Shorelight helps international students attend top universities in the U.S.
Shorelight helps international students attend top universities in the U.S.

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What Is US College Classroom Culture Like?

US university classroom culture might be different from your home country, but international students can get comfortable in a US college classroom if they know what to expect.

A man in a classroom sitting with his back to the camera, raises his hand, with the instructor facing the class up front.

International students are often surprised by the differences between American academic culture and the educational experiences of their home country, especially in a college classroom. Before you enter a US university classroom as a foreign student, be prepared with this guide to understanding college classroom norms in the United States. 

What is American academic culture like?

In the United States, university classroom culture is student-focused. Classes tend to be learner-centered, meaning that professors expect you to cooperate and interact as part of the learning experience. They may use several different teaching methods including lectures, group discussions, readings, projects, in-class assignments, and homework. 

The relationship between college students and teachers tends to be informal. Professors may even ask you to call them by their first name. Teachers make time to work with students one-on-one. Most professors have office hours, which are designated times when students can visit the professor’s office to ask questions or get extra help with the course material. 

In larger classes, professors may ask students to raise their hand and wait to be called on before speaking. In smaller classes, students may discuss freely without waiting for permission to speak. 

If you are from China or India, the casual style in US classrooms may feel uncomfortable at first. Students who study in the USA are encouraged to think independently, rather than accepting everything the professor teaches without question. You may even disagree or debate with your instructor from time to time. 

Unlike in a Chinese classroom, it is not disrespectful to speak up in class or present your own opinion in a US higher education setting. When you speak in class, you can remain seated. Students are encouraged to share their ideas with each other during discussions. 

For students from Europe, the focus on classwork and in-class participation might be new. Instead of basing your entire grade on a test, essay, or research paper, most US professors will expect you to interact in class, complete projects, and work with your classmates on group assignments. 

What are the different teaching styles used in US university classrooms?

Rote learning (or memorization) is discouraged in American academic culture. Independent learning is the standard. Students are encouraged to read, discuss, and explore ideas. For students in US university classrooms, explaining your thought process is often more important than being able to recite someone else’s ideas. 

While some classes (especially introductory courses) may use a lecture format, discussion groups and student presentations are common. Whether your class follows a lecture or discussion format, your professor will expect you to participate and contribute to class discussions. Some professors even include a classroom participation score as part of your grade. To get the best score possible, arrive at your classes on time and be ready to talk about what is on the syllabus that day.

Americans value independent thought, but they also value collaboration. Your professors may encourage you to work together on group projects or special assignments. During in-class discussions and group work, you should feel empowered to speak up and share your ideas. 

How might academic culture differences affect me?

The American academic system values independent thinking. While you are asked to study the opinions and ideas of others, your professor will expect you to form your own conclusions. It is OK to disagree with other students or even your professor as long as you are respectful. In the US, being respectful means you can disagree with the idea without insulting the person. So rather than saying: “That is stupid,” you could say, “That idea ignores an important concept,” and then explain the concept. 

Putting your ideas into words might seem challenging at first, especially if English is not your first language, but it will get easier with practice.  

Additionally, academic freedom is an important part of American academic culture. Students and professors are encouraged to state their opinions, even if they are unpopular. You may hear professors or students question or criticize the university administration, local officials, and even the government. Many Americans see this as a normal part of the academic discussion and, while some ideas may be controversial, the ability to express the idea out loud may not be shocking or surprising.  

The emphasis on independent thought means that universities expect students to rely on their own knowledge and understanding. Sharing answers, especially during a test, is prohibited. This is considered cheating—and students caught cheating may be expelled. Your professor should include an academic integrity policy on your syllabus. If you have questions about this policy or other academic standards, talk to your professor. 

Every professor has slightly different expectations for classroom norms and formality. Pay attention to directions from your professor and what is included in the syllabus. If you are unsure whether something is allowed, do not hesitate to ask. 

What is academic culture shock and how can I deal with it?

Many international students experience culture shock, the challenge of adjusting to a new place and new expectations. Academic culture shock is common as well, especially if you come from a country with a more rigid academic structure. 

Adjusting takes time. You can make the transition easier by discussing challenges with your professors. Many have experience teaching foreign students and may have some ideas about how you can become more comfortable in their classroom. 

Your student service advisor can also help connect you with academic support resources. Remember, your professors and advisors want you to succeed. If you need help, ask! 

Learn how Shorelight can help international students adjust to US college classrooms >