Give me an “A”! Give me a “B”! Give me anything!: Coming to terms with the European education system

When you go abroad you expect things to be done differently: people might speak a different language, or drive on the opposite side of the road, or eat unrecognizable cuisine. It stands to reason, then, that the colleges across the globe are bound to operate differently than in the United States. However, understanding this concept in theory does not always translate to being prepared for the reality of it.

Three months ago when I left Minnesota, the advice of veteran international studiers still ringing in my ears, I thought that I was prepared. Now, as final exams crawl ever nearer, I have come to realise just how ill-equipped I really was.

Before this starts to sound too much like a horror story though, let me explain some of the dissimilarities between St. Kate’s and National University of Ireland Galway (NUGI).

The most obvious difference, the one we were warned about both back in the U.S. and in our opening orientations with Arcadia, is the grading system. Here in Ireland, in a system where assignments are still marked out of 100, a 70 is an A rather than a 90 or a 95. While this may seem like a helpful curve, it is just as difficult to earn that 70 as it is to get the 100. In fact the general reasoning is that if you get much higher than a 70 you should be teaching the course.

At all our orientations we had this concept drummed into our heads in an effort to circumvent future breakdowns over seemingly low grades such as 50s and 60s. However this was actually the easiest part of the European education system for me to wrap my head around.

Unlike St. Kate’s, NUIG’s assessment system, for the most part, is not continuous.. Before I came to Ireland, I had heard from friends that there probably would not be many assignments, if any at all, and that the assessment of a given course would be based heavily on the final exam. Even more strange is that attendance and participation have no bearing on one’s grade. Now, I have come to understand that this policy is not unusual in bigger universities back in the U.S., but it has certainly taken some getting used to.

The hardest part for me has been the uncertainty. To someone who developed the habit early on of tracking grades almost religiously, the lack of existing grades has been disconcerting. In systems of continuous assessment there is the ability to generally gauge how one is doing in a course even if that judgement is only based on the difficulty of assignments as opposed to numerical evidence. In my current situation though, it is difficult to even project a final grade.

I think that continuous assessment is much more reassuring. In one course here in Ireland for example, we did not even have a midterm which means my final mark, the one which will affect my GPA, is reliant solely on the final paper I write. Here there is seemingly much more at stake as opposed to St. Kate’s, where I can be assured that my final grade will be a composite of work and participation over the entire semester.

While knowing the state of my grade is a concern of mine, an even more pressing issue is that I want to know how I am doing in a given course so I have a better understanding of where I stand with regard to the final exam. Without assignment feedback, there is always the fear that I could walk into the test thinking something is correct and then find out afterwards that I have been misunderstanding for the whole semester.

There are some recognizable benefits, though, to a system of education that does not make its students completely comfortable and complacent. A fellow international student, Megan Mauro ’17, who similarly attends a small liberal arts college in the U.S., offered her opinion on the differences here in Ireland.

“NUIG holds you a lot more accountable for you own education” said Mauro.

The truth in this statement cannot be denied. The lack of consistent updates and offered feedback has definitely forced me to take an active role in my education and seek out instructors rather than sitting back and waiting to be handed the information I am looking for.

While the lack of handholding per se has been nerve-wracking this semester, I must also acknowledge that it has afforded me greater freedom than a St. Kate’s-esque semester would have. Since attendance and participation are not counted to the overall mark for the course, I have been able travel around Ireland much more than I expected. That is not to suggest that future international studiers should get in the habit of skipping classes.  Study abroad is still a primarily academic endeavor, but trip planning is easier when you do not have to worry about an occasional Friday truancy coming back to haunt you.

Furthermore, I will say that the absence of day to day busy work has certainly been advantageous in the social sense. Between attending lectures and trying to see all of Europe on the weekends, it can be difficult to feel settled in a new city or town. However, when you do not have mounting piles of homework on your conscience, it is much easier to get out and experience the real life of your new home, therein creating memories that will last a lifetime. I have had the opportunity to spend numerous guilt-free evenings getting to know people and tasting the rich culture of Ireland, and for that I am blessed.

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