Why the North American university system is better than St Andrews’

As an SYA (Senior Year Abroad – yes, it’s unusual) who’s been to four different universities in as many years, I’ve experienced more than my share of module systems. I’ve taken modules lasting just a few weeks as well as ones that stretched for a full year.

St Andrew, though, is entirely different from any university I attended back in Canada. In virtually all North American universities, taking five modules a semester is the norm, with fifteen total hours of class time every week. Here, I’m only enrolled in two modules, with just four contact hours a week. While the extra “free time” sounds nice, can I possibly learn as much from two modules as I would from five?

I understand the rationale for taking just two or three modules a semester: it allows students to concentrate on their assignments and become semi-experts in the subject. However, this specialization comes at the expense of the much wider knowledge base and skill set gained at a North American university.

Personally, I love St Andrews’ system. Realistically, however, I think the North American module structure is far more practical and will eventually become the standard for most universities.

Here’s why:

North American universities don’t assume that you know what you want to do with your life. In a world where a university degree is pretty much a must for any job, plenty of students head off to uni because they have to, not because they’re particularly interested in a certain subject. At an American university, students take a wide variety of modules in their first year and they don’t need to specialize until their second, or even third, year.

British universities, on the other hand, are ideal if you already know exactly what you want to study. As a die-hard English nerd, I love spending all day in Castle House and never going near the science buildings. But for many of my friends who took a year or two to choose a major, St. Andrews’ inflexible module structure is a major setback.

North American universities focus on output, while British universities want quality. Taking five modules means that students can have five essays due in a week, compared to just two at St. Andrew’s. Essays, then, become just another hurdle to jump over, rather than an opportunity for serious study and deep thought. St. Andrews’ offers the time and focus needed to properly master a topic, rather than just churning out a half-baked argument.

The problem is that last minute essay writing seems to happen here as frequently as in North America. While the essay topics may be handed out with plenty of time for thorough research and extensive editing, students don’t seem to actually use that time. North American universities may not expect stellar work, but at least they keep students on task by supplying a constant string of deadlines. In today’s world, deadlines act as a stimulus, and St. Andrews simply doesn’t provide enough of them.

North American universities prepare their students for the workforce, while British universities ready their students for grad programs. The North American strategy of frequent deadlines, applicable assignments, and diverse knowledge translates well to the workplace, where the actual facts learned at uni are far less important than the skills gained. Having read all of Shakespeare’s plays may not help me in the “real world,” but writing a report or preparing a presentation will help me acquire workforce skills.

British universities, with their focus on deeper thought and intense specialization, may be better for preparing potential graduate students. The dissertation requirement, which is not nearly as common at North American universities, is like a miniature graduate thesis, and the lack of contact hours encourages students to be independently motivated.

As I look towards graduate studies and eventually a position as a lecturer, St Andrews’ academic focus is perfect for me. But for anyone who cares more about getting a job and less about epic similes in Paradise Lost, the North American system, with its frequent deadlines and diverse knowledge-base, will be far more helpful. North American universities are doing their best to provide their graduates with relevant skills for the workforce—it’s time for St Andrews to catch up.

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