Navigating New Academic Expectations

Now you’re settled into your new community overseas, things are feeling pretty good. You’ve made new friends, explored the local area and started classes. However, you’re still encountering difficulties adjusting to new academic expectations. It isn’t just the challenge of learning European history in French either. What in the world is A4 paper? Here are common challenges students face while studying overseas and tips for how to overcome them:

1) Different standards for paper size and setup, formatting and citations.
The most frustrating challenges for me during my time in Australia were the small ones. Professors would assign papers and assignments without explanation of how paper setup might differ for international students. For one, the use of A4 paper. A4 is the standard size of paper used worldwide—except in North America. While the dimensions aren’t far from those of letter size paper, the difference isn’t compatible with most printers. Once you find out the paper setup standards in your host country, a few easy adjustments in Word will make life easier. You can set the standard paper size to A4 and change margins as well. If you are writing in a language other than English, you might also want to change the proofing language to eliminate automatic English grammar and spelling corrections and to assist you in the grammar and spelling of your host country. As for differences in formatting and citations, they vary as much overseas as they often do between classes in the U.S. Pay careful attention to requirements set by your professors, and if you are ever uncertain of what is required, ask questions. This will also give you a chance to introduce yourself to your professors.

2) Successfully learning in a class taught in a different language.
Your overseas study application process should have placed you in classes within your language ability. However, maybe the accent is different than you expected or you’re feeling a little rusty. If that’s the case, make sure you seek help so you can still succeed. Find someone to tutor you individually in the language, or find a conversation group. Use the resources available to you as an international student on your host campus. There will be an international center with staff to assist you, and there will often be international student-centered clubs and organizations where you can ask questions as well. If you are uncomfortable in any of your classes because of the language difference, be sure to speak up and seek help. If the need to switch into a different class arises, you are your own advocate at direct enrollment universities so talk to the university staff in charge of managing your class schedule. However, be sure to stay in contact with overseas study and academic advisors at IU to make sure you’re still on track with both your program and academic requirements.

3) Different assessment demands and study time expectations.
Not all universities around the world are like IU in their assessment demands and study time expectations. In Australia, each class I took was graded based on only three to four major assignments. While this had the benefit of eliminating busy work, there was also an added pressure to do well on the few assignments I was required to submit. If I skipped an assignment or did poorly on one, my grade was toast. There weren’t opportunities for extra credit either. In addition to differences in the assessment demands, you may find the overall structure of classes to be different. Classes in other countries may not meet as often or for as long as classes in the U.S. Don’t let this lull you into a false sense of security. This is generally because students in your host country are expected to spend more time studying individually outside the classroom. In Australia I was expected to find supplementary materials to assist me with both papers and exams on my own. They were not provided and the lectures were not adequate for me to do well on my assignments. You may also not spend as much time reviewing material in class as you are used to in the U.S.

Be prepared to make adjustments to these differences in assessment demands and study time expectations. Take initiative and face the challenges head on, just like you are facing the challenges of daily living from grocery shopping to navigating public transport. If you are in need of individual assistance, consult academic centers at your host university.

4) Challenging grading scales.
Not all grading scales around the world run from A to F. Though most are based on percentages, conversion factors will vary. You may also find professors are not as giving with grades, or perhaps they are more lenient. At University of Adelaide, a 50 percent or above was considered a Pass. The students even had a saying: “Ps get degrees.” A 75 percent was considered a very good score, and between 85 and 100 percent was almost unheard of, a High Distinction. Keep your host country’s grading scale and policies in mind when getting back assignments and exams. Don’t beat yourself up if you aren’t receiving the grades you’re used to receiving in the U.S. It’s possible this has less to do with your quality of work and more to do with you host university’s grading policy. IU often takes these differences into account when transferring your grades back, which was the case at University of Adelaide. Anything above a 75 percent came back as an A. That said, if you’re truly struggling in a class, seek help. Be sure to double check differences in paper setup, formatting and citations as well as these can lead to an unnecessary loss of points.

5) Lack of motivation because adventure is out there!
One of the hardest struggles I faced during my time in Australia was simply forcing myself to hole up in my room and study. There were waterfalls to drink from, kangaroos to cuddle and waves to catch! I simply didn’t want to spend my time abroad at a desk writing academic papers.

Several things helped me overcome the temptation to let schoolwork slide in the face of adventure. One, being in a new place provided me with unique study environments to take advantage of. My residential college built a new academic center with a wall of windows and a scattering of comfortable chairs ideal for studying in while watching the hockey teams train on the lawns. I could also catch the tram down to the beach and curl up with a book in the sand.

Another thing that helped me overcome my lack of motivation was grabbing Australian and international friends for study sessions. We could offer unique perspectives on each other’s work, bring snacks to share and pack up and go for a celebratory dinner afterwards. Taking the time to study and complete assignments paid off when it came time for holidays. Breaks were twice as fun when I didn’t have work hanging over my head.

Let’s not forget that sometimes studying can also be an adventure in itself. Take advantage of resources in your host country you might not have back in the U.S. Look into taking cultural classes, or at least participating in local cultural events. After all, when was the last time you saw an Aboriginal Australian course offered at IU?

Get creative with your study spots, study sessions and classes and you’ll find the study part of study abroad can be as much of an adventure as traveling.