U.S. Education 101

photo of international student with parent at graduation

Unlike other countries in which students attend universities and usually have a year long course load with predefined courses to take, the U.S. offers a more flexible path to follow. The average four-year undergraduate study period is divided into these classifications:

  • Major: As the name implies, it consists of the concentration of a student’s workload. This is usually the academic field in which the student decides he or she would like to specialize. The major is also a stepping stone for the master’s degree.
  • Minor: This classification enhances and facilitates the major field of study. Students taking a specific major would usually minor in a field that will help them gain a better understanding of the major. Sometimes, students select a minor in a field that stimulates their interest but does not relate to their major.
  • Core: These are the courses which students are required to take. These courses are usually not related to a student’s major or minor but are necessary to attain a degree. In essence, these are the predefined courses which a student has to follow.
  • Elective: These are the courses a student may choose and are used to complete the number of hours required for a student to graduate. Sometimes students have a choice of electives, which allows them to pursue their hobbies and other interests.

Grade Point Average (GPA)+

Another confusing concept is that of the GPA. Most countries calculate letter grades based on calculating percentages and then assigning a letter grade for appropriate categories. In the United States, the concept of the GPA is based on the number of credit hours attempted and the grades achieved for those hours.

The grades are generally based on percentages: 90%= A, 80%=B, 70%=C, 60%=D, below 60%= F. Each letter grade is provided a specific number of points. A=4; B=3; C=2; D=1; F=0. The GPA is calculated based on the points above and the credit hours. The GPA is the ration of the total accumulated points from the above scale and the total number of credit hours taken.



Tests and Quizzes+

Examination structure varies. Each teacher has his/her own criteria as to how students should be tested on the knowledge they have acquired. Some teachers give mid-term examinations and comprehensive finals. Mid-term exams include the material that has been covered in the class up to a certain point, while comprehensive finals are at the end of the course, and consist of all information that has been taught throughout the term.

As an alternative, some teachers divide their examination pattern into “Test 1, Test 2, etc” format. Test 1 consists of the things that are covered until that test is given. The topics covered in this test are no longer asked for in a later exam.

Quizzes are administered to insure that students are studying for their classes regularly. The quiz results may comprise a small percentage of the total grade. A variance is the pop quiz. Unlike the other quizzes, the pop quiz is unannounced.

Oral Presentations+

Some classes require oral presentations by the student. These presentations may comprise a major percentage of the final grade and require research on the part of the student. A student is expected to give an oral presentation on a specific subject in front of the other class members and obtain a grade for this presentation.

Examination Style – Subjective vs. Objective+

Examinations are divided into these basic categories:

Subjective examinations are also called essay examinations. The questions asked on the exam demand answers of a descriptive nature. Answers may require a brief response or extensive discussion of a particular topic.

Teachers often favor objective examinations. These exams consist of true/false questions; fill in the blanks; matching the correct answers; and short answers. The dominant type is multiple choice exams. One question will have several possible answers, and students will have to select the correct one.

Research Papers+

Sometimes teachers require students to write a 15–20 page research paper pertaining to the course material. These papers might be in lieu of, or in addition to examinations or oral presentations. Students may be permitted to choose their own topic or select a topic from the choices given by the teacher.


A syllabus is an outline of the content of a particular course. Teachers usually distribute the syllabus on the first day of class. The syllabus provides important dates for examinations, the type of examinations, and the course outline. Students must master the material indicated in the syllabus, as that is usually the content of examinations. The syllabus also contains information about the teacher, his/her name, office hours, textbook requirements and any special policies the teacher has regarding the course.

Group Projects vs. Plagiarism+

Group projects may be given in classes when interaction is desired among students. The points for the assignment are given equally to all students involved in the project. Therefore, it is necessary for everyone to provide his or her best input. For group projects, sharing information and material is appropriate. The final project will be a combined effort. Students should not share information on an examination or complete class assignments as a group unless specifically approved by the instructor.

Copying someone else’s material and labeling it as your own is called plagiarism. Plagiarism is cause for severe reprimand. Students must be careful to avoid plagiarism, even if by mistake. Such may lead to course failure or academic suspension.

Academic Warning and Suspension+

If you are struggling with your coursework, you need to be aware of Samford’s policy regarding academic warning/academic probation and academic suspension. If you are experiencing problems with your classes, seek assistance. Consistent academic warnings and probation can result in suspension. Please consult the Samford catalog for the most current information about academic warnings and probation. If you see you are having difficulties seek help. Your advisor will be able to assist you in seeking help in your studies on campus.