Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Academic Rant to Manchester

November 2011

As part of my Study Abroad Programme, I have to write a few things for Manchester, whilst at UNC. Below is the first assignment, written in a (slightly more formal!) diary style about the academic process at UNC. Seeing as I have no photos to do with academics, I have put a couple of photos in of the UNC campus in the Fall (not all are mine, some of the ones I wanted to put up didn't come out well unfortunately - thanks to Pip for some of them!)

"It’s been an interesting experience coming to a different university, in a different country and comparing aspects of the place to Manchester. In the USA, and in particular at the University of North Carolina, the academic system of both teaching and assesmnet is different than at Manchester, requiring a need to adapt to a new academic system, similar to the progression from secondary school to university in the UK. Whilst I naively thought I would cope with this change, thinking that surely academic assessment could not be THAT different between different academic institutions, I was proven to be rather wrong!

Wilson Library

Davis Library - clearly spend a lot of time in here...

South Building
The most shocking difference (to me at least) is the fact that a portion of the overall grade awarded is based on attendance and class participation. This really took be by surprise as coming from Manchester where the attitude is more of a “don’t turn up don’t do well; your choice”, and I have struggled with the concept of being graded on my participation within the class. Especially when everyone else wants to get a good participation grade, therefore leading to an almost Hermione Granger-esque situation where everyone is clamouring for attention from the Professor. In some classes this participation and attendance grade can count up to 15% of the overall grade, which means it’s quite important to attend every class, even if at times it seems a waste of time because the professor has left a TA do to the teaching for that day. 

The marking scheme in general is a lot different than Manchester’s one too. Where as in Manchester there may be two or three assignments which are generally longer and carry a higher grade weighting, at UNC there is a much greater amount of assignments set, but each carries a much smaller grade weighting. Whilst on the surface I thought this seemed a good idea, the smaller grade worth per assignment means less chance of skewing the overall grade if it doesn’t quite go to plan, it conversely has led to assignments being unequally weighted, with some of the ones I have received being having the same percentage of overall grade, yet one may take 4 hours to do and another only 30minutes. I have to admit that the greater number of smaller assignments does mean students are forced to keep on top of their work, and one cannot do what is typically done in Manchester with essays left to the last week and blitzed in a massive work session. Similarly, monthly quizzes (known as Mid-terms) also force students to make sure they are keeping on top of the subject, and these midterms can count to as much as 15% of the overall grade too, and so are treated in the same way as finals.

However, I have found that by having these regular assignments, the work tends to be a lot more prescriptive and doesn’t allow for as much free thought and development of ideas, simply because there isn’t the time to do outside reading and think about what one is writing to the same extent as in Manchester. In fact many of the assessments and quizzes I have been set have simply required regurgitation of facts and figures, rather than the development of an argument. Furthermore, I have heard horror stories of it being finals week and students having essays set to be in the same week, or mid-terms the day before the final, which to me seems paradoxical to the learning environment in that they aren’t given enough time to actually do the work to the best of their ability. Now whilst some would say that time management is key in these situations, there’s only so much time management one can have when you have a Mid-term on the Monday, a final on the Friday and an essay set the week before due the Thursday all for the same class!

Sorority Houses

In terms of the actual assessment of assignments and quizzes, the mark scheme is completely different to Manchester. UNC uses an interesting marking scheme that I’m not 100% sure how it works. I think it is a negative marking scheme, so marks are deducted from the actual score for every wrong answer, yet it is not uncommon for someone to gain more marks than allocated (for example 33/30) simply for going above what was required of the question. It is even stated within class syllabi that extra credits can be gained from completing x, y and z, making it possible to get a mark of above 100% in some classes. To me that is crazy!
To me my biggest gripe with the UNC system is its lack of feedback. I have come to realise that at Manchester we are very lucky with a formal laid out feedback system which guarantees fairly detailed feedback within a certain time frame. At UNC this is not the case, with me waiting upwards to 2 months for feedback on some assignments, which would have benefited me enormously in the subsequent assessments. Furthermore, a lot of feedback received is simply a mark, with no comments on what could be improved or how. Obviously, I don’t know if this is simply the professors I have had this semester, but comments from other international students has led me to believe this may not be the case.

Around Campus

It is interesting to hear the terminology used to describe these assignments too – referred to as ‘homework’ rather than “coursework” or “essays”, more commonly used in Manchester, which sounds like one is still in secondary school again. To me, being a UNC does at times feel like I am back in secondary school, which is hard to adjust to after two years of pretty much being left to what you want at Manchester. I feel that the difference in academic assessment, as well as other parts of the academic culture at UNC, has led me to become slightly infuriated with the system as a whole. Although I have to recognise that I am writing this at the end of a very long semester (16 weeks compared to Manchester’s 12), and as such may not be looking at the UNC system in the most favourable light, I still find that I have (intellectually) enjoyed myself more at Manchester, and I don’t think I could cope with studying at UNC for 4 years. Having said that also, I do enjoy the courses I am taking here, and it is great experience seeing a different way of teaching and assessment in another country, yet I feel that it isn’t the best method for my own style of learning."

The Chapel on the Hill

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