When I was an underclassman at a state school, I usually had 1 or 2 people that I would at least get together with to review problems. For classes I disliked (like thermodynamics) I was much more likely to do the work while physically present with the other person so that I could stay motivated to finish the assignment. As an upperclassmen, we had a group of 10 to 15 that would study together. We had a lounge in the basement that was just for civil engineering students, so that's normally where we'd congregate between classes and when doing homework. The only times we typically had all 10-15 together at once was when studying for difficult exams or when just hanging out for fun. All but a couple of the people in my group graduated the year before me, and I certainly felt a big difference in my 4th year vs my 5th year. It was weird to go from 10 people to 2 or 3 people in the study group.
A couple of our professors highly encouraged collaboration and studying in groups. In one class we were allowed to have an official homework partner where your assignments were graded together. My partner and I would both do the whole assignment and then compare our work afterward since our schedules didn't align well. Then we would turn in one of our assignments to be graded. One time we couldn't agree on one of the solutions so we each turned in separate assignments that time. Besides that class, the homework assignments were individual and projects were in groups about half the time.
I also took a couple grad classes as part of my undergrad curriculum. One was completely individual homework and tests. The other had a couple group projects/presentations.
As a grad student in Mexico, I've found that it is much more collaborative even though campus is closed due to the pandemic. Most of my homework and projects are in groups or have the option of being done in a group. Some of the professors use a formula to determine your grade that takes into account your score from a peer review.
One big difference I've seen between my undergrad and grad experience is the actual level of cooperation that happens on group projects. In undergrad I had plenty of group partners that knew I wouldn't let my grade suffer if they didn't do their share of the work. I ended up doing a very disproportionate amount of the work because they would drop the ball on their end. On the flip side, in my grad groups everyone seems proactive and willing to do their part with only one or two exceptions. They wait until the last minute sometimes which stresses me out, but that's more of a cultural thing and a side effect of most of my classmates working fulltime. When I mentioned to a friend I've made from class here that it makes me anxious when some of the people wait until the day something is due to wok on it he laughed and said, "That's just the Mexican way." My group turned something in to our professor last trimester 1 minute before the deadline. When the professor saw that I was the one that submitted it he told my group they'd corrupted me; the whole class got a laugh out of that.So, in summary:
My undergrad experience at a state school in the US was highly collaborative because I sought that out. It was possible to go through without working in a group very much. When I did have to work in a randomly assigned group in undergrad for a grade, it was sometimes a terrible experience because people didn't do their share of the work.
My grad experience at a private school in Mexico is highly collaborate because it is designed to be that way. Even when you can work alone on graded assignments there is often also an option to work with a partner.
I think part of it may be the nature of undergrad vs grad school, but there also seems to be a cultural aspect in the value placed on individual performance vs an emphasis on community and collaboration.
Heidi C. Wallace, P.E., M.ASCE
Sent: 07-20-2021 11:50 PM
From: Christopher Seigel
Subject: Comparing classroom cultures
I was curious about how others felt about their academic atmosphere - and if it was different school to school, possibly on a larger scale such as region to region, or even simply at the smallest scale of person to person.
I will try to elaborate with my own examples.
I attended undergrad and grad school at the same university in South Jersey, and I also took a few summer classes at a school in Philadelphia and in a community college. The summer classes did not seem to foster much of a community or sense of cohesion. Students did not seem to study together or talk much before or after class. This was likely because of their fast-paced nature of the class and the time commitments people had to commit to the rest of their lives after school. One was also a lower level class and so contained a wide variety of students from different majors.
In contrast, my time in undergrad at Rowan University in South Jersey was much more collaborative. I made friends in almost every class, and was usually successful in finding someone to study with and do homework with. The groups got larger by junior year until it seemed that about 10 of us would show up in the library to work through problems and help each other understand what was going on for certain classes. Certainly there were students who still preferred to work alone or only with one other consistent person, but I guess my point is that the option was there for those who wanted to collaborate. Once it was discovered that "class rank" was a thing, students were slightly more competitive, but still collaborative and supportive of one another. By senior year, I think the group sizes shrunk a bit again, but this could also have to do with the fact that we had senior electives which forced people into smaller groups again.
I found it interesting that in graduate school, the class atmosphere was much more competitive. Students were less interested in working with one another and much less interested in working together for mutual benefit. One of my professors remarked to me once that "your class in undergrad wanted to pull each other up, while the class beneath you who you are doing grad school with seems more focused on trying to stay ahead of each other."
One effect of this was that my undergrad class seemed to be given slightly tougher questions on homeworks and exams, as it was even recognized by the faculty that strong teams would be able to solve the problems. But that is another topic. I simply found it interesting that even class by class in the same school, there could be such a different atmosphere in the student body.
What was your experience like in school, and was it different if you attended multiple schools?
Christopher Seigel P.E., M.ASCE