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Higher Education in the United States
In the United States, students begin "higher education" after completing 12 years of primary and secondary education. Institutions of higher education include two-year colleges (known as "community" or "junior" colleges), four-year colleges, universities, institutes of technology, vocational and technical schools, and professional schools, such as law and medical schools. Because post-secondary institutions in the United States are not regulated or managed by the federal government, their philosophy, policies, and practices vary considerably.
Creativity, tolerance, and flexibility are, in general, valued above tradition and respect for authority in the United States. Teaching styles and classroom attitudes vary widely and are influenced by many different factors.
Below are some suggestions you should keep in mind as you begin your studies. You will learn more about the informal rules for academic success as you attend classes and have the opportunity to talk with experienced students and your instructors.
Examine Your Expectations
All students, domestic and international, experience a period of adjustment when entering college or graduate school. During this adjustment period, success can be difficult and it may take some time before you are able to demonstrate your true ability. Do not be discouraged if, despite your best efforts, your first term's work is not outstanding.
Select Your Courses Wisely
Be cautious when planning your first semesters' courses. Try to choose a combination of more demanding and less demanding courses. When arranging your course schedule, consult your academic advisor and experienced students familiar with the University's courses and instructors.
You may be tempted to take more courses than you need in an effort to earn your degree sooner. However, keep in mind that taking too many courses may result in feelings of discouragement, poor academic performance, and lower chances of success.
Talk with Your Instructors
Students are expected to ask questions and offer their own opinions during class. Instructors also expect students to consult with them in their offices when there are questions or problems. Each instructor has "office hours," a time when he or she is available to meet with students. If you are not doing well in a course and you fail to see the instructor about the problem, he or she is likely to assume that you are not interested in the class.
If at any time you feel unsure of what is expected of you in class or are troubled by some aspect of the work, consult the instructor first before seeking further help.
Quizzes, Tests, and Examinations
U.S. colleges and universities frequently test students, particularly undergraduates.
Quizzes are short tests on assigned material; they are used most frequently in language and mathematics courses.
"Pop quizzes" are unannounced and given by the instructor to see if students are keeping up with their reading assignments or to verify that students understand the material being presented in the course.
Examinations (also called "exams") may require specific, short replies or longer responses in the form of essays. Types of exam questions include true-or-false, sentence completion ("fill in the blank"), multiple-choice, and matching. They cover a broad range of material and typically require extensive studying.
If the class is large, you may be asked to record your exam answers on a machine-readable answer form. In such cases, be sure you understand how you should mark your answers on the answer sheet.
Many exams include one or two questions requiring essays of several pages. Essay questions generally specify how you are to approach the material, and the questions may be long or short. Terms often used to indicate an essay question include: analyze, compare and contrast, criticize, define, describe, discuss, evaluate, explain, illustrate, interpret, justify, outline, prove, review, summarize, and trace.
See your instructor or your academic advisor if you have trouble understanding the format or content of exams and quizzes.
The typical undergraduate course involves three hours of lectures each week, an additional lab or discussion section, reading assignments, quizzes and tests, a mid-term exam, and a final exam, as well as one or more research papers or projects.
Unless specifically directed by the instructor, you should never share homework or test answers with fellow students; doing so is considered cheating and is punishable by expulsion from the University.
If you find yourself falling behind or feeling pressured about your assignments, discuss your problem with the instructor or teaching assistant after class or during office hours. Do not hesitate to get help if you are having academic problems. It is important to keep up with assignments from the beginning of each semester; otherwise you are likely to experience increasing difficulty and fall behind.
International students are sometimes dismayed by the amount of reading assigned for their courses, especially if English is not their native language. It is important, therefore, to be clear about the role of the reading assignments in a course. In some courses, the readings are crucial; you must read the texts closely and know the material for exams. In other courses, readings may be supplementary or optional.
It is usually impossible to read thoroughly everything that is assigned. You will have to prioritize: read the most important material first and carefully; then skim the less important assignments.
Research papers may seem overwhelming for students unaccustomed to the U.S. academic environment. The Saint Louis University English Language Center provides assistance with writing (firstname.lastname@example.org, 314-977-2930), and the Reference Desks in the campus libraries provide assistance with research.
In your writing, you will be expected to know when and how to "paraphrase" or summarize another writer's ideas in your own words. If you are not a native English speaker, this task may seem difficult or even needless, and you may be tempted to quote your sources word for word. Because this practice can lead to a charge of "plagiarism" (see below), it is essential that you acquire the skill of paraphrasing.
If you conduct extensive research and truly seek to understand the concepts about which you are writing, you will be able to express your ideas more clearly. Find an instructor or U.S. student, perhaps a volunteer tutor or conversation partner, who will read your papers, point out passages that are unclear, and help you find phrasing that conveys your meaning.
Plagiarism is the use of another's words or ideas without acknowledgment of their source. Although in some cultures incorporating the words of revered scholars is an important part of academic writing, it is not acceptable in the United States. Plagiarism is considered a serious offense. The consequences of proven or even suspected plagiarism can be as severe as expulsion from the University. Borrowed words and ideas must always be clearly documented as "references". Always seek help from the English Language Center (email@example.com, 314-977-2930), as soon as possible.
An important distinction exists between group work and individual work. In general, papers, homework assignments, quizzes, and tests should be done individually, and evidence (or even suspicion) of collaboration can result in a failing grade for the work or expulsion from the class or institution. Studying with other students can be helpful, but before you collaborate with others on homework, papers, or tests, make sure the instructor has specifically authorized such collaboration. You should never copy or use a classmate's work as your own.
Academic honesty is a very serious matter at all levels and in all schools.
Portions taken from "International Student and Scholar Services Handbook" from Office of International Student and Scholar Services, University of Missouri-St. Louis.