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Do Students Actually Study In Australia?

An Australian faculty member who served on an interview committee for a competitive exchange program in Australia once remarked, “If one more student mentions koalas, kangaroos or Crocodile Dundee, I am packing up my papers and walking out of this room.” As proven by the numbers in which they flock to Australia, U.S. students are fascinated with the land Down Under, even if they are not particularly articulate about the origins of this fascination.

This is as true at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire as it is at other universities across the country. In a typical year, more UW-Eau Claire students study abroad in Australia than in any other country except the United Kingdom.  They typically study at one of two Australian universities with whom we have exchange and study abroad programs, taking 12 credits per semester. 

Perhaps because these programs are so popular, they are widely talked about on campus. While much of the discussion is positive, the study abroad staff hears several comments from faculty each semester about students taking an “academic vacation” in Australia. This led us to take a closer look at study abroad in Australia, specifically in terms of two academic indicators: progress towards graduation and grade point average. It was a valuable exercise which you may wish to undertake on your own campus.

First, some statistics from the 2006-2007 academic year:

In 2006-2007, a total of 70 UW-Eau Claire students studied in Australia. Thirty-two of them were sophomores, 30 were juniors, and 9 were seniors. Overall, 40% of the students completed at least one major or minor requirement; 93% completed at least one general education requirement for graduation.  As would be expected, seniors completed relatively more major and minor requirements, while sophomores completed more general education requirements.

On average, students completed 3.4 graduation requirements during a semester in Australia. This can considered good progress towards graduation. But do they actually have to study in order to make this progress? First, the context: to study abroad in Australia, a UW-Eau Claire student must have a cumulative GPA of at least 2.75. All grades earned abroad on a UW-Eau Claire study abroad program count in a student’s GPA. Grades are converted on a fairly standard scale, with the top two Australian grades both transferring back as “A.” Students are not allowed to take courses pass/fail.  

A survey of the grades our students earn in Australia indicates that they do have to study—or at least that if they do not study, their GPA suffers accordingly. Of the students in Australia during the 2006-2007 academic year, 23% of them earned their lowest semester GPA ever, while 15% of them earned their highest.  A large majority of students, 62%, earned somewhere in the middle.

So it appears that our students in Australia make good progress towards graduation, and their grade point averages reflect, in general, their typical performance at UW-Eau Claire. Why, then, is there a persistent impression on campus that students are on vacation in Australia? There are at least three inter-related factors that contribute to this impression: the Australian academic system; the amount of discretionary time study abroad students have available to them; and student conversational patterns.

The Australian academic system, like British higher education, requires independent, self-motivated learning. Courses generally meet for one 2-hour lecture and one 2-hour tutorial each week, and students are expected to spend 3-4 hours studying for each hour in class. Grades are usually based on two assessments, often a paper and a comprehensive final exam. How students adjust to this system varies. A few comments from program evaluations illustrate the range of opinion: 

“The structure of class work, and the fact that it was more personally driven rather than dictated by the instructor, made a huge difference. I was motivated to look into things for myself and to go above and beyond the requirements.”

“It was nice not having many assignments, but the ones I did have counted for a large percentage of my grade. I felt the teachers were very difficult when it came to grading, so you had to really go beyond the usual standards to do well.”

“There were fewer assignments; however, each assignment was graded harder and heavier. Therefore, I did not like the academics in Australia as well as at UWEC.”

In addition to academic differences, UW-Eau Claire students often experience a major change in the amount of discretionary time available to them. First of all, the majority of our students work while going to school. On the UW-Eau Claire campus, there are 4,400 work-study jobs available, and many more students work at least part-time off campus. While U.S. students are allowed to work in Australia, there is no comparable system of student employment on campus, and part-time jobs in the community are harder to come by. In addition, although many students get involved with Australian student organizations, few of them take on major responsibilities or leadership roles. In short, students find themselves with many more hours of free time while abroad than they have at home.

Finally, according to the National Survey of Student Engagement which is given each year at UW-Eau Claire, 46% of first year students indicate that they “never” talk about topics from class outside of the classroom, and another 40% say they “sometimes” do. Seniors discuss academics somewhat more often: only 27% respond “never”, while 49% respond “sometimes.” But given that academics are not high on the list of student conversational topics while they are one their home campus, is it surprising that students returning from several months of new experiences abroad tend to talk more about travel, cultural differences and new friends than they do about classes?

Cheryl Lochner-Wright is a study abroad coordinator at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

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