And That’s How They Do It in Ireland

In which is given a brief account of the differences between the American and Irish educational structures, higher education in general is found to be very difficult and stressful and not much makes sense at all.

Having made it through one whole week of education at the University of Limerick, I will now attempt to describe how going to school as a study abroad student here is different from back in the U.S. First of all, classes here are referred to as “modules” and are divided into two different kind of sessions for each module: lectures and tutorials. Lectures are the kind of sit-down-and-listen-to-teacher-speak classes that most American students know. You are required to sign up for all the lecture sessions for a module. Tutorials break the class down into smaller groups and are more discussion-based. There are multiple tutorial time slots for each class and you are required to sign up for one of them. The average module has two lectures and one tutorial per week, but science classes come with labs and language classes may have more (my Japanese class has four lectures and two tutorials a week!).

Not too puzzled yet? No worries, that’s just the beginning. Once you know which classes you want, you need to check the module timetable and sort out your schedule. This task is hard enough at home where most classes that follow fairly predictable Monday-Wednesday-Friday or Tuesday-Thursday patterns and each class is at the same time, in the same room. Not so at UL…today your  class may be from 1-2 in the afternoon in the Schrodinger Building, but tomorrow it will take place from 4-5 in Block B of the Main Building. That’s right, classes switch times, rooms, buildings and even teachers. I have three different teachers for Japanese. If you can memorize each time and location after just one week, great…but check the timetable again to make sure one of them won’t switch after Week 4. Pay attention in class for announcements on weeks without tutorials and so forth.

On a side note, the Main Building of UL is itself a force to be reckoned with. New students would do well to spend some time just walking around in it to see what goes where before they have 5 minutes to find a class and no idea how to get there. The building is made up of five blocks (A, B, C, D, E) and six levels (G, O, M, 1, 2, and 3). Some of the blocks are connected, but for some you need to go outside around the building or through the center courtyard. Only blocks A and B have a level 3, but only D, E, and F have a G level. B Block is probably the trickiest, since you will find a sign proclaiming “B Block =>” and follow it through a cafeteria/food court area only to find a sign that says “B Block <=” If you only go through the cafeteria like a lost puppy twice before noticing the small hallway off a landing that leads to a couple of classrooms, consider it a job well done.

Granted, Irish students don’t exactly have to deal with the hassle of trying to sort a timetable on their own. They have set classes they take according to their major and the ideas of minors and general education requirements are uncommon. They simply receive a schedule and show up at the listed rooms and times, sometimes without knowing what class they are going to until they get there. Only when they get to the higher levels of their studies do they sometimes choose electives. But for those of us who may be majoring in a social science with a hard science minor and STILL have to find time to jam in a literature requirement, this is how the story goes. Study abroad students are also allowed to attend and try out any class they like for two weeks before turning in a final registration sheet…JUST in case you’d like a little more variability in your academics! 😀

Once you’ve settled on your classes, then the differences in class structure and studying requirements may hit you. Irish teachers (or lecturers) don’t really assign much homework. Most of your grade is dependent on a final essay and maybe a midsemester project or essay thrown in. You are more or less expected to prepare for this on your own by reading the books recommended by your lecturer. Most people will tell you not to buy text books, but the occasional lecturer will demand that you do so anyway.

Yes, the Irish university system is a new and different beastie with teeth in places you don’t expect. In addition to all that, there are the typical university administrative issues: getting your e-mail to work, getting your ID to work at the library self-checkout, making sure you are on the online class management system SULIS. All in all, I generally conclude that all universities, despite being centers of higher learning, are in a state of mild dysfunction at any given time.

But that’s how they do it in Ireland.

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