September 26, 2014, by International students

Learning from the unexpected: understanding the UK education system


View of The University of Nottingham from Nottingham Castle


That’s how we greet each other at my alma mater back in Texas, USA. Funnily, I didn’t think coming to another country that spoke English as its primary language would pose many changes for me. I was very wrong. I could say that I learned that English was all I had in common with England, but even that would be inaccurate – is what they speak in England really English? Or perhaps it’s more accurate to ask if what I grew up speaking is really English. It’s so different! And I still don’t understand English humor. More accurately, what I learned was that I have a great deal in common with England but for every thing in common there are ten unexpected differences. These are what made my year of postgrad study at Nottingham a wonderful learning experience. It was not the academics, though they are excellent and challenging, or even the obvious culture differences, but the unexpected ones that made my study in England worthwhile.

Perhaps the best example is the marking system difference. I’ve learned a number of things while studying in England – you mustn’t say pants if you mean trousers while cricket is not as boring as I’d thought and there is no quicker way to an Englishman’s ire than by not noticing a queue – but the marking system is a difference I still struggle to wrap my mind around. In America, we have a system of percentages ranging from 0% to 100%. Certain ranges of percentages are then assigned letters. For example, 70%-79% is usually a C (often the lowest passing grade), 80%-89% is a B, and 90%-100% is an A. England as I understand it uses a number system where certain ranges of numbers are called things like 2:1 or First. 70 or higher is a First. Imagine my surprise when I received a 70 on an essay and believed I was barely passing, yet none of my course mates were concerned! Even once an American friend provided me with a chart of equivalencies between grading systems, I couldn’t mentally grasp the English system. I realized that because I had not grown up with this system I didn’t know how to react to it. I understood the English system only in theory. It was easy enough to know that 70 or higher was roughly equivalent to an A at some university in Colorado, but… was it a “good” mark? Should I be pleased or dissatisfied?

This entirely unexpected difficulty taught me very quickly, and still reminds me as I reflect on my performance this past year, that the culture we’re raised in is not as easy to look beyond as many of us hope or would like to believe. We think that studying other cultures or being in diverse communities for a time is enough to understand a great deal about the world, and but it’s not! We’re never done learning. Something as fundamental as a marking system can open our eyes to just how wide the world is and how difficult but worthwhile it is to allow other thoughts to test the limits of our understanding. We can prepare for large differences like double-decker buses and younger drinking ages, but these differences are likely to intrigue rather than challenge us. If we are looking to be challenged and expanded, we must look to the unexpected places and keep our minds open to the unforeseen learning opportunities. Here’s hoping I taught my course mates some unexpected things too!

Emily Garig, international student from the USA studying MA Ancient History at The University of Nottingham.

Posted in AcademicCultural integration