Some of you might have heard the idiom “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” For international students learning to navigate the American classroom, it might be more apt to say “When in an American college, do as the American students do.” But that might be easier said than done, because the American classroom can be very different from classrooms in other countries.
When we asked participants in our recent workshop, “Jump In, Speak Up, Stand Out: Classroom Strategies for English Language Learners,” what a classroom was like in their native countries, we got a wide variety of answers. Some people said that they wouldn’t disagree with their professor. Others said that their instructor would just talk the whole time. Another participant said that he had to memorize a lot of material. To many American students, this may sound strange or unusual.
So what makes the American classroom so different from the classrooms of other countries? There are two big characteristics of American classrooms that other academic traditions might lack: an emphasis on critical thinking, and an emphasis on student participation. They may seem like small things to an American, but they require some adjustment for many international students.
Why do we do these things in American classrooms? Why do we think that it’s so important to speak up in class, while in other academic contexts, success depends more on silent attentiveness? Why do we ask that a writer jump into or contribute to a “discussion” when he or she writes an essay? Why are tests not always the biggest percentage of the final grade?
There are a few reasons. First, critical thinking is held in such high regard here because it’s a thought pattern that informs decision making. Rather than simply accepting what one is told, one is expected to evaluate it, and to use that evaluation to decide what to do, think, or believe. Discussion, then, is a way to exercise critical thinking skills and exchange ideas with other students. American professors see class readings as a jumping off point for discussions. By engaging in discussion, you’ll learn other peoples’ opinions and interpretations of a text or idea, and be able to come to a decision about what to do, think, or believe. On top of that, the students who participate in class discussions are seen as interested and engaged, which are qualities that professors look for in students.
There are, of course, smaller ways in which the American classroom differs from others, but they all lead back to those two big ideas: participation and critical thinking. Think it’s strange that your whole test was essay questions rather than multiple choice? It’s because your professor wants to see you think critically and state your own views. Does it strike you as odd that you’re supposed to come to class with discussion questions prepared? It’s because your professor wants to see you thinking critically AND engaging with other students in discussion.
So how do you adapt? Speak up! Don’t be afraid to talk in class. Make sure that you do the reading, and coming prepared to talk about the text. If it helps, try asking yourself questions about reading as you go. During discussions, you should make your thoughts and opinions known (politely, of course). Remember that you’re expected to participate rather than just observe. Often, professors want their classes to feel like a community, so see yourself as an equal member of the community, whose thoughts and opinions will be valued and respected. Remember that it’s always okay to talk to your professor outside of class. He or she can give you insight into how to improve your class participation.