International Student and Scholar Services

Academic Life in the United States


Your first impressions of academic life in the United States may be confusing. International students often comment that U.S. students are competitive, but don't seem to study very hard, and beyond the informality of the classroom, the professors are very demanding. Some of these apparent contradictions can be explained by the values that underpin them. 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. Even where tradition does dictate professorial or student behavior, the patterns may not be evident to someone coming from a different tradition.

Who Is Your Teacher?
Professors are the core of the teaching staff at UMSL. Full professors generally teach lecture courses, seminars, and courses for graduate students and upper-class undergraduates. A professor's informal style of dress or speech must not be taken to mean that he or she has a relaxed attitude toward assignments, class attendance, or the quality of your work. Informal attire and the omission of titles in interpersonal communication are common in American university teaching; but beneath this largely informal surface lies a wide variety of individual expectations and preferences concerning student behavior.

At UMSL, many discussion sessions and labs are led by teaching assistants (TA's), some of whom may be international. Teaching assistants are most often graduate students pursuing a master's or doctoral degree. You should feel free to approach them with your questions and will probably be on a first-name basis from the beginning of the course. You should not hesitate to ask their advice about course work, grades, or other matters.

Assistantships: A Special Note for Graduate Students
Since research universities began operating in the United States, graduate students have assisted professors by teaching undergraduate students. Teaching assistants (TA's) not only relieve their professor of some teaching responsibilities (often so that the professor can spend more time doing research); they also learn how to teach the subject matter of their own field of study. In many fields, the experience and training gained as a TA are viewed as necessary preparation for becoming a faculty member. TA's may be in charge of lab and discussion sections, or they may be required to grade the homework and exams given by the professor. In some cases, TA's may give lectures. The responsibilities of TA's vary considerably from institution to institution, department to department, and even year to year in a graduate student's time as a student. For example, the TA may begin by grading papers, then take charge of a lab, and finally teach the class.

If you are given a research assistantship, you will be expected to assist a faculty member, or perhaps a group of faculty members, in performing research related to your field of study. You can expect to work about 20 hours per week at times when you are not taking classes. Many research assistants (RA's) work at night and on the weekends.

Even if your English proficiency is good, you will be required to take an English test after you arrive on campus, even if you have already submitted evidence of your English ability. All international students with a teaching assistantship will also be required to take the International Teaching Assistant Seminar.

The TA's Challenge: American Classroom Etiquette

American students probably do not behave in class as students from your country do. In the American system, a teacher must earn respect; it does not come automatically with the position. To earn that respect, you will be expected to teach like an American university teacher.

You will need to get used to the fact that some American students call their teachers by their first names, especially their lab instructors or discussion-section leaders. This is not a sign of disrespect. There are some other student behaviors you may find surprising or that would be considered disrespectful in your country. For example, students may sit in class with their feet on the chair or desk in front of them. They may eat, drink, or even sleep in class!

To be a successful TA in the United States, you must understand the expected roles of students and teachers. You may have to learn new ways of teaching, ways that are now unfamiliar to you. In American higher education, students are often asked to evaluate their teachers. Negative student evaluations may mean that your teaching assistantship will not be renewed.

The job of a teaching assistant is not an easy one. Some departments invest more than others in developing the teaching skills of their TA's. To get the most out of your situation, consult with experienced TA's on your campus, and learn exactly what is expected of you.

Lectures, Seminars, etc.: A Typology of Classes
Lectures are the primary form of undergraduate instruction in U.S. institutions. Lecture courses may enroll as many as 250 students or be as small as 20 or 30 students. Although attendance may not be recorded, you are nevertheless expected to attend. Material covered in a lecture class may be closely related to the reading assignments or may cover completely new material. Doing the reading before attending class is a sure way to improve your comprehension of the lecture. You might wish to record lectures on tape, especially if you are having trouble following spoken English in your first weeks of school.

A discussion section (also called a recitation, review, or quiz section) is a class in which material presented in a lecture is reviewed and discussed. However, not all lecture courses include discussion sections. Discussion is considered an important element of American education; indeed, "class participation" may count for a certain percentage of your grade. If you do not feel confident about giving your opinion in class, be ready to answer basic questions about the material. You can also ask the instructor questions after class or during office hours.

