Academic Life in the United States
Explore every opportunity that your education at the University of Cincinnati offers.
New students must take in a lot of information as they learn to navigate the university system. As an international student, you have even more wayfinding to do in your new country and new university.
To help you understand U.S. academic culture, this page pulls together a quick overview of information you will find in dozens of links about student responsibilities, rights and resources on the University of Cincinnati’s campus life and student code of conduct and community standards pages.
It will give you a basic picture of
- Classroom culture and expectations in the U.S.
- Academic support staff and resources
- Useful library resources
- Classes and social groups to practice your English
Most of these resources are available for all students. Take advantage of them and explore further links throughout UC’s website.
Some of the staff and offices listed on this page exist specifically to support international students. Come and introduce yourself! We are proud to have you here and want you to succeed.
U.S. academic culture
Academic culture here may not be the same as what you are used to at home. Some international students describe U.S. higher education as less theoretical, more career-focused, more flexible and more independent. The differences can seem exciting or chaotic!
In U.S. universities, some courses (especially large, introductory ones) are lecture-based. But most classrooms rely on dialogue.
- Most of your professors will expect you to participate in classroom discussions. They want to hear your thoughts and gauge your understanding of the material you have been studying. So push yourself to speak up more than you are used to, even if you are distance learning online. Class participation may count as part of your grade. (You may be surprised to hear other students offer opinions even if they have not prepared for the class.)
In both lecture and dialogue classes, professors usually add independent work to help you learn the course content.
- Your professors may ask you to research related material and synthesize it with readings they have assigned. Research and citation skills are a major part of what they want you to take from your university education here. It is especially important that you learn to avoid plagiarism when you research and cite the work of others.
- Your professors may assign you to work on projects to reinforce your learning of the course material. Client-based or service-learning projects are common real-world testing grounds where you will practice the theory you are learning.
- They may assign you group work. Major projects are very often done in groups, so working with your classmates is as important as communicating with your professors. It can help you practice your language skills.
These basic tools are important resources in U.S. classrooms.
- Syllabus: This important document lists the course learning objectives; required readings, assignments, projects and exams and what proportion of your grade is based on them; the schedule for the course components; attendance and other expectations, as well as links to UC guides to student rights and responsibilities; and contact information for the professor and any teaching assistants (TAs). Use it to understand the course requirements and to plan your work for the semester.
- Email: This is the main channel your professors will use to communicate with you, so check it often.
Instructors and academic program staff
In U.S. classrooms and college offices, people in many roles as instructors, advisors and administrators can help you with different aspects of your coursework and your academic program. Just ask if you are not sure who is the right person to assist you.
The academic structure of professorial tenure and research and teaching career tracks is complex. It differs in the U.S. from other countries; it differs across the U.S., too.
In the U.S., the relationship between professors and students is basically regarded as a business relationship, based on academic and professional mentorship, rather than a familial one. At the same time, it is often much less formal than it is in some other countries.
All of that can leave you a little unsure how to talk to your teachers!
In general, start by calling your teachers “Professor” (whatever their rank) unless they ask you to call them by another title or sign their emails with a different title in front of their name. Some prefer you to use their first name or a shorthand title like “Dr. Ami.”
Professors schedule weekly office hours. Introduce yourself early in the term. That way, you'll feel more comfortable if you need to talk about a problem with your coursework.
Use the office hours to ask questions, discuss coursework and request assistance before you fall behind. Request a separate appointment if you want to have a longer conversation about academic goals or professional mentorship.
When you talk to or email your professor, be direct and to the point. Keep the conversation focused on class questions or problems.
If you find it hard to prepare for that kind of conversation, contact Lorri Blanton, one of our international student support specialists. She can help you with cross-cultural communication problems.
In large classes, graduate teaching assistants are also available to help you progress through the course. They grade assignments and run labs, clinics and practice sessions. They may sometimes know your work better than your professor does. Ask them for help if you don’t understand the course material or an assignment.
