From American College to Scottish University: a Vocabulary Primer

One of the first things any student moving from one side of the Atlantic to the other will encounter is a wave of new academic vocabulary. You may find that some terms make sense and perhaps seem more logical than the terms you were used to, but others are plainly perplexing. Since these seemingly small differences between the American and Scottish systems actually represent the larger paradigmatic differences between the two, this is the perfect place to begin my series of posts comparing the American and Scottish higher education systems! It may sound terribly boring, but bear with me.

  • American – Professor : Scottish – Lecturer and/or Professor
    • Personally, I like the term professor because if you ask a professor what they do for a living, they can tell you, with melodrama, that they ‘profess’. Both American and Scottish universities have professors, but in Scotland and the rest of the UK professor is a special title reserved for researchers and lecturers with particular leadership roles within their departments.
  • American – essay question : Scottish – essay title
    • American essay questions in high school and college often allow students a great deal of freedom in their approach to the subject. They typically require students to create an original title for their essay (which gives students endless license for academic pun-making). American professors tend to value originality of thought in students’ work more than their British counterparts, who care more for strong academic form and argumentation. In the British system, the essay question is the title: you write your response to the question and place the question itself at the top of your paper as a title. American essays encourage you to think outside the box and form a creative argument, while British essays encourage you to engage in existing conversations on your subject and demonstrate a keen awareness of its significance.
  • American – grades : Scottish – marks
    • The American grading system rates coursework according to a letter scale – A, B, C, D, and F – with A being the best and F the worst. This system corresponds to a percentage scale and each letter represents a range of percentages: for example, an assignment on which you answer between 90%-100% of the questions correctly could be an A. However, the correspondence of percentages to letters can vary between schools. The British marking system is based on a scale from 0-20. I can’t say I fully understand the British system, but by referring to the grade translation chart from my programme, I know the basic letter equivalents of the numerical system:
      • 14.5 – 20.0 is an A
      • 12.3 – 14.4 is a B
      • 9.0 – 12.2 is a C
      • 7.0 – 8.9 is a D
      • Anything below 7.0 is an F
  • American – course : Scottish – module
    • In the U.S., students typically take four to six courses per semester, while in Scotland, students take two or three modules per semester. Since one module requires more work than one course, the work loads are comparable.
  • American – class : Scottish – lecture or tutorial
    • In American higher education, teaching styles vary tremendously between schools. Class sizes and teaching typically correspond to the size of the student body and the number of courses available. At William and Mary, we have a fairly small student body and a very high professor to student ratio. Most W&M courses are broken into sections, so, for example, one section of a course meets at 10:00 on Tuesdays and Thursdays while another section of the same course meets at 11:00 on Tuesday and Thursdays. There are at most 25 to 30 students in each section. At St Andrews, modules aren’t divided into sections, so all of the students taking one module meet at the same time for lectures (this is true for sub-honours, but not necessarily for honours, more on this below!). Lectures will often be given to groups of hundreds of students. To give students the chance to interact with a teacher and engage in small group discussion, St Andrews and other British schools include tutorials as a part of module teaching.
  • American – tutor : Scottish – tutor
    • In the U.S., a tutor is someone you meet with out of class for help with coursework which may be challenging you, and your tutor is generally a student who has taken the course before you. In the U.K., a tutor is a member of the teaching staff, or possibly a graduate student, who meets with a group of a dozen students or less to discuss the material covered in the week’s lectures.
  • American – studying : Scottish – revision
    • A student in America studies for an exam and revises or edits a paper to correct errors. A student in Britain revises for an exam and edits a paper. St Andrews has been quiet the past few weeks, as all of us have been hidden away revising like mad for exams which count for 50% to 75% of our final grades (Eeek).
  • American – upper- and lower-classmen : Scottish – sub-honours and honours
    • In American schools, the only factors which determine which classes you can take are pre-requisites—classes you must have taken to register for a course—and, maybe, degree restrictions—when a course is reserved for people who are majoring in its subject. In the first year or two, you will take required courses for your major and fulfil general education requirements in a range of subjects, but if you have fulfilled any of those with AP or IB credits, you can jump ahead to more advanced course. At Scottish universities, modules are divided by sub-honours and honours. Students can take only sub-honours modules in their first two years. After sub-honours, students can either earn a three year general degree or earn a four year honours degree with two more years of study. Honours modules are reserved for third and fourth year students, with the exception of those pursuing specific accelerated degree.

The transition from the American to the Scottish system has certainly taken measure of patience and brought plenty of confusion, yet has also been an enriching experience. I still have only a foggy understanding of many aspects of the Scottish university (which isn’t helped by the fact that my programme is an exception to so many of the rules!). With some luck, I might figure it all out by the time I graduate!

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