Academic life in the U.S.

Many international students find that American classrooms differ greatly from those of their home countries. The degree and nature of these differences will depend upon the classroom culture to which you are accustomed.

Academic culture

The U.S. educational system is much less centralized than in many other countries, and academic culture in the United States emphasizes the student's own responsibility for learning and preparation for his or her work. Students are expected to take an active approach to their learning, be familiar with the syllabus and requirements, be responsible for knowing assignment deadlines and meeting them, and actively participate in meetings, discussion groups, group projects, etc.

The academic culture here also emphasizes less overt hierarchy and more open debate, though this does not mean that hierarchy and authority do not exist, but simply that the culture encourages students to speak and shape their own learning as well. So, classrooms may seem less formal or structured than elsewhere, and students may even eat or drink in class, but this apparent informality does not mean that the classroom is not a place of serious study.

Nor does lively discussion and debate mean that the professor is being disrespected. In fact, lively debate is encouraged, but you will note that the professor or teaching assistant does retain a measure of authority despite the seeming informality.

Class format

Most introductory undergraduate-level classes consist of two 50-minute lectures and one 50-minute discussion section per week or two 75-minute lectures each week.

Lectures range in size from 25 to more than 500 students and are usually taught by a professor. In most large lectures, the focus tends to be on the professor presenting information, with minimal verbal feedback from the students.

Discussion sections usually contain no more than 35 students. Discussions are usually led by Teaching Assistants (TAs), who are typically graduate students in that department. During discussion, your TA may do additional teaching, clarify questions from lecture, expand on ideas presented in lecture, or discuss homework assignments. Your active participation is encouraged, and in fact often required, in discussion sections and small lectures. Your attendance and participation are required and graded.

Most upper-level undergraduate-level and most graduate-level courses consist of two 75-minute classes or one three-hour class per week that are taught by professors. Class size varies but is usually around 20-25 students. Typically classes consist of both lectures by professors and discussion of lectures, assigned readings, and projects. Your attendance and active participation are required.

Participation and classroom culture

In the United States, students in seminars or discussion groups are expected to help each other learn and to contribute to the class through participation in the form of comments, questions, discussion points, etc. And professors value the experience and diversity of opinion that international students bring to their classes.

Academic culture varies from country to country, so many international students may be used to a culture in which speaking in class is less common and may even be considered disrespectful of the teacher. However, in the United States, professors and teaching assistants expect and require all students, including international students, to speak in class to offer comments and reactions to the material or to ask questions.

Participation is seen as helping students learn better through a deeper engagement with the material and through communication with each other during class discussion, and both your academic experience and your grade will benefit from regular participation. Also, you will sharpen your communication skills by participating in class. If there is a situation that makes you uncomfortable with speaking in class, please talk with your instructor or advisor to discuss this. They will often be sensitive to your concerns, but still require you to speak as much as possible in class discussions.


You are required to attend all classes. Your instructor will discuss the absence policy on the first day of class. It will also be listed on your syllabus. Usually instructors will allow you to miss one or two class periods if you have a good reason. But, if you miss class more frequently, you can be penalized severely in your grade, or even fail the class. It is a good idea to speak with your instructor if you anticipate missing class or if you have missed a class.

Arriving late

It is expected that you arrive before the scheduled start time of your class. Many professors become irritated when students do not arrive to class on time; in many cases, arriving late can lower your grade. It is especially important to arrive five minutes early for large lecture classes in order to find a seat and get settled before the lecture starts.

Pace and type of work

Many exchange students find that there is a significantly greater amount of daily work (in terms of both number and frequency of assignments) in the U.S. than at their home universities, rather than one intensive session of cramming before the semester final exam. It is absolutely necessary that you prepare for each class session and keep up with homework assignments, and you may have to learn new ways of managing your time and schedule.

Typically, professors will assign specific chapters or articles to be read before each class period. You are expected to come to class ready to discuss that information and with the homework done and ready to turn in. The timely completion of work and your preparedness for class is generally part of your grade. Also, written assignments are generally required to be typed.

Group projects

You may be required to complete a group project as part of your class grade, and many lab projects also require group collaboration. The same standards for participation, attendance, and arriving late apply to such projects as apply to the classroom, and the culture here is for everyone to collaborate and share resources. Team members will rely on one another to contribute equally to the project, and every member's input will affect the grade of the entire team, so each member has to do her share of work for the entire group to succeed.

Grading and assessment

Grades do matter here, but may be discussed less publicly than in some other countries. Your grade will depend on a variety of factors, which may include:

  • your participation in class
  • homework that you turn in on a regular basis
  • quizzes taken throughout the semester
  • formal presentations made in class (individually or as part of a group)
  • papers
  • two or three exams taken throughout the semester, including a final.

Students must maintain good academic and non-academic standing while at UW-Madison. Failure to do so could result in termination of studies.


While doing research and searching for sources, you must remember that plagiarism, defined as the use of someone else's work or ideas as your own, without proper credit or citation, is prohibited. This policy is taken very seriously at UW-Madison, and plagiarism can lead to penalties such as failure of a course, or suspension.

Definitions of plagiarism:

  • forging or falsifying academic records or documents
  • copying work, using unauthorized materials, or falsifying results
  • using sources without proper citation

Plagiarism can include:

  • actual words or sentences directly used from a source without quotation marks and/or citation
  • words or sentences from a source that paraphrase ideas without citation

If you have a doubt as to what is or isn't plagiarism, ask your instructor, or visit the Writing Center's web resources. If you need help with wording of your paper, you may apply for a tutor.

Communicating with professors and TAs

Professors at U.S. universities encourage students to communicate with them to ask questions or to get help with the class material.

Many professors will include their office address and phone number, their e-mail address, and their office hours on the syllabus that you receive on your first day of class.

E-mail is a good way to get an answer to a simple question, but more complex questions should be presented in person.
Office hours are time that the professor sets aside to be in his or her office for meetings with students or to provide help on a drop-in basis. If these hours conflict with your schedule, you may politely request an appointment to meet at a different time.

Meeting protocol requires:

  • arriving on time or a few minutes early
  • preparing your questions, organizing your thoughts before the meeting
  • getting to the point rapidly to show respect for the professor's time

Computer skills

Students should be familiar with basic word-processing, use of the Internet, and depending upon your subject area, spreadsheets and databases. Workshops are offered through the Division of Information Technology (DoIT). All students will receive a free e-mail account and will have access to on-campus computer labs.


Because of the rigor of UW's engineering program, you may benefit from utilizing UW's tutoring resources including those provided by the Greater University Tutoring Services (GUTS) and the College of Engineering's Undergraduate Learning Center (ULC).GUTS is a student orgnaization that connects UW students with volunteer tutors who are also UW students. They can provide additional support in a variety of subjects including academic courses, study skills, converstaional English, and intercultural exchange. Tutoring provided by the ULC is specifically tailored to undergraduate engineering students. There, you can attend drop-in tutoring, supplemental instructional programs, and group tutoring. Please note that tutoring by request is only available to degree-seeking students.