Academic Differences between Canada and Manchester

By Ros Harwood (Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada)

Having done a semester and a bit at Queen’s now, academic differences have become clear to me between the Canadian and UK university systems. However, by all means, it is nothing to worry about, especially once you are used to it and the basics are still in place that you would find at any university; readings, tests, assignments, tutorials etc.

1. The first difference that became pretty apparent early on was the differences in the assessments here. The assessment is cumalative throughout the semester and the final mark for a course will be based on the various components, such as online quizzes, small reading reflections and attendance and participation marks as well as presentations. Nothing that you won’t have done at Manchester, but it is nice in a way because it spreads out the assessment and it reduces the pressure of the final exam, if there is one (some courses are just all coursework based). Exams tend to count for about 30 to 40% of the mark instead of 60 to 70% that I have experienced in Manchester. A common component is a term paper as part of assessment that is normally around fifteen to twenty pages long and will be kind of a mini research project where you choose a topic within a course and it gives you more freedom in what you want to write about and discuss.

2. Mid-terms are common in Canada, not every course has them but you can expect for most classes that you will take it around week 5 to 7 of the term. From my experience, they are not daunting at all, just like a more formal class test with normally multiple choice or short answer questions. I had one business one that was open book and online so I could just do it at home with my textbook and notes right there to help me. Again, a mid-term takes off the pressure of the final exam for the course.

3. One nice difference is that the exam period is attached to the end of term as Canadian semesters start a couple of weeks earlier than Manchester at the beginning of September and therefore, even though there is a 2 to 3 week exam period at the end of the term so there are only a few days between the end of classes and exams beginning, you can have a Christmas break where you don’t have to be revising, which is more enjoyable I would say, and then come back in January for the next semester.

4. The multi-component nature of the courses and the assessment at Queen’s means that there is often independent study to be done, such as reading (which was really important for some mid-terms and exams in first semester as they asked specific questions on readings), but the campus has a variety of places to work, whether you want the really quiet library or more casual atmosphere in cafes. This is important because to keep up with the continuous assessment style you need to keep on top of your readings and homework set in the classes.

5. The teaching style in Canada is not so different that you will find yourself in a completely different environment, but I found that they are a lot stricter on caps for numbers of students in classes and often limit to smaller classes, such as one of my classes on GIS this semester which has around 20 students in it. This means that the professors will expect more class interaction and will set small group activities and discussion within the lectures that they will expect people to contribute to and give answers in class. Some courses will also have tutorials or lab sessions (for my science based courses) and these are mainly run by TAs (teaching assistants) who are generally PhD or postgrad students, sometimes final year undergrads, who will be responsible for marking most of the assessments as well, and this is where attendance and participation marks can be gained. All the professors and TAs are very keen for people to use their office hours for questions and are often interested to chat with international students as well.

6. Course choices can be a little daunting idea as I have found that pre-requisites for some second and third year courses (which exchange students are recommended to take for their third year abroad as Canada’s undergrad degrees are 4 years long) are pretty strict, which obviously you are not going to have because you are from another university. However, do not let it worry you! In the registration for your exchange university they will give you detailed instructions to find them; Queen’s for example sent me a form on which I could write the courses I wanted to take and they are listed on the website. Once you are at your exchange university, if you are struggling to find courses, do two things: visit the International Programmes Office; they are very helpful and friendly (at Queen’s for definite) and they will either help you find them or recommend you visit your subject department office. If you show your face and show your interest, you are much more likely to get onto a course that may be full or you are finding harder to take due to the wrong pre-requisite courses or requirements.

Best piece of advice:

If your course at Manchester allows you to, try some new modules out. I study Geography but have taken a Psychology course and a Business course this year and it has broadened the learning experience. Although it is a pass/fail year, it is a ‘study abroad’ and so you should take advantage of the academic experiences you could get at the exchange university as well as the travelling and meeting new people which you will do lots of.

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The latest appearance of the Manchester beanie, in Parc Mont-Royal in Montreal, Quebec, a hill that gives you a 180 degree view of the city and was very snowy! Second semester is flying by and after the reading week coming up next week (a trip to Chicago!), I will have six weeks left of classes at Queen’s, a very sad thought. The university alone has had made a big impact on the year abroad, and only a year ago I had just been accepted and knew very little about it! So for those of you who have just found out if you will study abroad: get excited, it will be a memorable semester/year.

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