A Critique of the British Education System

I spent this past semester abroad studying at the beautiful University of Edinburgh. Studying abroad was an amazing experience. Not only did that I have the opportunity to travel to Scotland and immerse myself in their culture, but I also lived with five other English students and learned deeply about their very different upbringings and perspectives compared to mine.

Although living in Scotland had many similarities to the United states, one of the biggest changes for me was adjusting to the British education system.

The US education system is based off a concept of continuous assessment through daily or weekly assignments and a combination of midterms and finals. Your grade for the course is dependent of a combination of your performance on smaller assignments, larger projects, class participation, and grades on your midterms and final examinations. As a result, if you want to achieve high marks in a collegiate level course in the US, you have to maintain a high level of performance throughout the term. It is not enough to do really well up until the final, and then to do poorly then.

An additional affect of this continuous assessment is that you have the ability to recover from a poor grade on an assignment, because you can make up for that grade in future assignments and tests.

On the other hand, the UK education system is completely different. In an entire semester, there are only a handful of assignments for a course. They are either ungraded, or worth a very small percentage of your final grade (~25%). There are typically no midterms, and if there are, they are also ungraded. As a result, a majority of your grade consists of the final exam at the end of the semester.

My understanding is that the idea behind the UK system is toteach students how to study independently. For the courses I took, there were typically only two lecture hours per week. For other lower level courses, there could also be an hour per week for tutorial, where you discuss in a small group the solutions to an assignment. This significantly less compared to my experience of four lecture hour courses per week at Dartmouth, with additional optional office hours and open lab hours per week where teacher assignments help answer questions. The limited number of lecture hours means that students in the UK must spend more time on their own studying the material.

Although the ambitions behind the UK education system are commendable, and obviously teaching independent learning is extremely crucial to the personal growth of college age students, in reality this is not what occurs at UK universities. There are a couple of reasons why this type of system does not work.

First of all, the lack of graded assignments does not result in students studying on their own, but rather, as one expects, results in students never completing their assignments. Not regarding the many courses that simply do not have any assignments at all, graded or ungraded, many students do not complete their assignments or complete them last minute since they are not reflected in the final grade. Without the additional pressure of a grade attached to the assignment, students simply choose not to do them and procrastinate. While there are small groups of students that do diligently complete their work as if it was graded, these students are without a doubt the minority.

Second, the lack of assessment for these weekly assignments mean that students do not receive feedback about the work they are completing. This lack of feedback combined with the absence of weekly professor office hours means that students have no idea about their performance in the class. Grades are not only a way to provide an assessment for students, but also are an excellent source of feedback for the students themselves to gage their standing in the class. Papers, projects, and all types of assignments also provide even more detailed feedback for students. In addition to these sources of feedback, office hours and lab hours also give students the ability ask questions. Assignments and grades are a major source of feedback and learning for students.

Finally, the extremely high percentage of your grade that is made by the final exam means that students just procastinate until the very end. Since students do not have to worry about completing assignments throughout the term, they just put off all of their studying to the very end.

Although in theory the British education system attempts to accomplish admirable goals, the reality of the situation is quite different. Students need continuous assessment and feedback in order to seriously understand the material they are learning. Students will naturally acquire these independent learning skills in the workforce and in other aspects of higher education. At the undergraduate level, they require as much as feedback as possible to further their learning.