I like to present you to some of the similarities and differences between the lectures that I experience here at KAIST and those I have experienced in Copenhagen, Germany and high school.
One of my considerations when choosing Korea as my destination for going on exchange was that I could see from different resources that the education system is more traditional than the one we have in Denmark and Germany. Also the relation between the people and hence between teachers and students is more strict. The students do conform to the rules the teacher sets in a higher extend without questioning his/her authority (though female teachers seem to be much more rare here). So going to lectures feels very much like going to school with a teacher which starts by calling out the students names to check attendance (or having an assistant doing that) and then everybody listens to the teacher which may ask a few real questions along the way (and a lot of rhetorical questions, which you shouldn’t answer) or pointing out students to test if they follow the teachers talk and have them repeat what has just been told. I have such a teacher and we are 3 international students and the teacher preferably picks us for some reason.
Back in the “good old school days” it was similar with a teacher explaining the topic at the blackboard and giving homework to the students which has to be handed in. Regarding the homework it is also pointed out here at KAIST that it has to be solved individually. Showing your work to others is not permitted. Just like school…
This way of learning is a reason why I wanted to try Korea as my exchange destination. I wanted to try university in the way school worked and the reality doesn’t disappoint.
I liked going to school and I liked the way school worked: Having a clear structure and exactly knowing what is expected of me. Here at KAIST it turns out that you can get extra points for your answers by coming up with original ideas instead of only repeating the textbook answer, which by itself would already give you the full score. In Denmark I feel, coming up with your own ideas is just a general expectation rather than a rarity. In Denmark you can’t “over-do” things and the relation to the teachers is different with the student being accepted as an almost equally qualified expert at the end of the course. The teachers often have more experience and more knowledge, but the ideas that students can come up with are taken serious. Teachers in Denmark seem to be more aware of that students can come up with new ideas and concept which may be important to research. Here in Korea I feel that students are treated more like children which still have a lot to learn and are not yet ready to come up with their own ideas, even though some of our assignments, especially the term project, ask us to come up with new ideas.
My memories and experiences from school are now repeating here at KAIST. I’m one of the most active and well-prepared students in my courses (at least compared to the other international students) and this is exactly what I had planned. I wanted to proof to myself that I can be this well-prepared and active student which I have been back in school. The memories from school are the following: A structured and reliable timetable that I could and had to follow and I knew exactly what homework I had and when it was finished (because it was a well defined task, for example: “Find 3 authors from the 1980s”). We also had homework where we had to read a certain part of the book before classes.
But despite this very static structure which I liked there was the social and feedback component. Being well-prepared not only involved the joy of learning new things, but it also involved the positive feedback from the teacher and the feeling of being ahead of the class. Being ahead of the class is a very ambivalent feeling, at least for me. Positive is the feeling of doing well and the work paying of, which means that by working harder I can get more positive feedback. Back in school, at least part of my school time, I have been popular among the other students when they needed help with a subject. A very extreme example of that was for example the history classes in 7th and 8th grade, where the teacher in the beginning of class would hand out worksheet for the chapter of the book which we were supposed to read and then let us leave the classroom to return after some 30 minutes. We were going together in a quite large group and the procedure was often the same: I would fill out the worksheet while the others were talking and 5 minutes before we had to get back I would hand over the solution to my classmates. The teacher never noticed and it made me a very popular kid to be working with in many classes. It gave me a place in the social hierarchy of the class, friends and again the feeling of performing.
Here at KAIST it is similar at least in some extend. I get recognized as being well-prepared and the person to ask if someone has trouble with an exercise. Even though it is not as extreme as in school, since the other students are doing the work by themselves, I like the feeling of being recognized as someone you can ask if you have problems. This is the way my social life worked in school.
And this doesn’t work at the universities in Denmark. People are by themselves often much better prepared and motivated and there are many original ideas which makes it hard to stand out. There are few assignments and you don’t have to attend lectures, and even if you do, you don’t get much feedback. This makes it harder for me to feel integrated. Connections are build though advanced soft-skills which I often to lack.
So far this explained what is positive about the way of learning and living that way. The negative side is the feeling of isolating myself the more I try to do well. My experience from school includes that me being well-prepared created a higher contrast to those being less well-prepared and hence resulted in conflicts and bad talking about me. At least the feeling of this happening. I don’t know exactly how big an issue it was in reality. Providing homework-aid and sending the solution for the homework to my classmates solved the problem in parts, but I always felt like a thread to the others. And now I have the same feeling here. I’m not very communicative and I know I have to force myself to be more open to reduce the chance of conflicts, but it’s just so hard. The feeling of others disliking the way I act in classes to get positive feedback from the teacher and the extra time I spend with home work, striving for perfection, just makes it harder to talk to them. And while I think that this extensive work I put into the work I hand in is isolating me, I feel that it is not good enough and needs more effort (and more efficiency).
Bottom line: Being here brings me back to my school days with all the good and bad feelings, habits and memories it involved back in time.