When I started my semester studying psychology at University College London (UCL), I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Coming from a school that operates under the “block plan” (we only take one class at a time for 4 weeks), I knew it would be a new academic experience. However, I was not totally prepared for just how different psychology at UCL would be. I’ve put together a list of things that were different and that I wished I had known about before starting my semester. Hopefully, it will be helpful to anyone else thinking about venturing to England for Psychology!
1. Class is super hands-off
For each psychology class I took, the actual experience of being in class was drastically different from what I was used to at my home university. Each class was hosted in a large lecture hall, seating about 300 people. For the first few weeks of class the lecture halls were packed. In fact, once I wasn’t even able to find a free seat and had to sit on the ground! Throughout the semester, however, the attendance began thinning out. I believe this is partially because the lecturers would post video recordings of the lectures on Moodle (the class page) following every class– supposedly for studying purposes. The lecturers for each class also alternated between three or four lecturers, so the class was taught by a handful of people rather than one professor. There wasn’t any class discussion; it was more come to class, take notes, and leave.
Before I came to London, I didn’t realize that there’s actually very little class time. I’m used to having the same class every day for at least three hours, and I know that most semester program courses meet twice a week. My psychology lectures in London, though, only met once a week for about two hours. For me, this was a huge adjustment, since I’m used to having the same class every day. It was difficult to feel as engaged in my classes with so little class time, but I was able to focus more on other aspects of my time in London. That said, I do wish I had spent more time revising and reading outside of class–with this independent structure, it’s important to review on your own! I definitely wish I had known the importance of studying as you go, rather than cramming during the study period right before exams.
I’m pretty sure that the degree-seeking (those spending their whole college at UCL) students had smaller group seminars for each course that met as well, but that time was taken up for us with our affiliate seminar. Because of this, there really isn’t that much in-person review of the material. Once our two-hour lecture was over, that was pretty much it for the week.
2. Grading is on a different schedule, with another system of marks.
At least for STEM fields, you’re only graded once or twice throughout the semester. At UCL, there was assigned reading for my psychology classes, but no assignments to turn in until the last week of classes. In one of my psychology classes, we had one essay and a final, and in the other, we just had a final. I was pretty stressed out about these finals, and spent about two weeks straight really honing in and studying for each one. For my Social Psych course that was a fine amount of time given all the prep we had done in our affiliate seminar, but for my Perception course it wasn’t really enough! Even though you only have one grade, it really does reflect your work over the whole semester. IFSA explained the grading system at our pre-departure Skype orientation, which was really helpful. I definitely recommend reaching out to the IFSA advisors on-site for help with study planning, as well as utilizing your affiliate seminar instructor–mine gave advice from the perspective of a successful Psychology student at UCL, which was super valuable.
Another thing to note is that UCL does not grade on the letter system or as a percentage out of 100. Instead, you will receive either a First (70-100, equivalent to an A) an Upper Second (60-69, equivalent to an A-/B+), Lower Second (50-59, equivalent to a B/C+), or a Third (40-49, equivalent to C-/D).
3. Testing formats are more essay-based
Another big difference is the format of the tests. For any science field, instead of just multiple-choice, the tests are comprised of multiple-choice and three essay portions. The essays are what really matter, and what I spent most of my time preparing for. At least for Psych, you have to memorize anywhere between 5 and 10 topics. This means going through the lectures, writing down every cited source or study, and memorizing the author, date, and finding of those studies in an essay format. Then, you will be able to pick three of roughly six essay questions and must formulate arguments based on each essay you’ve memorized, with sources cited. It’s definitely a lot of work and super different from anything I had ever done before. However, it was kind of fun to memorize these arguments with my friends in the department, and be able to write a full essay just from memory! The effort really pays off, and it’s cool to learn a new skill like that.
4. The semester is broken into three parts with lots of breaks
At school in London, you get a bunch of time off. Apart from only having about an hour or so of class each day, you also are allotted a reading week and a pre-exam study period. The reading week occurs after the fifth week of class. Most of my psychology classmates used that week to travel around. During the reading week, I spent a few days in a town called Dorset in the South of England, near the coast! With a student railcard, you can get discounted train tickets all over England. It’s a really good mid-term break to spend some time exploring and orienting yourself.
Then, after class ends in March, there is a four week period (for me it was pretty much the whole month of April) where you can study before the exam period begins. The exam period is from the end of April until early June, but most exams finish before mid-May. I only had two exams, so I was able to spend most of that time traveling around as well! Flights can be really cheap from London (I never spent more than $50 on a flight), but this is also a great time to recharge, or to get to know your host city more! London has so much to offer, and it was so nice to have some time to see parts of it that I hadn’t explored yet.
5. As an international student, you have to take an “Affiliate Seminar”
I mentioned the affiliate seminar before, but I’ll go into a little more detail. At UCL, you’re required to take at least two courses in your “home department” (major), not including the affiliate seminar. In London, you will be an “affiliate” student, which just means a study abroad student. Because the way they teach psychology is so different, they have a whole course just to familiarize psychology students with their testing and teaching system. In my course, it was mostly practice essays and just chatting about popular psychology. Our class was ten students, taught by a psychology graduate student for an hour each week.
You can take these classes for credit (half of a regular course credit), or, if you want to take four full courses, you can take it for no credit. I took mine for credit, and then also had to take two other psychology courses to fulfill my home department requirements. At UCL, if you’re taking at least two classes in the psychology department then you can fulfill your other two credits with any department’s class that’s open to affiliate students. For my Psychology classes, I took Social Psychology and Perception. Because I took my seminar for credit I only had one other class to take, and I chose Introduction to World Cinema in the Film department! It was really cool to see a more global perspective on film from another culture.
All of this can be super overwhelming, and it might take a while to find your groove. Different styles of note-taking and studying work for everyone, but I do have a bit of advice: I would suggest doing the reading before class and taking notes on the reading, as well as taking notes ON the PowerPoint file (I tried to take hand-written notes but ended up just copying down the PowerPoint and wasting time). That way, you have the material and the professor’s words to study off of. Lecturers will usually post the PowerPoint on Moodle before class, so you can download a PDF.
One thing that I did not do and wished I had: studying a bit and making flashcards as I went throughout the semester. Because there’s only one test, it’s a TON of material and takes way more time than I expected to consolidate into study-able quantities. Then, when your month off comes around, you can get right to memorizing and reviewing concepts and don’t have to spend a week creating materials.
While this different style of learning definitely posed a challenge, I learned a lot about my own learning habits and time management in a different environment. Overall, studying psychology in London helped me gain a whole new perspective on the field and gave me a new appreciation for the material. One thing that UCL really helped me with is writing an argumentative literature review, since that’s the format of most of the essays we wrote.
It’s been a challenge re-adjusting to the fast-paced schedule of the block plan at Colorado College, but I’m confident that the skills I learned in London of longer-term learning and writing for the specific field will bolster my ability to perform in my career going forward.
Jess Keniston is a Psychology student at Colorado College, and studied abroad with IFSA at University College London in London, England in Spring 2019.