In the U.S. higher education system, each professor typically decides the format of the course, according to the topics he or she thinks are most important, and the type of questions asked on exams.
This can be a new experience for international students, who often come from education systems where all exam questions are set and graded by a small team of professors who decide the course format, content and what in the syllabus is important in each course.
The good news for international students is that there is ample help available – should they need it – to figure out how to best study for their exams in any given course. The following tips will help international students do well in class, no matter which class they are taking.
[Check out an infographic on international students in the U.S.]
1. Go to your teaching assistant's office hours: The teaching assistant, or TA, who grades your exams and holds discussion sections knows more about the course, topics that are more important and exam questions to expect than anyone else but the professor. Your TA is your best friend in the course.
Be nice to your TAs, go to their office hours and ask them questions about how to study for the exam and what to focus on while studying. Make a note of what level of detail your TA goes into while covering discussion sections.
If the TA gives you quantitative problems on a topic, expect to find similar questions on the exam. If the TA holds a pre-exam revision session, attend it; you will likely get a very good idea of what will be on your exam from that session.
If there are topics on the syllabus that you are worried about, ask the TAs for help in understanding them. If a topic is truly unimportant, a TA will most likely tell you that you should not spend too much time worrying about it.
2. Talk to senior students: There are usually many others before you who have taken your class before.
If you are an undergraduate student, someone in your dorm has probably taken the class or knows someone who has taken it. If you are a graduate student, older graduate students in your department most likely have all taken the class.
Talk to them; they can tell you what topics the professor favors, what types of questions are asked and how the exams are graded. See if they have old exams from that class that you can use as practice tests.
I found out from senior students in my department about a 20-point question that always showed up on the professor's first exam on this one obscure bacterium that the professor mentioned as a side-note during one class. The professor had done his doctoral dissertation on this bacterium 30 years ago and somehow it always made its way into his exams.
I would never have studied that one bacterium in detail had I not talked to people who had already taken the class.
[Find out how to write an academic paper at a U.S. college.]
3. Ask the professor what is most important to know: Your professor is also a great resource. Professors teach classes on topics they are passionate about and are experts in.
They will be happy to talk to you about what they think you should have learned by the end of the course. Those topics will most likely coincide with questions on the exams.
While each course at U.S. universities is unique in its format and the way exams are structured, doing well in them does not have to be stressful guesswork for international students.
Following the above tips will ensure that international students know where to look for help while deciding on the best approach for studying for each of their classes.
Swati B. Carr, from India, is currently pursuing her doctorate in synthetic biology at Boston University and advises prospective international students. She first came to the U.S. as an international student for her master's in microbial genetics from the University of Rhode Island.