All classes during study abroad are a joke: true or false?

This post is inspired by recent discussion at SGG. While I personally had the easiest semester of college when I went to Spain, I’m going to talk about why this is FALSE.

Now I may be making huge generalizations here based on my own experience and talking to other people who have studied abroad, but this is why you shouldn’t believe this study abroad myth:

When I was trying to decide between programs, one question that I asked a lot of alumni was, “Were your classes harder than at UCI?” Looking back, this was a really useless question because the answer is, “It depends.” The difficulty of your classes will be based on a LOT of factors such as: the type of program you’re doing (such as exchange when you enroll directly into the university vs. third-party program providers which usually have separate campuses and classes), the level of your classes, what you’re used to, and any language barriers.

Examples of these factors:

  • If you take a business course and the language of instruction is Spanish, but you are not fluent, the class will be more difficult than if you were taking the same course in English.
  • If you’re not used to writing a lot of essays because you’re an art major, then taking a course that’s heavy in essay writing is going to be different and (maybe) hard to adjust to.
  • If you’re a junior who was somehow placed in senior-level classes because of the different prerequisites or whatever other reason, you might be out of your element and dealing with material you hadn’t covered yet.
  • If you’re only receiving pass/no pass credit for your classes abroad, and a 5 out of 10 is a pass, then it’s going to be easy and you don’t have to put in as much effort. If your grades will actually transfer back as letter grades and/or a GPA, then you have to work harder to earn better grades.
  • Grading systems differ by country, so even if you’re an A+ student in the USA, you might be an A- student at best somewhere else. (Check out the grading system in France.)
  • If your program’s courses are taught at the same level as your home university, such as UCEAP for the UC System (which allows you to earn UC credit because of this standard), then your courses will be roughly the same difficulty as you’re already used to, but probably harder than an independent program (usually these classes cannot be applied towards your major and the grades don’t factor into your GPA).

From what I’ve gathered by talking to other students, those who directly enrolled in a university alongside local students (whether their courses were in the native language or in English) had more studying and more work to do. For those of us who were in independent programs made specifically for non-degree seeking international students, classes were much easier.

I was in an independent program. I had easy classes because I also carefully planned it to be that way. I knew I didn’t want to go abroad only to be stuck in a classroom or studying in the library or at home, which was what happened the majority of my time at UCI. I actively chose to NOT participate in the UC EAP program because I needed an academic break. I made sure to finish my major requirements before leaving, thus allowing me to take whatever classes I wanted:

  • Modernisme: Art Nouveau Architecture Sketched and Explained
  • The Seven Wonders of Spain (from here referred to as 7W)
  • Spanish Language B2.1

I initially had a fourth class about art galleries in Spain, but I dropped it when I realized that it was with the same professor as the 7W class and had the same syllabus, which was too much work for study abroad (did I really just write that?). I know that the “study” part is important too, but academics were not the #1 reason why I went abroad and these two courses would have been too much to handle. (Why did I even sign up for four classes when I only had to take three? DON’T MAKE THE SAME MISTAKE and then have to pay 50 euros to drop a class…)

Here’s a quick rundown of what my classes were about and the workload (skip ahead if you’re not interested):

  • Modernisme: It sounds just like the title – we learned about Modernisme architecture and then went out in Barcelona to sketch real-life examples. There were weekly quizzes and readings (short and fairly easy) and a final presentation. For me, the hardest part was sketching because I don’t really draw. My sketches were decent in the end, and I earned higher marks than in my beginning drawing class at UCI (which I took as a freshman; it was harder and had more work).

Verdict: easier than at UCI; less pressure to have accurate drawings and I felt like my professor went easy on his grading

  • 7W: I thought this was going to focus on seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites, but we learned about 20-30 because each student had to present on a site. We learned about overarching themes like Gothic architecture, and the sites served as examples. I dreaded this class, to say the least, and was SO GLAD I dropped the other galleries class (which I later learned had more readings and busywork). This professor required a multiple-choice midterm, written final exam, 20 minute presentation on your site, and a term paper on the same topic. (Imagine if I had to do that all twice!) While this workload is standard for any class I could have taken at UCI, I didn’t want to be doing the same type of work and I didn’t want to spend all my time researching and writing papers.

Throughout the semester, this class didn’t have any assignments and we were only responsible for the readings and staying on top of the material. It hit me at the very end, because both my paper and presentation were due on the final day of class. I spent 2-3 weeks heavily researching and writing the paper I should have been working on all along. I spent the night before my presentation practicing until 4am because I knew that the standards would be high as the final presentation for the course and as the person with the most time to prepare. I’m great at memorizing and cramming so my presentation went really well, and I had my paper reviewed a few days prior so I knew most of the material was good. What got me was the final, which I debated even taking because I wasn’t going to cram in a semester’s worth of info in one night. (I attended, but wrote very shoddy and short essays on the little I’d studied. They would never have earned a decent grade in the US.)

Verdict: roughly the same because it was structured similarly to classes in the US; easy because of the lack of busywork and because I didn’t bother studying for the final; hard because I had to research papers that were written in Spanish, I was not fond of the professor, and I hadn’t written a “real” term paper in over a year because I’m an art major

  • Spanish language: My favorite class, but the one I thought I’d hate the most. I was worried that I’d been placed in the wrong level (upper intermediate, although technically I was supposed to be in beginning advanced if I had been at UCI) because everyone spoke better than I could. It turned out that I was one of the students with the most formal training through classes, while the other students had learned more by speaking and listening. This class had nightly homework but it was all easy, typical assignments like worksheets or a page from the workbook or writing little summaries. We spent most of the time talking and it really helped me to have more confidence in my speaking abilities. The most difficult aspect about this class was the final exam because that’s what almost all of our grade would be based on, but our professor practiced with us in the same format so it wasn’t that bad since we knew what to expect.

Verdict: much easier (and a lot of fun), although this is usually the case with the Spanish classes I took at UCI anyway

Unofficial transcript sent by ISA, with a scale of the recommended grade conversion

Unofficial transcript sent by ISA, with a grading scale of the recommended conversions

In conclusion…

I spent the least amount of time studying and memorizing during my semester abroad. Partly because it wasn’t as necessary (lighter workload and grades wouldn’t transfer at all), partly because I didn’t want to care as much about my grades (I still did well, but not as well as if I’d given my 100%) because I wanted to travel and explore instead. It’s very possible to snooze through all your classes, if you understand how your grades abroad will affect your transcript back home. While I’m not encouraging you to slack off because you ARE paying a lot of tuition to take these classes, which may not be offered at your home university, I would suggest lightening your course load as much as you can and don’t register for more classes than necessary. Not all classes are going to be a joke.



One response to “All classes during study abroad are a joke: true or false?

  1. I’m studying abroad in Canada and the work load is huge. I just wish I could have lightened my course load but my home university in England wouldn’t let me! I am still travelling as much as possible though, you’re very right in that I just want to appreciate being here!

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