05 August, 2015

Final Exams in Germany (and My Reaction to Them)

I just finished my last exams for the semester on Monday, and boy am I glad they are over! Coming from being a humanities major at an American liberal arts college, I am not used to having so many exams or having them spread out over so many weeks. It did give me more time to study for my last exams, which I desperately needed, but it also felt like a bit of a marathon. While I "only" had four exams, they were distributed oddly, with two exams during the last week of classes (on the same day) and then two more exams three weeks later (also on the same day).

Despite the frustrations that I came across during exam time, in retrospect the exams themselves were not that bad, and they were balanced out by a semester in which I rarely had written or other preparatory work for my classes. The culmination of the semester in all-important exams, however, made me reflect on the semester as a whole and once again to notice how different the expectations are of students here as opposed to in the United States.

But first off, the logistics of exams. (Keep in mind that, as always, I am writing only about my own personal experiences with my respective universities in the U.S. and Germany. While the general patterns hold true, the details at different universities may vary.) In the U.S., as I've written about in a previous post, there is almost always required reading, writing and other homework for every class, every week (and classes meet twice a week instead of once, so the workload can be hard to keep up with). That means that the "studying" that dominates exam time in the U.S. is simply a slightly more stressful extension of the regular workload, whereas in Germany there is a stark contrast between the workload during the semester (which is basically non-existent) and the workload leading up to exams. In addition, many professors in the U.S. don't even hold a final exam for their classes but instead have students write final papers, which may also be worked on throughout the semester, either through a series of early drafts that students are required to turn in or just through the student's own motivation. Exam time in the U.S. is also shorter: my alma mater Mount Holyoke gives students two free days to study after classes end and then exams are held over the next five days, even if those days fall on a weekend. After those five days everything is over for the semester, and students go home for a long break (five or six weeks over Christmas/winter break and approx. 14 weeks in the summer).

In Germany, as I've written before, the lines between exam time and breaks are more blurred. Students' summer break basically starts whenever their last exam is over, which could be anywhere from the week after the end of classes to a few days before the next semester starts. I was fairly lucky and my exams were only held over a three-week period, but when I left campus on Monday, free until the middle of October, many students still had exams to take in the coming days and weeks. And at Maxim's university, he often had exams a few weeks apart right up until the next semester started and basically had no break at all. It's also much more likely that students will have formal exams in Germany rather than final papers, even for humanities classes. For example, my first two exams this semester were for humanities classes, which in the U.S. I can almost guarantee would have had final papers instead of exams.

Studying for my last exam, though, really brought home exactly how the different approaches of the German and American university systems affect the students' learning process. This exam was for the class Elektrische Mess-, Steuer- und Regelungstechnik ("Electrical Measurement, Control and Regulation Engineering," basically studying sensors and how they are used in machines). For people like me who, up until now, have been mostly humanities-oriented, this may naturally sound terrifying. And it was. I spent the entire semester not understanding what the professor was talking about during the lecture, and since I didn't like the professor anyway I always just wanted to forget about the class for the rest of the week. Whereas in the U.S. there would have been homework every week that would have forced me to learn what was going on, here in Germany I was allowed to simply ignore the material for the whole semester, and that came back to bite me in the ass as exams drew nearer. I sat at Maxim's desk last week with mountains of printed PowerPoint slides in front of me, feeling so overwhelmed and convinced that I was going to fail the exam. I wondered how I had managed to end up in a class that I was so woefully unprepared for, and in typical American fashion I looked for someone to blame.

That blame, I decided, landed squarely on the university system for the almost complete lack of student advising or support. At Mount Holyoke, and I suspect at most other American universities, every student is assigned a professor as their advisor, and students are required to meet with their advisor at least once per semester to plan their studies and their classes for the following semester. In addition to these required advising meetings, professors also make themselves more available to students in the U.S. than they do here in Germany. The professors I've had here so far have only had a single hour per week for their office hours, whereas at Mount Holyoke it was common for a professor to have 3-5 hours a week for office hours, spread over several days.

The grand total of "advising" that I received here for my first semester was an email from the committee that admitted students for the technical translation program I'm in. This email included a PDF with a list of all the classes I was required to take to graduate, arranged by semester, and a suggestion that I should take a few extra classes (which, unhelpfully, were not offered this semester) to brush up on my technical knowledge. As an afterthought, at the bottom of the email was a note that if I had questions I should email the professor who is responsible for all the students in my program. (There were 25 of us admitted to the program just this semester, so I can only imagine how many students he's responsible for).

As I sat at Maxim's desk ready to cry because I had to learn a semester's worth of material in a week, I felt like the university had completely abandoned me. Shouldn't someone have cared enough to tell me that this class was way beyond my abilities, and shouldn't there be tutors available to help me? But no, they just admitted me to their program and then threw me into the water to sink or swim on my own. And while that sounds overdramatic, it's pretty much exactly what the German university system does. Students are given very little support from the university, and what little support there is students have to find on their own. All of the "advising" I've gotten here has come from other students, which would have been unheard of at Mount Holyoke. There, information and support came directly from the university and students knew exactly how to take advantage of it from day one.

That's the difference that money makes. When the yearly sticker price for the university is upwards of $50,000 and creeping up more every year, you can be damn sure you'll be getting something for your money. But when each student pays less than $400 per semester, that money is certainly not going to anything as frivolous as student advising. I simply have to get used to the fact that the German university system doesn't really care about individual students. The university machine will continue to run each year as it always has and the individual students are simply an afterthought, each one a cog in the system that can easily be replaced or done without. One of the things that attracted me to Mount Holyoke was how much it felt like I mattered there, and it's been a shock for me to realize that that is simply not the case here.

This post ended up going in a different direction than I had originally planned. I wanted to talk about how much more likely it is that I will fail an exam here than in the U.S. because of how some professors grade on a curve and purposely fail a certain percentage of students, but at the moment that seems less important than the structural inadequacies that I see in the German system compared to the American one. This semester has been a learning experience for me, that's for sure, and now that I am more aware of how the system works, it's my job to decide how I will navigate it. I have to simply accept that there is more responsibility placed on my shoulders here to motivate myself and learn for myself, rather than to complete a series of assignments for a professor. I'm trying to see this as a good thing, because it gives me more flexibility to learn what I want to learn and to decide for myself which part of my knowledge I want to expand further. Next semester I will try to organize myself better, read about the class material each week and prepare myself for the next class, so that I don't have so many difficulties when final exams roll around. I will of course keep all of you updated on how that goes.

And now that my first semester has come to a close, I will use what's left of the summer to visit my family in the U.S. (T minus 2 days and counting!), write all the blog posts I've been meaning to write, catch up on reading and take a break from German to soak up all the native English I'll have around me for the next few weeks. Stay tuned!

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