assurance that grading isn’t one daunting coin-toss based on a final exa
m. But, unlike the US, the typical Spanish professor won’t be dutifully reminding students of mandatory reading or overdue problem sets. A much more mutually independent relationship exists between student and professor—one that requires students to forge their own judgments about how to best prep and excel.

But before you book a one-way flight to Spain, remember that at the end of the day—just like us Americans—grades are directly proportional to each student’s time and investment. Even without that “prepare yourself” nudge forward, Spaniards are expected to dedicate the same time and energy toward the material at hand; they just have a more flexible, self-set schedule to work with.

Another important difference to mention here: the Spanish evaluation system. So accustomed to US grade jabber, I’d soon learn that a “4.0” here—or just a plain old 4—isn’t quite as impressive overseas. Spanish students are graded with a far different number system, one that evaluates quasi competition-style on a scale of 1-10. This number is often reached by comparison to other students, as opposed to a calculated consolidation of tests, homework, lab reports, and the like.

But probably the most important contrast I’ve gathered here speaks to the dynamics that spring to life within the classroom. At Tufts, class-time is often catered toward arousing discussion—achieving a witty back-and-forth between professor and student. Professors aren’t as much interested in their own views, but in the smartly stated words and opinions of students, which they try to stimulate in any way they can. In Spain, the student voice doesn’t hold quite as much weight. Spanish classrooms most often feature the professor as a one-man show, imparting his insight into the brains and notebooks of fiercely scribbling students. The same mentality goes for student papers. Rather than a vehicle for each student to personally analyze and conclude, papers are more-often considered a way to eloquently rehash what’s stated in class. Exams and essays aren’t as much meant to challenge student thinking, but to confirm the material has been appropriately filtered and absorbed.

When learning the ins and outs of a new academic system, it’s often tempting to make quick, flashing judgments. Isn’t independent analysis—incorporating our own personal flavor into the course material—fundamental to learning, to growing? Can Spanish students gain the same educational benefits if they aren’t as actively participating in their class environment, testing their tired student brains day-in and day-out?

But I soon realized this: each academic system has roots that are deeply wound, bound tightly into a network of values that sit at each system’s core. The primary purpose of US University is, first and foremost, to teach. It’s to receive a gifted set of moldable student brains, and challenge them to actively analyze—dig past the facts and theories into an original train of thought. The US system aims to transform students into always-pondering “self-starters,” a mentality considered essential for future career success.

If we reach down deep into Spain’s academic legacy, the underlying core is somewhat different. While of course dedicated to student academic growth, Spanish universities are primarily praised as research facilities—tools by which bright professors plunge into top-notch resources and advance on a topic of interest. It’s not that Spanish professors don’t “care” about the student perspective. Rather, the Spanish academic mentality considers the capacity for higher analysis a byproduct of increased growth and experience, often acquired past the university level. Having dabbled in the material for years, the Spanish professor becomes the vehicle by which students can best absorb the complexity of the topic at hand. What’s clear is that academic differences between here and overseas aren’t so black and white. It’s all enormously complicated, seated back in what role the “student” —and even the “university” —is thought to play.

Stressed as you all might be with your own “US-system” workload, I’ll tie up my academic jabber for now. Good luck with whatever exams might be coming your way! I’ll be rejoining the perks of US-style classes back in the spring. But of course, after a semester in Spain, I can’t say I’ll be on time.