Studying abroad includes new grading system, school structure


Hogwarts halls · The University of Melbourne has many period buildings, bringing an old-school vibe to attending class there. - Nika Shahery | Daily Trojan

Hogwarts halls · The University of Melbourne has many period buildings, bringing an old-school vibe to attending class there. – Photo courtesy of University of Melbourne

Before starting at the University of Melbourne, I remember noticing a common theme in all of the pamphlets, web pages and videos I had parsed through. The university is known for its rigor, but also the amount of autonomy it gives  its students. Professor-student relationships are a rarity, despite the fact that professors are almost always addressed on a first-name basis. Lectures are not mandatory to attend, and they are recorded and posted on the university’s version of Blackboard, which professors call the “Learning Management System,” or “LMS.” However, in order to pass a class, one must attend at least 75 percent of all tutorial sessions and discussion sections held for each lecture.

The most sizeable difference I expected was the grading system. In looking through the handbook at potential classes I could take, the weight that was assigned to individual assignments proved to be especially shocking. I found it hard to wrap my head around the fact that grades rested almost completely on written assessments. Even more surprising, for one of my classes, 75 percent of the grade is derived from one 3,000 word essay.

These differences were the ones I expected; little did I know I was about to encounter so many more.

First, I had to learn a new language in order to talk about school. In an Australian university, a “course” refers to the degree in pursuit and each class is called a “subject.” Syllabi are called “subject guides” and courses are generally taught by multiple lecturers. Instead of letter grades A-F, students are awarded with a “pass” and several different classes of honors.

Going to class also meant experiencing some new things. In my first lecture for “Human Rights and Global Justice,” the professor began by honoring the land she stood on as those of aboriginal decedents. I found out later that is customary in first lectures. I felt fortunate in that the material in all my lectures was rather interesting, despite the fact that I started to notice there was a small language barrier. The professors may have been speaking English, but I found myself repeating back words like “methane,” “schedule” and “vitamin,” to name a few. The language barrier again worked to my disadvantage when members in my tutorial started laughing at my pronunciation of “aluminum,” as I did not pronounce it “ahli-umi-knee-um.”

I also realized, with a “zed” not an “s,” that everything printed on the slides was in British English. When I asked my tutors, with undertones of hilarity, if American English would be acceptable for essays, they generally laughed and said they could make an exception.

Probably what struck me the most was the first time I heard a professor curse during a lecture. Though I have heard profanity used in instances of reading literature or rhetoric or for comedic purposes, I am still unable to believe the comfort some professors have in using quite colorful profanity. My criminal law professor referred to a “f*cked up trial” as an example of a miscarriage of justice, and before I realized, I had written that in my notes verbatim.

Before starting my semester at “uni,” I thought I was, in general, a pretty self-motivated student. Though I have missed the occasional class or two, I always turned in assignments on time, participated in classes and so on. But in the past couple of weeks I have been here, I have realized how much more self-reliant I need to be in order to manage the workload. Like several other disciplines, the classes I am taking have only a couple assessments that are due all around the same time.

And like several other students, I have procrastination tendencies. In general, people see going abroad as taking a semester off in a way, and I found that mentality to be a hindering force immediately. When the due date of my first essay neared, and the dates of three others trailed behind, I realized that I needed to start exchanging procrastination for motivation. Undoubtedly, it’s difficult to remain motivated and on top of the workload while also trying to add in exploration and socialization, and it becomes even more difficult as the end of the semester nears. I had to quickly adopt new methods in order to remain focused on absorbing the full experience; I began to combine studying with adventures, seeking coffee shops and study spots in the parks on rare sunny days. I also have found the Hogwarts-like appearance of the university to be especially encouraging. I have been using weekend trips as deadlines as well, so I do not have to think about writing that essay on multilateral environmental agreements while laying in the sun at Manly Beach in Sydney.

Despite the minor difficulties I have encountered while trying to meet the rather high expectations the University of Melbourne has created, I am happy I decided to study at a university abroad and at this one in particular. Like USC, the professors here are at the top of their respective fields and have endless experience to draw from. Though the workload might be rather difficult to manage at times, especially when trying to balance the overall study abroad experience, the environment remains conducive to learning, as everyone seems to have a genuine passion. Evidently, this semester is shaping up to one full of learning.

Nika Shahery is a junior majoring in public policy and law. Her column, “Aussie Adventure,” runs every Thursday.

This post has been updated for style and clarity. 

  • Lance

    Nice article that gives light to what int’l students can expect when they come from afar
    to study at USC with a new culture. In fact, being an international student isn’t easy,
    given our complex culture and language. Assistance must come from numerous sources
    to aid these young people embarking on life’s journey. A new award-winning worldwide
    book/ebook that aids anyone coming to the US is “What Foreigners
    Need To Know About America From A To Z: How to Understand Crazy American
    Culture, People, Government, Business, Language and More.” It is used in
    foreign Fulbright student programs and endorsed worldwide by ambassadors,
    educators, and editors. It also identifies “foreigners” who became successful
    in the US and how they contributed to our society, including students.

    A chapter on education explains how to be
    accepted to an American university and cope with a confusing new culture,
    friendship process and daunting classroom differences. Some stay after
    graduation. It has chapters that explain how US businesses operate and how to
    get a job (which differs from most countries), a must for those who want to
    work for an American firm here or overseas.

    It also has chapters that identify the most common English grammar and
    speech problems foreigners have and tips for easily overcoming them, the
    number one stumbling block they say they have to succeeding here.

    Most struggle in their efforts and need guidance from schools’ international departments,
    immigration protection, host families, concerned neighbors and fellow
    students, and informative books like this to extend a cultural helping hand so
    we all have a win-win situation. Good luck to all wherever you study!