Studying in America and Canada

Systems of higher education across the world have many similarities. For example, they all typically have the following: students attend classes for various courses, students take exams and, at the end, they are assigned performance-based grades. However, the details of the system vary across countries. One must pay attention to the details of how a system works to perform well within the system. Adapting to the details of the system is not terribly difficult; nonetheless, the adaptation requires a correct and clear understanding.

Under some systems of education, including that in India, only the final exams matter. Final exams are typically set, conducted, and graded by a third party for all students in the "system," with no direct involvement of your own professor. The role of the professor is further diminished because any homework assignments, laboratory work, project work, and mid-term exams do not matter for the final grades, in that the performance on such intermediate tasks - good or bad - does not affect the final grade of a course. Such tasks are intended to enforce discipline, encourage learning, and provide feedback to the student. With the knowledge that performance on intermediate tasks does not affect the final grade directly, many students choose to just do enough to get by and wait until the finals come along. Just before the final exams, the students burn midnight oil to do their best on the finals. In fact, many colleges even have preparatory holidays just before the finals so that the students can prepare for the finals.

As you will see, such is not the case in America and Canada. The finals are not such a big event; it is just another performance assessment - one among many. Students in America and Canada are expected to put in consistent effort throughout the course, and not wait to work hard only for the final. The student's performance throughout the course matters for the final grade. Moreover, the role of the professor is critical to your academic performance - not only do they teach you the content of the course, but they also set up the various assignments and evaluation mechanisms and, in fact, they are personally responsible for evaluating your performance.

In this chapter, we will outline critical aspects of the system of education in America and Canada. Colleges and universities are likely to observe some variations on the themes presented here; however, the general outline of the typical system is relevant. Having an understanding of the system will permit you to leverage the system to your advantage, not only for getting good grades but also for enriching your learning experience.

We will also introduce relevant terminology. One key item to note is that the terms college, university, or school is used interchangeably in America and Canada.

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