In so-called independent studies or guided research courses, you may study a topic under the direction of a professor but without any classroom instruction. Such arrangements are usually reserved for advanced undergraduates and graduate students. They generally involve a great deal of reading or work in a laboratory but allow you to focus on a topic of particular interest to you.
Seminars are often associated with undergraduate honors courses or graduate study. Seminar courses usually enroll fewer than 15 students. They often cover specialized topics and involve discussions and presentations by the students under the supervision of the professor.

Quizzes, Tests, and Examinations
U.S. colleges and universities frequently test students, particularly undergraduates. Quizzes-short tests on assigned material-are used most frequently in language and mathematics courses. "Pop quizzes" - unannounced tests - are given by the professor 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 may call for specific, short replies or for longer responses in the form of essays. Often examinations are a combination of both forms. So-called objective questions have only one right answer. Types include true-or-false, sentence completion ("fill in the blank"), multiple choice, and matching. They cover a broad range of material and demand a particular type of study. If the class is large, you may be asked to record your answers on a machine-readable form. In such cases, be sure you understand how you are to mark your answers on the answer sheet. Students sometimes fail machine-graded exams simply because they put their answers in the wrong place. If you have a question, be sure to ask.

Many exams include one or two questions requiring essays of several pages, or several questions requiring only a paragraph or two. Essay questions generally specify how you are to approach the material. The questions may be long or short. Terms often used in essay questions are analyze, compare and contrast, criticize, define, describe, discuss, evaluate, explain, illustrate, interpret, justify, outline, prove, review, summarize, and trace. You will become familiar with these forms soon enough, but if you have trouble, see your instructor, your academic advisor, or an international student advisor.

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 examination, and a final examination, as well as one or more research papers or projects. Keeping up with the work is important.

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 reading is central; you must read the texts closely and know the material for exams. In other courses, readings may be supplementary or optional. It probably will not be possible for you 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.

If you find yourself falling behind or feeling terribly pressured about your assignments, discuss your problem with the professor or teaching assistant after class or during office hours. Don't hesitate to get help if you are having academic problems.

Research papers are another aspect of homework that may seem overwhelming. Some students are unable to express themselves clearly or eloquently in written English; others do not know how to use the research tools in the library; others may not be familiar with American academic writing styles and conventions. Many American students share these problems, and help is not far away. The Writing Lab in 427 SSB provides assistance with writing, and the Reference Desk at the campus libraries provides 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 may seem difficult-even foolhardy-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. You will find that if you truly understand the ideas you are dealing with, you will be able to express them 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. You may have to sacrifice the elegance of the original quotation, but your paper will gain coherence from the effort you put into synthesizing all of the material you use.

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 the style of academic writing, it is not acceptable in the United States; indeed, it is considered a serious offense. The consequences of proven or even suspected plagiarism can be severe (for example, a failing grade or expulsion from class or the university). Borrowed words and ideas must always be clearly documented. If you expect to experience writing difficulties, you should get help 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 others is a good idea, but before you collaborate with others on homework, papers, or tests, make sure the professor has specifically authorized such collaboration.

The ability to use computers is essential to success at UM St. Louis. Students write their papers on computers, which are available for student use in the libraries and computer labs around campus.

Center for Academic Development
The Center for Academic Development ( has a Writing and Math Lab available to all students who need help with writing or math. The Center also maintains a list of students who have been certified by the Departments to tutor certain classes. The Math Lab is located in 425 SSB and the Writing Lab is located in 409 SSB.

A Note on Grades
International students sometimes find that their U.S. classmates are preoccupied with grades. This can be explained partly by the spirit of individual competition that is fostered and supported by American society. It is also a pragmatic matter, as grades are an important factor in gaining admission to graduate school or getting a job after graduation. The basis for grading in each course will be determined by the professor in the course syllabus, which will clearly outline course requirements. The weight given to exams, papers, class participation, and other factors will also be clearly outlined.