I just finished my semester teaching as a Guest Professor at Leuphana University in Germany, and am beginning to figure out an answer to a question I get asked frequently: “What is the difference between American and German universities?” Actually, the German students who have been exchange students in the United States have helped me along. They say:
In American universities, there’s lots of assignments, busy work really, and the students are not expected to take responsibility for their own learning. Really it is like [German] high school, not the university.
German university classes in contrast to American universities do not involve a lot of graded work during the semester. The credit for the entire course comes down to a few ungraded assignments during the semester (typically including a 20 minute oral presentation), and a final test or paper which is the only thing actually evaluated for a grade. Class itself is a combination of student presentation, faculty lecture, and if it is small enough, seminar. In the case of the paper, it is usually 10-12 pages long—one for each class. There are no incentives for attendance. There are also is no preparation for midterms or quizzes–because there are few such tests in the American sense. The term paper for the class is handed in is due about six weeks after the semester ends. The professor then hands in a grade sometime in the next few months, which is then reported to the student, without elaboration or feedback. And that’s it—if you pass, you go on to the next semester.
In other words, at this German university, there are classes in which there is little encouragement for contact between students and faculty, professors do not initiate cooperation among students (that is up to the students), there is little feedback from the faculty regarding student work (and feedback need not be prompt), time on task is not monitored, and no one really cares if a student has another way of learning that does not show up on assessment.
The good news, though is that there are high expectations for German students, and if they meet the high expectations, they get a degree at the end of three years or more. Oh, and before they can also organize complex ideas in their 10-12 pages, read voraciously, and are up to date on current events both within and outside their fields. But they are this way not because of class content and monitoring by university faculty like me. Rather they are like that because that is what a good student is. The 20-30 minute class presentations are generally include high quality analysis, too. Also, with most German undergraduates you can have an well-informed conversation about their lives or the events of the day in English, German, and perhaps another language.
But is this really good practice in undergraduate education? According to the gurus of American undergraduate education, Professors Chickering and Gamson (1987) the German system is a lousy system which should produce
Apathetic students, illiterate graduates, incompetent teaching, impersonal campuses — so rolls the drumfire of criticism of higher education.
The problem of course is that my German students are far from apathetic, certainly not illiterate, and judging from the fact that major political parties show up on campus to court the student vote they are far from apathetic. As for the incompetence of teaching, I cannot judge that from my perspective, except to note that my German language teacher was pretty good!
Nevertheless in response to the problem that Professors Chickering and Gamson (1987) diagnosed regarding apathy, illiteracy, and incompetence, they prescribed seven best practices for high quality undergraduate education which American faculty are routinely held to in faculty reviews:
1. encourages contact between students and faculty,
2. develops reciprocity and cooperation among students,
3. encourages active learning,
4. gives prompt feedback,
5. emphasizes time on task,
6. communicates high expectations, and
7.respects diverse talents and ways of learning.
A German academic high schools (Gymnasium) teacher might recognize Chickering and Gamsons (1987) criteria, but the German university system I described above only meets 1/6 of Chickering and Gamson’s (1987) goals, i.e. the one about high expectations. The other six, are considered to be the responsibility of the student, not the faculty, which is why of course my German students hold American undergraduate education in such low esteem, and typically consider their exchange experience to be “high schoolish.”
The German view is that university faculty is in charge of organizing interesting class to which students will come if they are inclined, and participate when they are prepared. If they show up sort of regularly, and do the major assignment/test at the end of the semester, they will get credit for the course. University faculty are not in charge of checking endless assignments, homeworks, administering quizzes and the many other tasks which are really about checking for “time on task,” the metric that is most valued by administrators and faculty?
Could it be too that the reason that the German students believe that American undergraduate education is “like high school” is the fault of Chickering and Gamson (1987)? I bring this up because since I started teaching American undergraduates in 1996, the administrators who hired me have asked me to include Chickering and Gamson’s (1987) seven goals of good undergraduate practice in my employment dossier. I have dutifully done this, and in a show of faith upped the number of assignments in my classes, made a point of returning assignments quickly, encouraged active learning in the assignments I make, tried to make sure that I assigned 2 hours of reading/out of class work for each Carnegie unit the students receive, and checked to see if they did it by using quizzes. I am an accountable professor! But does this really make me a good professor who creates students who think creatively and deeply about sociology as I see my German students doing?
And anyway, what do we in the American system get in response? Undergraduates who are like, well, high school students in their capacity to work independently (meaning they work like well-supervised high school students). The expectations authored by Chickering and Gamson (1987) have become a self-fulfilling prophecy. We defined high quality as demanding a lot of busywork (not critical thinking, routine reading, or the capacity to work independently, and surprise, we get undergraduates who
–contact faculty frequently
–do group work
–equate active learning with recreational activities
–expect prompt and voluminous feedback rather than editing themselves
–spend a lot of time doing homeworks
–read for the detail on quizzes rather than for “fun”
–have high expectations of their own abilities, and
–expect learning accommodations to be made for different learning styles
This is not to say that German students are faultless. Indeed, the German system has recently undergone major reform because students frequently floated away from a system that by American standards can be pretty brutal (it is easier to flunk a student you do not know, than one who has frequent contact with faculty). German students also take too long to graduate, and so forth. I should add, that my experience last semester is that American attendance patterns are a bit better than German, and punctuality is also a lot better at Chico State, where I routinely start class within 15 seconds of the class start time, a process which seems to take 5-10 minutes here…).
Still, when the German students do finally get to class, they bring intellectual preparation that my American students do not. But then again, habits of intellectual engagement, like voluminous reading, independent thought, oral presentations, and routinely crafting 10-12 page essays are really not part of what Chickering and Gamson (1987) have defined as high quality undergraduate education, are they?
Chickering and Gamson (1987). There are hundreds if not thousands of copies of Chickering and Gamson’s original article floating around on the internet. If you really want to read it (I encourage you to do so), either click the link embedded in the article, or simply google it up!
Tony Waters is czar and editor of Ethnography.com. He came to us from the Sociology department at California State University at Chico where he has been a professor since 1996. In 2016 though he suddenly found himself with a new gig at Payap University in northern Thailand where he is on the faculty of the Peace Studies Department. He has also been a guest professor in Germany, and Tanzania. In the past, his main interests have been international development and refugees in Thailand, Tanzania, and California. This reflects a former career in the Peace Corps (Thailand), and refugee camps (Thailand and Tanzania). His books include: Crime and Immigrant Youth (1999), Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan (2001), The Persistence of Subsistence Agriculture: Life Beneath of the Marketplace (2007), When Killing is a Crime (2007), and Schooling, Bureaucracy, and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child (2012). His hobby is trying to learn strange languages–and the mistakes that that implies. Tony is a prolific academic, you can read more of his work at academia.edu.or purchase one (or more!) of his books from Amazon.com.