Academic Differences You Will Face While Studying in Northern Ireland

One of the less exciting things you will learn while studying abroad is that another country’s academic system can be very different, sometimes in ways you may not expect. This is a little (or maybe a lot) confusing at first. But don’t worry you WILL get used to it. Here we have complied a list of some of the biggest academic differences you will encounter as an American studying in Northern Ireland, plus some tips on how to deal with them.


  1. Different Class Structure – Lessons in Northern Irish Universities will typically take the form of lectures and tutorials/seminars. Lectures are formal presentations given by subject experts to large groups of students. Tutorials and seminars involve much smaller groups of students (typically 8-15) who discuss and apply topics introduced in lectures, under the guidance of a tutor. Typically, a student may have two lectures and one tutorial per week for each module taken.
  2. Different Workload – Generally, you will not be continually assessed, as you have been in the US, while studying in Northern Ireland. Greater weighting is put on final exams and it is rare to get homework that counts towards your final grade. For example, your grade may be made up of a final exam (70% of your grade) and a paper (30% of your grade).
  3. Extra Credit is Basically Unheard of in Northern Ireland – If students fail an exam they have to repeat it in the summer time. There are no options for extra credit to bring up your grade, so make sure you are fully prepared the first time you sit your exams!
  4. The Grading System is Really Different – In Northern Ireland exam results will usually be given as percentages rather than letter grades. You will also hear people talking about degree classifications (a 1st, a 2:1, a 2:2 etc) ;
    GPA Module Mark (%) Degree Classification
    4 70+ First class honours (First)
    3.7 65-69 Upper-second class honours (2:1)
    3.3 60-64 Upper-second class honours (2:1)
    3 55-59 Lower-second class honours (2:2)
    2.7 50-54 Lower-second class honours (2:2)
    2.3 45-49 Third class honours (Third)
    2 40-44 Third class honours (Third)
    1/0 0-39 Fail

    Therefore, a 70% is considered to be really excellent work and really difficult to achieve. So, if you are sitting on a 1st or a 2:1 well done! You are doing really well, so don’t be disappointed if you are used to getting higher percentages at home.

  5. Picking Classes – Universities in Northern Ireland focus on depth over breadth of study. Usually, there are compulsory classes students must take specific to their field of study. Students do not pick a major while studying at university, they decide what they want to study and apply for \a specific degree before they even arrive to university. Therefore, students’ classes will be very specific to their chosen degree and they cannot take more general, unrelated classes or change majors while at university.
  6. Don’t Skip Classes! – The size of your lectures might be a lot larger than what you are used to at home, depending on what classes you take. This sense of anonymity can make skipping lectures a lot more tempting, because who would notice if you’re only 1 of 100 students? Honestly, it doesn’t matter if you lecturer notices or not because in the long run it will be you not your lecturer who is suffering when you are failing exams.
  7. Independent Study – You may feel like you have less hours of class then what you are used to. This is because a bigger emphasis is placed on independent study. So even if you don’t have that much time scheduled for inside the classroom, you still need to organize yourself, making time for reviewing your lecture notes, additional reading and preparing for tutorials.
  8. Don’t be Afraid to Ask for Help – Sometimes bigger classes can leave students feeling more reluctant to ask questions or say if they don’t understand something. If you don’t want to ask a question in front of a large hall filled with people, don’t worry, you can arrange to met lecturers during their office hours.

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