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what is the UK education system like, what are UK universities like, grading in the UK

5 Things to Expect from the UK Education System

grading system in UK universities, grading for study abroad in England

From the cobblestone streets of Edinburgh, to the thriving metropolis of London, and the coastline of Swansea, studying abroad in the United Kingdom is an experience in diverse cultures and rich histories. Whether you’re thinking of heading to a small town or a bustling city, you’ll not be disappointed to call this country your home away from home. If your experience is anything like mine was, you’ll be crying more when having to get on the plane back to your permanent home. I recommend having plenty of tissues on hand.

For those based in the United States, don’t let the fact that you won’t need another language ability fool you – there are still so many things unique to the United Kingdom that may take you by surprise and remind you that yes, this is a different country with its own unique customs and way of doing things. This is especially true when it comes to the higher education system.

As you finalize your housing options and start figuring out what to bring with you abroad, here are five things to keep in mind about the higher education system in the UK, and how they may differ from your studies in the United States.

#1 – Class Structure

Like a US institution, the structure of classes will vary depending on your courses and the type of university that you’re attending. While I was studying abroad in Scotland at the University of Stirling, the assortment of my courses, from Scottish history to Sociology, resulted in a dynamic class schedule.

Typically, courses are structured around a weekly lecture and smaller group modules. What this means is that once to twice a week you will participate in a large group lecture, where you’ll be expected to listen to the professor speak, as opposed to group discussion (this may vary a bit according to your studies). For those courses that you then break into smaller groups – or modules as they were referred to in Scotland – this will be a chance to meet in smaller numbers to discuss, debate, and learn further from the lecture material. This is also where assignments may be given, if not done so in the lecture.

#2 – Attendance Expectations

So you stayed out too late at the pub, you missed your first alarm, you might as well just skip the lecture, right? No one is going to take down your attendance, so where is the harm? I’m telling you right now, don’t make the rookie mistake and decide to skip the large lecture. The fact that it only happens once or twice a week means you’ll miss out on a lot of necessary information. Trying to get used your professor’s thick Scottish brogue or Welsh accent can be work enough; don’t add to your workload by missing out completely.

It will also make you look foolish when your group leader calls on you during the module to answer a question related to lecture details. Added to that, say you skip your module; your group leaders may note your absence as this relates to the participation portion of your grade.

what is the UK education system like, what are UK universities like, grading in the UK

#3 – The Grading System

This is where it can get a bit tricky to fully understand things, and I recommend paying attention during orientation week so you understand how the grading system works. Taking advantage of the international programs/education office on campus will also be a lifesaver when trying to decipher the new grading system.

Unlike US institutions, there is not just an A to F scale for grades. For example, the University of Stirling awarded grades ranging like so: 1A, 1B, 1C, 2A, 2B, 2C, and so on until 5C (which is noted as a “Clear Fail”). As if that wasn’t enough, there are different point levels attached to the letter grade you receive, whenever grades for components are to be aggregated in some way. Sounds like a mouthful, right? This is why it’s essential to take advantage of the resources on your UK campus. They are there to help you, so don’t be afraid to ask!

Depending on the program provider you study abroad with, how you are graded will also vary. Some providers will only require a Pass/Fail mark, while others will actually transfer the grade you received back to your home university. The university will make adjustments so what you received abroad matches what appears on your transcripts at home. Most study abroad offices should have resources to look at, in order to better understand the grade translation.

#4 –  Study Habits

One of the first things I noticed my first semester at Stirling was the lack of students who appeared to be working on homework at night. Sure, there were the few and far in between, but it wasn’t as prevalent as it was at my home institution in the states.

Don’t let first impressions fool you – just because you might not see it at first or hear students talking about it, there is plenty of studying going on. The UK education system stresses a lot of independent learning, meaning it’s up to the student to do work outside the classroom. Added to that, most courses won’t assign homework every night/week and your grade will be decided by a comprehensive exam at the end of the semester. Yet another reason you shouldn’t be skipping those large lectures – they’ll come in handy when prepping for said exam.

Let the library on your UK campus become your best friend. Chat with peers in your group modules about meeting up and discussing notes, going over the textbook, and answering each other’s questions. All these tools will help you to achieve success. The challenge of having to better manage your time and studies will also help you to better appreciate the education you’re receiving.

#5 –  Transferring Credits Back Home

Once you return from studying abroad in the UK, it can take some time to receive your transcripts from your host institution. Don’t panic if you don’t hear anything right away. For some, it can take upwards of a few months for the paperwork to come through. It’s advisable to communicate with your study abroad advisors before you leave the country, as they’ll walk you through how the transcript process works.  Depending on your study abroad provider, the paperwork may go straight to the university before you’re informed. Again, keep the lines of communication active with your advisors so you’ll know what to expect.

All things said and done, the most important thing to remember is that you’re a student studying outside your home country. You’re bound to make mistakes, but this is part of the process (and I would even say a reward) so don’t be afraid to live and learn. You’re going to have so many amazing experiences while in the UK; let the adjustment to a new education system be part of that. You’ll be glad you did!

Do you have any questions about what your school experience will be like when studying abroad in the UK? Ask us in the comments and we’ll answer.

Photo sources:  Merrill College of Journalism Press Releases via Flickr, LeafLanguages via Flickr



Tiffany Harrison first ignited her passion for meaningful travel by living abroad in Scotland, and working in public relations in San Francisco. She now cultivates her skills with GoAbroad.com as the Outreach Manager, is an avid tea-drinker who lives by the words of Jane Austen, and considers her passport a map to discovering the world. Find Tiffany tweeting at @ttmharrison and read more on her blog, What Would Jane Do?


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