The Learning Experience

Brenna McDonald University College Dublin, Ireland


November 2, 2015

How is it already November?! Seriously. The other day, one of my lecturers mentioned that we are more than halfway through the semester and I’m pretty sure my heartbeat became irregular for a solid nine minutes.

As we’ve gotten further into the semester, I have definitely started to feel the struggle of remembering the “study” part of study abroad. It’s just so enthralling to be in a different country exploring, you sometimes forget that you are actually still going to college.

While I mentally prepared myself for the culture shock of coming to Ireland, I didn’t foresee the “academic shock” I would inevitably experience. I figured college is college, no matter where you are, right? Nope. College in Ireland is actually quite different from college in America. Here are some of the biggest differences I’ve encountered so far: 

Less Class Time

Yes, you read that correctly -- I figured I’d start with this difference, since it’s one of my favorites! Irish classes meet less than American ones. My twice-weekly one-hour-and-fifteen-minute long classes have been replaced by fifty minute lectures that meet once or twice a week. Even then, my schedule is not consistent, as sometimes lectures are replaced by seminars, tutorials, or e-lectures. The idea is that you spend a bit more time outside of class working on your studies. I’ve also found that I get less work in general, like papers and projects. Which brings me to my next point… 

Learning is More Self-Driven

There is definitely less hand-holding and cross-checking in Irish classes. At my American college, classes usually have regular assignments and papers, as well as in-class discussions, to ensure students have been paying attention and keeping up with the readings. In a way, you’re forced to know your stuff (at least a little bit). In Ireland, lecturers don’t assume the “big brother” role. Sure, they’ll assign readings and the occasional assessment, but it’s not on them to keep you on track; it’s on you. As a study abroad student, this can make it a bit difficult to stay motivated and avoid procrastination, but that’s just part of the learning experience! You’ll get it eventually. 

Students are Quieter

American college is very much an interactive atmosphere -- students frequently share their opinions, even when unsolicited, and professors’ open-ended questions are usually greeted with numerous hands shooting into the air. However, Irish students tend to be a bit more reserved. It is extremely rare to have anyone raise their hand or ask a question out of the blue, and even when lecturers raise questions to the entire class, the result is usually a few seconds of painful silence. It’s almost a running joke, and somewhat of a stereotype, that the American students are always the ones to answer questions and offer their opinions.


Weeknights Out, Weekends In

The reason Irish students are so quiet in class is most likely because they’re simultaneously regaining their strength from the night before and recharging for the night ahead. Kidding (kind of). I think one of the most surprising differences I’ve encountered while abroad is the Irish social calendar, compared to that of American universities. In America, everyone stays in most weeknights (with one or two exceptions, of course) and goes out on the weekends. Here, it’s the complete opposite. Weeknights are for going out to clubs and bars, and weekends are spent at home or focusing on schoolwork. It definitely took a few weeks to get used to that. 

Everything Comes Down to the End

At my American university, it feels like the work never ends. The semester presents a constant stream of papers and assignments, with the workload picking up a bit at midterms and finals week. However, at my Irish university, I had very few assignments during the first half of the semester. I didn’t even technically have a midterms week -- I had a few assignments due around the halfway mark of the term, but no stressful cumulative exams like I have back at home. However, as we approached and have now passed the midway point of the term, I’ve found I have several papers, projects, and assessments to work on that are all due at the semester’s close. Basically, my grades are mostly contingent upon a few assignments due at the end of the semester, rather than many assignments spread throughout the term. While this approach can easily be referred to as a procrastinator’s worst nightmare, I am somehow figuring out a way to work on my assignments well before their due dates and continuing to enjoy Ireland in the process. That must earn me some sort of extra credit, right?! 

As with every part of the study abroad experience, it’s important to be adaptable and keep an open mind when it comes to your academics. There will inevitably be some things you’ll have to get used to in your new college environment, and you’ll sometimes feel like a freshman all over again, but that’s okay. Embrace your “fresher” status, do the best you can, and actually study (a little bit) abroad!