Education 101

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While the semester is well underway at UC Berkeley with round two of midterms creeping up, in Sydney classes have barely begun. Although it may now only be week two for me, it’s all I’ve needed to notice how different the American and Australian systems are.

Block schedules

Everyone brags when they manage to work their schedule into giving them a day off during the week (bragging rights intensify when someone has gotten on Friday off). This is especially hard to do when you have both Monday-Wednesday-Friday lecture times along with those extra-long, extra-cruel Tuesday-Thursday ones. In my past five semesters at UC Berkeley, I only ever had one semester with Fridays off. Even then, I wasn’t really “free” since I was still swamped with work, research and countless meetings.

However, here in Sydney, lectures occur in blocks. One main difference between Australia and the United States is that the majority of students don’t “move away” to college. Almost everyone who isn’t international commutes from home. Because of this, universities have adapted their teaching styles to be more accommodating. All of my lectures occur in 2-hour blocks, with the equivalent of discussion sections usually also occurring on the same day, a mere few hours after the lecture. Not only does this mean I can get nearly, if not all, of my weekly hours for a class done in a day, but it also means that it’s much easier to have a couple of days off during the week.

Everything is online

We all know that a professor who can adequately use bCourses is pretty rare to come by. It’s a miracle if they upload the readings as opposed to making us buy a course reader and actually keep grades up-to-date. However, this couldn’t be any further from how it works over here. The equivalent of bCourses here is updated daily and includes everything needed for the entire course’s semester. Course material and information, threads for asking questions, readings, assessment tasks in advance, quizzes, lecture presentations and recordings­ — you name it, it’s there. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that most students commute and it’s much easier to handle everything online as opposed to in-person.

Web lectures

At UC Berkeley, the only webcast lectures are those that are too impacted and don’t have enough seating. But one miraculous thing I’ve come across here are recorded lectures. As a history major, I know that if I miss a lecture, then I’ve missed it. There’s really no other way to get the lecture information if your professor doesn’t upload the slides (which is hardly ever, or they’re only full of pictures anyway) or you don’t have a friend who can pass you the notes (which is not a guarantee). But here, EVERY lecture for EVERY class, no matter how big or small, is recorded and uploaded online for students to watch and hear again. There are also options to enroll in a “web” lecture, meaning that you’re not expected to go to the actual class at all  you just watch it online.

No “syllabus week?”

Again, I’ve realized this must stem from the fact that everything is available online at least a week (maybe two) before classes actually begin. This includes the syllabus. While it may seem great that the syllabus is provided way in advance so you get a layout of the class before even setting foot in it, this also means that readings are due in the first week. Usually, the first week of classes at UC Berkeley consists of professors and GSIs handing out syllabi and going over the course structure, requirements and expectations. But here, since the professors know that you’ve already had time to look over the syllabus, they begin lecturing the very first minute you step into class and simply remind you that readings will be covered in the first discussion section of the week.

Professors lead discussions!

All of my “discussions” are also led by the professor who lectures for the course. It may be because my classes tend to be of a smaller size to the stereotypical giant lecture, but rather than graduate students leading small-group sections, the professor takes on that task. One of my classes does have other lecturers running some of the other sections, but the professor herself is not exempt from teaching a few as well. I think this is a great way for the professor to get to know their students on a more regular basis and definitely makes it easier to introduce yourself to them in the hopes that they’ll actually remember who you are.

It’s only been six days into the semester, but I’ve already noticed how different university is here. While it’s sometimes hard to know exactly what I should be doing (reminding me of my first semester in college!), it’s all part of the fun of studying abroad. Classes have been a whirl of fun so far and I can’t believe the first week has already flown by. Things are quickly picking up speed and it won’t be long before I’m going through my second round of midterms. Better enjoy these stressless less-stressed weeks while they last!

Jenisha Sabaratnam writes the weekly Travel column on her study abroad experiences in Australia. Contact Jenisha Sabaratnam at [email protected].