Special Mobility Series: Aussies Might Speak English, but their Uni is Like a Foreign Language

I’ve struggled with academics as much as the next 21-year-old college student. This involves jumping between “I love this class—I’m glad I chose this path” and “I wonder what would happen if I just dropped out right now,” hopefully landing closer to the former. However, there are always a few added difficulties to deal with when you’re a student with a physical disability.

My Unexpected Exam Schedule

Before going to Australia, I was in contact with the student disability coordinator at Murdoch and sent her the same 504 plan that my home university has on file. I have very simple needs when it comes to being in class: accessible classrooms with an accessible desk and my caregiver is allowed to come in and help me get my books. I was able to talk further with the coordinator during orientation week and get everything settled by the first week of classes.

When I went into my first class, Law, Justice, and Social Policy, and saw at least 200 students sitting in the lecture theatre, I was a little intimidated.

About halfway through the semester, the final exam schedule came out, and they had automatically separated me from the rest of my class and put me in a room with other students with disabilities, regardless of individual needs. I thought having that as the default was really strange, considering it’s the exact opposite from what I’ve experienced in the U.S. I personally didn’t feel comfortable with it from the day it was mentioned, and I verbalized my concerns. Ultimately, my education was more important than what was considered normal in that situation in Australian culture. Thankfully I was able to cancel that schedule and take my finals with everyone else in my class with relative ease. But this wasn’t the only time I realized Australian universities run differently than American ones.

How Australian Classes Work

Special Mobility Series: Aussies Might Speak English, But Their Classes are Like a Foreign Language
At Bush Court eating lunch during the international student orientation. We were all brought together in a circle by a box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts in the center.

I took four classes while I was abroad: Love and Sexuality in Japan; Law, Justice, and Social Policy; The Making of the Modern World; and Popular Literature and Science Fiction. The first three fulfilled courses for my core curriculum back at my home university, while the last one was an English elective for my Creative Writing major. While the course titles seemed normal enough, there was definitely a difference in how classes were run compared to what I was used to.
Classes in Australia are split up into two parts: lecture and tutorial. The lecture is what you’d expect, though attendance is not mandatory. Every lecture is recorded and put online, so you never have to step foot into the lecture hall. Going to a small school, the largest class I’ve had was Organic Chemistry I, which had about 40 students. I’m used to classes in the 15-25 student range. So when I went into my first class, Law, and saw at least 200 students sitting in the lecture theatre, I was a little intimidated.
Tutorials (or tutes, as the locals say) are mandatory. The class is split up into groups of 20 and it’s very discussion-based. Here, you would talk about the readings and the material in the lecture. In total, you would have one or two lectures and one tute per week, totaling about three hours of class time. With the relaxed Australian culture, most of the classes would end 10-15 minutes early, which was particularly helpful since there was literally zero time scheduled in between classes.

How the Aussies Do Grades

A bad grade is not the end of the world, but being responsible for your own education is essential.

Students are expected to be way more independent than in the United States. Typically the only “homework” was readings that you could read if you wanted to. The only things that were submitted to be graded were papers (one or two per class) and the final exam. Each graded work counted for a specific percentage of your final grade, and while it was really handy when it came time to calculate my grades, it was a little daunting to see on paper. Usually, if something is __ out of 20 points, it’s not worth that much in the U.S., but in Australia, the number you get is the percentage you earned, which would ideally all add up to 100 by the end. Rather than starting at 100 and deducting points, the Australian grading systems starts at 0 and you have to earn every single percentage point. And that’s why a 60% is not terrible or life ending to them.
Special Mobility Series: Aussies Might Speak English, but Their Classes are Like a Foreign Language
Learning a new way of studying takes a little time, but it will just add to your repertoire of methods, giving you a broader sense of how people learn. Learning how to communicate well might be daunting, but it will get easier, and your needs are what’s important. A bad grade is not the end of the world, but being responsible for your own education is essential. And if you study in Australia, most likely there is a beach a ten-minute drive away, which will definitely help you relax, and maybe even catch up on that reading.
This is part 4 of Exploring the World From a Seated Position: Studying Abroad with a Physical Disability. For more insights into the study abroad experience for students with disabilities, read Part 3 and Part 5.