Friday, 12 April 2013

University of Cantabria: The exchange experience

It's midterm exam time at the University of Cantabria; a good time to look at the exchange experience and report on Corin's findings so far.

This blog post will focus on assessment, university life, and advice for future exchange students.  A separate post discusses text books.   (Plus I've thrown in a couple of pictures for good measure).  

Right:  The port, Santander.


One of the first things Corin noticed is that grading in Spain is different.  This includes the grading scale, the grading calculations, and the final exam schedule.

Grading scale:  The percentage or letter grade system is not used in Spain.  The chart below shows how the grading scale is different between the USA, England (where I went to university), and Spain.  

Number scale
Letter scale

Up to 100
A:  90-100
B:  80-89
C: 70-79
 D/F: <70

Up to 100
< 50

Up to 10
 < 5

Final grade calculation:  In Spain, the most important grade is the final exam.  Although in most classes there are other tests, the grades are not counted if the final exam grade is higher.  If a student fails the final exam, he/she can re-take it (the exam, not the class) the following semester.  The chart below shows how the grade is calculated for Corin's four classes:

Grade calculation

10% lab, 40% tests, 50% final.  The final exam grade over-rides any lower test grade. 
Partial differential equations
45% midterm, 55% final.  If you fail the midterm, the final counts for 100%.
40% midterm, 40% final, 10% participation, 10% homework.  
Final exam grade over-rides lower midterm grade.
Spanish for engineers
This class is pass/fail or students can choose to take the final exam and get a grade.  

I think I like this system.  It could represent the best of both worlds.  In my field, language teaching, it makes sense to assess students based on their proficiency at the end of the semester rather than using the 'averaging' system.  What does it matter if they struggled in the beginning as long as they have arrived where they need to be by the end?  Of course, I also appreciate the argument for continuous asssessment: that basing a semester grade on one exam is stressful for students and having 'a bad day' can unfairly penalize an otherwise strong student.  That's why I like the Spanish system, where the final exam grade is the class grade if it's as good as, or better than, the cumulative grade.  Otherwise, the cumulative grade counts.

Left:  A windy day in the Bay of Santander. 

Revision and final exam schedule:  The spring semester classes at UC end on May 31 and then the exams start on June 3 and continue until June 22.  This is a much longer exam period than in the USA or England.  In England there is a 'revision week'  following the end of classes for students to study for the exams, then the following week is 'exam week.'  In Spain, the exam period lasts three weeks, with revision time included.

Below is a chart showing the difference in the scheduling of revision time and and final exams in the USA, England, and Spain.

Revision period
Exam period
None:  Final exam week follows final week of classes
One week
1 week between final week of classes and final exam week
1-2 weeks
Included in exam period
Three weeks

There is one more difference related to assessment; it's the way professors give students their test grades.  There is no expectation of, nor option for, privacy.  The results are announced in class and posted on the door, together with the students' names.  Nobody minds, that's just how it's done here.

University Life:

Studying:  There are no group study rooms in the library; it is a place for independent, silent study, and this is enforced.  Instead, students go to one of the many cafés on campus when they want to work together.  Some Americans aren't going to like this, but, just like everywhere else in Spain, there is alcohol available in the campus cafés.  The legal drinking age in Spain is between 16 and 18, depending on the region.  All types of alcohol are available, but most students drink beer, coke, or water.  It's cheap; for 2 euros (less than 3 dollars) you can buy a beer and a snack. The cafés are part of the university; not run by a for-profit company.

Student ID:  The university has an agreement with Banco Santander to provide students with a student ID that is also a debit card.  With this high-tech, multipurpose card they can  access university computers and print documents (there's a chip terminal on the computer keyboards so they don't need to enter a username and password, just a four-digit PIN).  They use the same card to make purchases in and out of the university, and as a bus pass for the city of Santander urban transportation system.  One card, many uses!  The picture shows the #4 bus, which goes from the barrio pesquero (where we live) to the university.  

Some advice for future students:

No matter how well you have prepared, you will need to be able to tolerate a level of uncertainty when you first arrive.  Pre-departure orientations tend to focus on 'being a good tourist', warning you about pickpockets, educating you about cultural differences.  That's fine as far as it goes, but what you really need to know when you get here is how to register for classes before they are full, where the classes are, what buildings to go to, and how to communicate with the school about schedule changes. Don't expect everything to run smoothly, there will be mixups, schedule conflicts, and schedule changes.  These are things you cannot foresee or prevent, and there are things you cannot fix until you arrive because you need information that you can only get once you are here.  So just be patient and stay in touch with your advisor at your home university.  Classes here start in February, so schedule changes happen too late to meet the home university add/drop deadline.  This means that your home advisor will need to do some over-rides for you.  Also, because classes here finish in June, your home university will not be able to report that you have successfully completed your classes by the end of the spring semester in the USA.  This will throw a spanner into the works of financial aid and scholarships, and, again, will require over-rides.  Knowing that these things will happen, and that there is a system in place to correct them, is important for your peace of mind.  

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