A Look Inside the Classroom:
An American’s Experience in the United Kingdom - By Michael Vidal
My first introduction to the British education system was at The University of East London by Co-directors of the International Summer Institute, John Storan and Tony Hudson. The journey of understanding this system began with a single word – College. I soon learned that college was a term that had a very specific meaning in the UK, unlike in the US where the word is used interchangeably with university. Soon enough, I began the process of scratching beneath the surface, uncovering a much more complex system than expected, with never ending questions along with it.
A flaw in my attempt to understand this new system was that I was constantly comparing it to the United States in terms of finding similar or even equivalent features in both. It was not until I attended the conference of the Forum for Access and Continuing Education (FACE), that I realized that there are more differences than similarities, culturally, socially, and otherwise, that are highly significant in how the UK provides these services. The question of which system is best is up for debate however we cannot argue that both have much to offer.
In the United Kingdom compulsory education is made up of primary (ages 5-11) and secondary (ages 12-16) schools. While in secondary school students prepare for the GCSE (General Certificate for Secondary Education), which is an examination that measures their achievement in the UK education system. Not only does the GCSE mark the end of a student’s first stage in the secondary level, but it also determines whether or not she/he continues on to Further Education, or goes off to work after secondary education. Additionally, the GCSE assesses a student’s ability to progress to A-Levels, the second and final stage of qualifications and route to enter into a UK higher education institution.
Psychologist and senior lecturer at Brunel University, Dr. Stanley Gaines (2010), was able to clarify some of the components of the education system by providing context to everything that I had recently learned. An American born educator, Dr. Gaines has the experience of teaching in the United States as well as in the United Kingdom, and was an excellent resource to fully comprehend this unique system.
Though both countries are similar in the three pillars of academia (research, teaching, and service), they differ in a variety of ways. For example, assessing a student’s knowledge of a given material in the classroom is a “lengthy and sometimes frustrating process”, explained Dr. Gaines. An instructor has to go through review boards and national bodies that are in place to guarantee that all students have a fair and even platform.
A UK academic department has to follow a national curriculum; in the case of the Psychology Department at Brunel, it must follow the standards set by the British Psychological Society. Before the beginning of an academic year, an instructor must create and have approved the examination that is intended to be used for that course, or module. Once an examination is created it must go through a board that consists of specialists in that field. The board reviews every question providing feedback on whether or not it needs to be changed. For example, the board asks if questions are confusing, too easy or too complicated, and if so, how can they be improved?
Instructors must also face bodies that are responsible for academic quality and standards in the UK higher education system, such as the Quality Assurance Agency. Dr. Gaines described them as the third party during the examination proposal process to assure that everything is where it should be. Their responsibilities range from conducting reviews of colleges and universities, to providing guidance on maintaining academic standards and improving quality, in line with the academic infrastructure (QAA, 2010).
Instructors must follow university protocols before, during, and after the exam, as a way of quality control. Before the exam, instructors read a list of rules and regulations to the students. Another person affiliated with the department must be present to distribute the examinations, and once the exam begins there is no form of disturbance allowed. Failure to comply with any of the rules results in automatic failure of the exam, as well as the course. The rules are so heavily enforced that even a mere request to use the restroom would require an escort.
After the exam is completed, instructors in conjunction with the representative of the department must write up a report on all of the results. Both the instructor and the representative then discuss the exam in detail, focusing on score distributions. If there is any indication of a flaw during the grading process, a solution needs to be found. This process takes several weeks before both individuals come to a consensus.
In the classroom, an instructor makes his/her best effort to guide the students through the course material. This is particularly significant since the grade students receive in the course is solely dependent on how well they do on the examination. This is contrary to the US where final grades are an accumulation of several components such as participation, homework, outside assignments, and various exams.
Further, with regards to testing methods in the US, an instructor tailors his/her exams or can even change questions throughout the semester depending on what gets covered in class. The process of assessing a student’s knowledge of a given material is less structured. A professor at Brunel would have to repeat the board approval processes if s/he wished to make changes to the exam; thus, it is a rare occurrence if it does take place. The format of the examinations of the UK and US also differ. Multiple choice and fill in the blanks are popular in the US whereas in the UK it is detested. Students receive five to six essay questions and they have the option of choosing to answer two to three.
We can argue that US professors have more autonomy in the classroom, whereas those in the UK have to follow more controlled and strict guidelines. On the other hand we cannot fail to recognize the amount of quality control the UK has on its system to assure that there are no flaws in its policies, procedure, and the academic experience of its students.
Additionally, Dr. Gaines expressed that he, along with other instructors have the ability to direct their students in a fashion that allows them to not only learn but comprehend the material. “I tell them, ‘you should really focus on this…it is important that you read up on it’…” said Dr. Gaines. “It gives me the ability to avoid the obstacles of the system, while fostering a good learning environment in my own way.”
Prior to our departure to the UK, I had no knowledge of its education system. To my surprise, I found it to be quite complex and as a result it was difficult to fully understand its policies and procedures, or how it functions, as well as how it provide for its people. Director of ESCalade of the Higher Education Academy (HEA), Dr. Tony Brown (2010) stated during a lecture that even people living within the country do not know much about the system and only those fully involved in education comprehend how it works. Thus, one can only imagine the struggle for an outsider who is attempting to organize, as well as become familiar with this different approach to teaching.
As a student, one central focus was learning about the classroom, more specifically the bodies that govern the overall experience of a student in the higher education system, including everything from qualifying examinations and choosing a major area of study, to testing methods and the role of a professor. To begin to answer questions, I had to go back to basics by learning about the structure, policies, and history that lead up to what is the current education system. Nonetheless I was able to expand my comprehension during my time in the UK by speaking to, and learning from those who know the system best – educators. They provided the means for me to familiarize myself with what it means to be a lifelong learner in the United Kingdom.
Review Michael Vidal's Research Presentation
Brown, T. (2010, June 29). Overview English education system. Seminar conducted at the International Summer Institute of the Continuum Research
Centre at the University of East London, London, England, United Kingdom
Gaines, S. (2010, July 22). Similarities and differences in college teaching in the United Kingdom and the United States. Guest lecture presentation for
INCO 410 – Introduction to College Teaching. Lecture conducted at Brunel University, London, England, United Kingdom.
The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education 2010, Who We Are and What We Do. Retrieved August 1, 2010, from