The first thoughts that come to mind when we think of spending a semester studying abroad usually run along the lines of traveling to new and exotic places, meeting new people and trying new things you’d never find back home in the States. Oddly enough though, we rarely include actually studying and taking classes on that list. While admittedly, studying for exams probably won’t be the most fun you’ll have while abroad, if you come at it with the approach, you might end up actually enjoying your time with those textbooks.
1. Café Crawl
If you’re in a city like Edinburgh, you’re likely to encounter quite a few cafes and coffee shops. So rather than limiting yourself to just pub crawls, try a few coffee crawls, (or park, bookstore or museum crawls, or wherever your studying preference may be). I’m personally a fan of coffee shops and cafes, so instead of holing myself up in my flat or the library this first week of classes, which yes, if you study in Edinburgh you will be expected to do actual work starting the first day of classes (and in some cases, before the first day), my flat mates and I spent our Friday morning and Sunday on café crawls, where we tried out the local cafes and coffee shops in search of the perfect studying spot. Not only did it give us a chance to explore the area and hit the books, but it also gave us a taste of the local cuisine and native favorites, like apricot scones and various teas and hot chocolates. It was quite a good learning experience in terms of local culture as well. For example, although not as rampant as the stereotypes would suggest, tea tends to be the preferred and usually less expensive drink of choice here. Also, coffee here typically follows the European example, rather than the American, so a warning for anyone who prefers just a plain cup of coffee in the morning: it’s hard to find. Since plain brewed coffee isn’t a common drink here, if you go into a café and ask for a cup of coffee, the person behind the counter will ask you what kind. If you’re going for plain black coffee, an Americano or a Long Black is usually the best option, but they both vary between shops in what they actually mean, so don’t be afraid to ask.
If you do happen to be studying in Edinburgh or just visiting and need a nice place to grab something to drink and read a book here are my personal recommendations:
1. Beanscene Coffee and Music House
2. Press Coffee
3. Black Medicine Coffee Co.
(All of which are located in the George Square campus.)
2. Take Advantage of Supplemental Learning Resources
This one is pretty simple, especially if you are in Edinburgh. Utilize the unique off-campus resources, like the free national museums like the National Museum or the National Gallery, historical sites like the Edinburgh Castle or the Underground, historical tours, or local and national nature reserves like the Hermitage of Braid. There are usually at least one or two sites that are relevant to whatever you’re studying and since much of the UK education system is based on self-guided study, it is a great way to immerse yourself into the material, as well as the local culture and history, without having to read a book for hours. Or at the very least, it gives you an excuse to do all the touristy-things without having to actually be a tourist.
3. Make Studying a Learning Experience
As I just mentioned, the UK education system is much different than that of the US. Courses are based on self-guided study, which means you have much less class and homework assignments, but are expected to do much more work on your own, including personal research and background reading. Now that can be rather intimidating, but it can also be a great way to explore other ways of teaching, explore your own areas of interest, and maybe even give you some useful preparation and perspective for your thesis or grad school.
4. Learn from a Local Perspective
In addition to experiencing a new teaching style, studying abroad is a great way to get a new perspective on a subject you already study or to learn about something unique to your location. For example, one of the courses I am taking this semester is Conservation Management. Granted, this doesn’t exactly seem like a typical local-perspective based course like Scottish History or Gaelic Culture, but as one of Europe’s leaders in conservation and the sustainability, Edinburgh, and Scotland more generally, offers a very different approach and perspective on conservation methods and techniques that I would never be able to learn or engage with back home. Classes like this are also a great way to learn about related historical, political or cultural aspects of your location without having to take a history or politics course. In my case, the conservation course gives insight to cultural values, historical events that have shaped the current state of affairs and political policies like the establishment of the Scottish National Nature Reserves System and Scotland’s role in international conservation efforts and planning. If you’re not interested in or not able to explore new perspectives, studying abroad is also a great time to take a completely random course unique to your location, like Medieval Scottish History or Scottish Pict Archaeology.
5. Don’t be Afraid of a Challenge
Last, but certainly not least, don’t be afraid to challenge yourself with difficult courses while abroad. For many programs you have the option of take first or second year courses in addition to the upper-level courses. Sure, introductory courses are easier and allow you more time for non-academic pursuits, but they also limit your opportunities. At the University of Edinburgh at least, many of the upper-level courses not only offer smaller, more engaging classes, which means you actually get to meet and get to know new people, but also more chances to take advantage of the unique opportunities in the city and university. For example, my Conservation Management course (a fourth-year course) brings in guest speakers every week from all over Scotland to teach us about policies, methods and current issues in conservation. Similarly, my Principles of Ecology course (a third-year course) involves an in-depth project at a local nature reserve and my Plant Evolution course (a fourth-year course) includes visits to several Scottish agricultural and botanical research sites, including the Royal Botanical Gardens. Of course, these upper-level classes obviously involve more work and can be rather challenging depending on your background, but it’s a fair trade-off for the immersion opportunities that you cannot get with a 200 person introductory lecture.