Rebecca Lawson discusses the different teaching styles she experienced while on the Advanced Russian Language and Area Studies Program in Moscow as a Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad scholarship recipient.
Before going to Russia, I didn’t know what to expect when it came to my classes. How would they be structured? How intense would they really be? Would the teachers be nice or would they be like the stereotypical stern Russian? Would the classes be too hard and would I fail miserably? How much would I really improve my language skills? I had all of these questions looming in my head as I went to my pre-departure orientation. There, we were told how the classes were structured and how they were quite a bit different than classes here in the U.S. But naturally I was still nervous. This was a very new experience for me and I didn’t know how I would do. However, once I got to Russia it didn’t take me long to adjust to the new teaching structure – it seemed to be a structure that felt natural to me.
While in Moscow I studied at Moscow International University – the first private school built in Russia. MIU was established by Mikhail Gorbachev and George H. W. Bush in 1991. The vast majority of classes were focused on language, and culture was integrated within these classes as well. My classes included Culture, Grammar, Phonetics, Conversation, Video (a class where we watched and discussed Russian movies), Internet (a class where we focused on politics and modern day issues), and Dance (yes – we got to learn Russian dances!). The courses were taught fully in Russian, but occasionally a teacher would clarify something in English to help us understand if they felt they needed to do so. However, many of the teachers knew very little to no English and would try to find creative ways to explain things to us in Russian. Although this was much more time consuming and at times frustrating, it did give us a chance to really work on our Russian language and problem solving skills – almost like solving a riddle in Russian.
I had class 4 days a week – Monday through Thursday. On Fridays, our whole study abroad cohort went on an excursion together. A typical day for me lasted from 9 AM to 3 or 4 PM. The days were long but it was true immersion and I learned a lot. All of our classes were in small groups – either 3 or 4 students per group. This meant we had a lot of time and opportunities to interact with each other and with our teachers. It also allowed us to get to know each other well and for the teachers to really get to know our strengths and weaknesses. Although some classes were lectures, most of the classes were structured in a workshop or discussion style which allowed us to interact with the material way more than I am used to doingin an American classroom. This gave the teachers the freedom to customize and individualize what they are teaching to what our weaknesses were as students. It also made class feel much more personal and meaningful since we didn’t just breeze through pre-selected topics. We had some say in what our topics were and we sat on topics for as long as we needed to in order to understand them.
In Russia, examinations and grades are not nearly as important as they are in the United States. In general, a teacher will grade their student based on how much they think the student has learned and how much they have improved – not just on a set of exam grades. This method of evaluation takes such a load off of students’ shoulders and doesn’t allow a bad grade on a bad day to determine an entire semesters’ worth of work. When I first learned about this, I thought that teachers would just give a good grade no matter what, and that as long as you show up you will pass. This idea of not having a strict guideline to earning a grade was quite foreign to me. But I realized that this was not true at all. We were all expected to do our assignments and make an effort. The teachers would be very disappointed in students for not doing their work and not coming to class prepared. It was possible to earn a lower grade for not doing homework and not coming to class. By not doing the assignments, it showed the teachers that you were not putting in an effort and not learning anything new. This is what their grades are based on – not whether you could pass an exam that you most likely crammed for on one day of the semester. Your incremental improvement and continued dedication is what earned you a good grade. This ties right into the small class sizes – because we had such an individualized approach to our studies, the teachers really saw how we have improved and really saw who was dedicated and who was not. This is not to say we didn’t have exams everyone had at least one. But many times these exams were done not because the teachers felt that they were appropriate evaluation materials but rather because the American grading system is based strongly on exams and they felt they needed to provide us with them.
In the end I felt that the teaching structure was generally very good for my style of learning. I have always been one to be nervous about exams and not always the best test-taker. This has lead to frustration when seeing really dumb mistakes I have made on exams in the past that inevitably lowered my whole course grade. The flexibility and personalization of the courses in Russia took that burden off of my shoulders and allowed me to fully focus on the assignments on a day to day basis. Although the courses were difficult at times and my days were very intense, I was able to get through them and I learned and improved so much. The teachers were all very lovely and kind people who really cared abouttheir students and wanted us to be successful. They put in a lot of work to be sure we understood concepts and got everything out of the classes that we could. I hope someday I will again have the opportunity to study in Russia!
About Fulbright-Hays Scholarships from American Councils
American Councils for International Education has received a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad, to provide scholarships for advanced overseas Russian and Persian language study. Learn more about the eligibility requirements here.
About Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad
The Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act, commonly referred to as the Fulbright-Hays Act, was made law by the 87th U.S. Congress under President John F. Kennedy on September 21, 1961. Senator J. William Fulbright and Representative Wayne Hays introduced the legislation, which represents the basic charter for U.S. government-sponsored educational and cultural exchange. 2016 marks the 55th anniversary of this landmark legislation. More information about Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad can be found here.