Life In America: How Do American Classrooms Work?

If you’re an international student planning to apply to colleges in the US, you may be wondering how American classrooms work. Is it a free-for-all idea exchange? Do people still use notebooks and pencils? What’s important for you to know before you get here? Here’s some basic info to help you get to know the territory.

Classrooms in America can be as different from each other as night and day, as cats and dogs, as climbing Mount Everest and napping on the beach, as…well, you get the idea.

Introductory classes at big universities, especially in the sciences, often have hundreds of students all sitting in an auditorium, scribbling notes and swallowing information about phytoplankton or surface integrals of vector fields.  While classes can be GIGANTIC in the sciences, lecture classes in literature and history can give them a run for their money, especially if the professor is particularly popular.  These large courses will sometimes, but not always, have a lab or section requirement in addition to classroom time.  In the lab or section, students are usually divided into groups of 10 to 20 and meet with teaching assistants or the professor once a week.  This gives students the opportunity to practice what they’re learning or to discuss the subject directly with the professor.  In large lecture classes like these, some of your overall grade will be based on your lab or section participation, but the vast majority will be from your test or essay scores.  Study HARD.

Other classes, like upper-level sciences and writing workshop courses, are seminar-style.  Here, each class meeting is like the labs and sections of a much bigger lecture course.  Every hour is spent in an intimate discussion with classmates and the professor, and this time is much less about what the professor thinks and much more about what each student thinks.  It is CRUCIAL to be prepared for these classes.  Not only will you learn more if you can contribute fully and understand what your classmates are talking about, but your final grade will probably be based largely on your participation.  Unlike in a big class, if you haven’t read “Knockdown of DISC1 by In Utero Gene Transfer” by Niwa et al., or if you haven’t finished Moby Dick, everyone, including the professor, will know.

Classroom practices, like laptop use and attendance lists, are completely dependent on the professor’s personal preference.  Most professors, but not all of them, allow laptop or iPad or gadget use in class.  Attendance-taking also varies, and will usually only matter if participation is a big part of your grade.  If participation doesn’t matter and you’re good at learning exclusively from the Powerpoint slides (which will often be posted online), you might not have to go to class at all.  However, even if you are great at learning by yourself, it’s always important to go to class—you get a much broader appreciation of the material, the chance to meet other students, and, crucially, the opportunity to establish a rapport with the professor. And, since you’re probably paying for this class, why not show up?

The more professors who know and like you, the better off you’ll be.  Professors can offer wonderful learning experiences, from teaching assistant opportunities to paid internships.  If you’re interested in what a professor is researching, inspired by their work, or if you were amused by something they said, go talk to them about it.  They may be busy and famous, but most of them will be very excited to talk to you.

So dive in—talk to all the students and professors and deans and janitors and everyone else you meet.  Be curious, open-minded, and take a mixture of all kinds of courses, and you’ll likely have a successful first-semester and an awesome four years.

For more information, check out our upcoming webinars and online courses for international students, and let us know how we can help.


(Image source:

Summer Experiences: One Part Summer, Three Parts You