The US Exam System

By Joe Vis (Stony Brook University, The State University of New York, USA)

The Differences in the Exam Process

Studying is obviously a massive part of my time abroad and I haven’t really mentioned it in my blogs so far, so am going to cover it here.

The exam system works a little differently over here and this comes with some pros and cons. Obviously Stony Brook is the only place I have studied, but from what I can gather, these differences are widespread in the US. First of all, there is no January exam period. At Stony Brook, the assessment is continuous throughout the semester. This means that the exams I take towards the middle of December will be my last. There will be no revision over Christmas and January will be completely free which is obviously a massive bonus. However, given I have been in uni since the middle of August as opposed to the end of September, the total study time for the semester is very similar.

The cumulative assessment works differently for different courses. For one of mine, there are three exams throughout the semester, each covering of a third of the course and each worth the same amount. Another splits the grade between three midterm exams worth an increasingly higher proportion, and two essays. One is based just on two essays which I write and my lab module is based on a weekly lab report, weekly quiz and class participation. All of this means that, at times, the workload can be very intense. Due to the nature of the courses, it is very possible to have two essay deadlines in the same week as two midterm exams and a lab report. These weeks can be tough but the thought of a revision free Christmas period helps in getting through them.

Whilst some of the first year modules at Manchester did have online assessments throughout the semester in my first year, they only totalled around 20% of the grade for the module or even less, meaning an individual assessment could be worth less than 5%. The exams at the end of the semester contributed by far the most. This meant that having exams in October that contribute very significantly to my grade was a bit of a shock, but did ensure that I was learning the material from the start rather than cramming close to exam time. Obviously, this is never an advisable tactic, but I’m sure most Manchester students have done it at some point. With the system here, it’s just not possible. The lack of a large pre-exam revision period felt a bit strange at first, but I have found that learning the material in smaller sections as I go long is actually a better way of understanding it.

Another big difference I have noticed is that the major/minor system over here means virtually none of my classmates are studying four higher level biology classes like I am. They will choose maybe two third-year neurobiology classes but then have two “electives”. From what I can gather, pretty much anything goes. One of my lab partners does a first year political science class, whilst another does one about film studies. They seem genuinely surprised that, as a neuroscience student, I would only choose neuroscience or at least biological modules. Some of the other foreign exchange students have taken advantage of the chance to study something different but, all my classes had to be approved by the Department of Life Sciences back at Manchester before I left. They were, understandably, keen for these to match closely with what I would have been studying had I not been abroad. In addition to the extra workload I seem to have compared to my American classmates, I am having to get used to the different grading system. Over here, an A or A+, which is roughly equivalent to a first at home, requires around a 90% average over the course as opposed to 70% in Manchester. This is a little intimidating, and knowing that my grades will be scaled down upon my return means that I am finding myself disappointed with scores that are much higher than I would be achieving back home (percentage-wise).

I have been managing to enjoy myself on top of all the studying. I’ve already visited Washington DC, Philadelphia and Toronto and intend to see Boston before I come home. My family have been to visit, which was eventful but brilliant, and a friend from home is coming to visit soon too. I’ve been taking advantage of being so close to NYC by heading in as much as possible. It feels strange to have such little time left here already but I’ve loved it so far and am looking forward to the time I have left.

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