In general, talking with TAs is much more casual than talking with your professors, since TAs are students, too.
Beyond the classroom, the staff in your college and program offices can help solve other problems or answer questions about schedules, assistantships, the course catalog and many other college and program matters. They are also knowledgeable about the university as a whole and can help direct you to appropriate support staff and resources.
Generally, you can contact office staff without an appointment to ask for assistance. As very busy people, they appreciate direct and courteous communication.
Your undergraduate academic advisor is another important person for you to know outside the classroom. Universities you are familiar with at home may not have advisors in this role, as their programs may not offer as many paths or electives at the undergraduate level as typical U.S. universities do.
Academic advisors help you judge whether you are making good progress toward your degree and can help you make good choices when you sign up for your courses each term. Make an appointment to speak to your advisor at least once or twice a year.
Thesis or doctoral advisors offer guided progress and continuous feedback for graduate students as they do in universities around the world.
At every level of the university, you will find additional staff and resources to help you succeed here at UC.
Again, we encourage you to explore all of the links on the campus life page and to ask for help as soon as you need it. Don’t wait until you are struggling.
Kelly Plazibat in the UC International office is just one of the people who can help if you are having trouble with your academic work. She offers workshops and resources about topics like classroom differences, how to write emails for academic purposes and how to talk to your professors. You can email her for advice about a problem, too.
You will meet Kelly at some of UC International’s social events!
This free resource gives access to a large library of interactive tutorials for business, technical and creative topics. Learn new software, master personal skills like time management, develop career strengths—all at your own pace.
In U.S. higher education, independent research, including library research, is very important.
The University of Cincinnati's library system offers a huge variety of resources and services to support your research and learning.
The International Students' Library Resources Guide will help you make the most of your library experience. It is one of the hundreds of guides that UC librarians have developed to help students with common research questions.
One very important issue that UC’s librarians teach is how to avoid plagiarism when you collect and cite or quote information from print, audio, video or digital sources in your academic papers or other work.
Learning how to research multiple sources or viewpoints, synthesize them into a logical or persuasive argument and provide appropriate documentation for their original sources is one of the critical skills that U.S. universities teach. Improperly citing information can lead to charges of academic misconduct, with serious consequences that can include failing a course.
This tutorial will help you understand the standards and conventions for correct citation.
Subject librarians specialize in the knowledge of the resources and research techniques for specific subjects.
They create the library's bank of online research guides and tutorials to help you find and use library resources more effectively. (You can find the tutorials in the drop-down search for all guides.)
They can also help if you can't find what you need in the existing guides or in your search of the library's physical and online collections of books, articles, journals, databases and other resources. Contact them for assistance with your class assignments and research projects.
Meet the library specialists who work directly with international students.
They create resources, workshops and tutorials to help familiarize you with all aspects of the U.S. academic research process.
Even students who have many years of classroom English find the adjustment to U.S. and college slang a little challenging, on top of learning the specialized vocabulary of their academic discipline. Fortunately, UC has many language resources for international students.
The Graduate School has even compiled a brief glossary of UC jargon!
UC offers language courses you can take before and after you arrive on campus to improve your English.
ACE (Accelerated College English) is UC's in-house English proficiency program, an accelerated program that allows students to begin studying toward their desired major immediately while they take language and culture courses in their first year. International students apply for ACE as part of the admissions process.
Social groups for language practice
One of the best ways to improve your English is just to talk to people!
Join one of our conversation groups or get together with other international students and Americans through the IPALS and other student groups. You'll find a warm welcome and plenty to talk about.
UC International's English as a Second Language conversation group draws people from around the campus and around Cincinnati, including students, professors and spouses and community members. The group often organizes out-of-class activities around Cincinnati, too.
The group is coordinated by Bene Khoury, a former study abroad advisor in the UC International office who now works in the University Honors Program.
The group meets 5:30-7 p.m. via WebEx on Thursdays while school is in session. Check their Facebook page for locations or online chat updates.