Studying in the US: A New Way of Learning

Foreign education brings the excitement of a new academic system and a different culture -- and the challenge of adapting to new environments and ways of being. COVID-19 has added additional challenges. However, you can still prepare yourself for the learning ahead. Here are some insights into a new way of learning in a COVID-19 world for incoming students:

Academic Research: Most US universities offer undergraduate and graduate students the opportunity to conduct academic research (research). In top research universities, professors spend the bulk of their time and energy on research in various fields to benefit society -- business, industry, and science (including vaccines for COVID-19). US universities and professors value research as it involves practical application of theory and pre-existing knowledge and ideas to generate new knowledge and solutions.

Professors hire talented dedicated and resourceful students as research assistants. You can also do independent research or take a seminar that requires a substantial research paper. Department funding is available for the resources required for research. You should develop good communication skills and attention for detail so that you can successfully petition for funding.

COVID-19 has created barriers to conducting lab work and going out into the field -- two essential parts of research. Most likely, you will not be able to start an extensive research project this year. Nevertheless, taking the time to understand the basics of research, writing and studying this Fall will help you in the semesters to come.

E-Learning: Online learning is the new normal. US universities are currently planning to implement converged classes -- a class with some students attending in-person and others attending via video conferencing. They may also host synchronous classes, where everyone attends the class at the same time, or asynchronous classes, where students download and study content in their own time.

Classroom learning begins with lectures, textbooks, presentations and group discussions, whether in-person or online. Your professors’ preferred online learning platforms will also supplement your learning through quizzes, polls and exams. However, the American way of learning extends beyond the classroom, as you will see in the following blogs.

You should know the basics of video conferencing tools that your university may use. You should also have a laptop that lets you juggle between different applications at the same time. E-Learning involves using Learning Management Systems (LMS) and you should familiarise yourself with these tools as quickly as possible.

Here is a quick overview of the differences in academic terminologies in India and the US.

Writing Papers: Writing a [research] paper involves reading what people before you have written about your topic (literature review), formulating theories and hypotheses, and proving them through experiments, surveys or case studies. You need strong writing skills to provide proper analyses, connect the right dots and make the right conclusions.

Most universities have a writing centre and require incoming students to take an introductory class in writing and/or research. These classes and the writing centre are fundamental resources for learning how to write well. Try to schedule appointments with tutors at the writing centre and your professors for guidance on structuring, writing and editing your papers. During COVID-19, check if your university offers these appointments virtually.

Online Exams: Online exams are different from in-person exams. US universities use different types of browsers to prevent you from cheating, such as Respondus Lockdown, that do not allow you to open other tabs. Testing agencies such as ProctorU apppoint a live online proctor to monitor you while you take an online exam.

Courses are also assessed through online quizzes, discussion threads, assignments, case studies and group projects. Your courses will not seek to assess how well you can memorise information. Rather, they will assess you on how well you can apply what you have learnt and offer your own insights and analyses.

Plagiarism: Plagiarism is an act of copying material from different sources and claiming it to be your original work. Paraphrasing or rewording sentences without stating the source of your information (citing sources) is also a form of plagiarism. Even something like copying information from Wikipedia, textbooks, or any other sources -- which may have been acceptable in question exams in school in India -- can be considered plagiarism at higher levels of study. Universities have stringent Academic Integrity Policies and Honor Codes that treat plagiarism as a serious academic offense. You should read them carefully to understand how to avoid plagiarism.

Penalties for plagiarism include failing grade, academic probation, and in extreme cases, revocation of your admission. Universities often integrate plagiarism softwares into their learning management systems to detect plagiarised material.

Getting Textbooks: US universities have bookstores that sell or loan standardised textbooks recommended by the professors. Some bookstores have items beyond textbooks, like university merchandise, electronics and stationery. In an online mode of learning, you may have to rely on a PDF version of a textbook. You can contact your professors and classmates for help in finding cheaper/online versions of your textbooks. Some professors also upload copies of textbooks and chapters via the learning management systems. You should consider supplementing your learning using LinkedIn Learning, Coursera and Edx if your university offers a free subscription for students to access these websites.

A few tips:

  • Learn the stylistic guidelines, rules and norms for writing papers.

  • Do not focus on memorising information from your textbooks. It can cost you marks (called ‘points’ in the US) and be considered as plagiarism.

  • Meet your deadlines. Professors will set strict deadlines for submitting your work and may penalise even minor delays in submission.

  • Plan ahead, have backup copies and submit your work as early as possible to avoid any issues or technological problems that might come up.