Academic Issues

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The educational system in the United States is most likely different from the educational system in your home country. In order to avoid confusion and misunderstanding regarding the differences in terminology and expectations, we have listed the definitions of some important academic terms that are commonly used in the U.S.

Academic Conduct: Standards
Americans value originality and individual achievement highly. This is reflected in the focus on original thinking in class discussions and in the rules of academic honesty. The most important rule of academic honesty is that a student must be evaluated only on the basis of their own original work. If students violate this rule by passing off the work of other people as their own, they are committing a serious offense called plagiarism. Plagiarism may result in a student's dismissal from the University. If you are ever in doubt about whether you may be committing plagiarism by using someone else's words or ideas, see your instructor/professor and clarify the matter immediately.

Academic Year
The academic year at WSU is divided into three semesters (generally September-December; January-May; and May-August). Each semester is 16 weeks in length. This includes one week for final examinations. There are three semesters in each academic year. Summer sessions are held beginning in May and end in August. There are several terms in the summer session: Spring Semester lasting 8 weeks from May - June, Spring/Summer lasting 13 weeks from May August and Summer lasting 8 weeks from June - August. Most student take classes in the Fall and Winter terms, and take a break from classes during the months of May-August, but some may choose to study.

An assignment is out-of-class work required by a professor; for example, reading books or writing a paper or lab report, which is usually due by a certain date.

Course Load
International students on F-1 and J-1 nonimmigrant status are required by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS; formerly known as the INS - Immigration and Naturalization Services) to be enrolled full time. Undergraduates must take 12 credit hours, and Graduate students must take 8 credit hours. Graduate assistants must take at least 6 credit hours. Other exceptions must be recommended in writing by the academic adviser and approved by OISS.
Please not that receiving a grade of W or X means that you will not receive credit for that course. Make sure that you check with an advisor at OISS before you take a W or an X for a class.

One or more tests given around the middle of the semester.

Exam given at the end of a semester usually accounting for a significant portion of your grade.

A letter used to measure the quality of a student's academic work. While grades vary some between graduate and undergraduate programs, a typical grading scale is indicated below:

A (excellent)
B (above average)
C (average)
D (lowest acceptable)
F (fail)

Each letter grade corresponds to a numeric value on a scale from 0.0 to 4.0, in which an A corresponds to 4.0. A student's academic success is measured through the cumulative grade-point-average, which is computed by dividing the total number of points earned by the total number of credit hours taken.

For undergraduate students, a major constitutes an area or concentration of study.

Registrar (
Official recorder of a student's academic information, such as courses taken and grades received. Contact this office if you have questions regarding tuition and fees or the academic calendar.
Phone: (313) 577-3550

Transcript (
A record of courses taken and grades received by a student. Official transcripts are important documents and can be requested from the Registrar's Office located at 5057 Woodward - Maccabees - Suite 5101.

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This section will give you an overview of expectations and behavior commonly viewed as "American." Reviewing this section will decrease the confusion you may feel due to cultural differences.


Time Orientation: To Americans, time is valuable and must be used carefully and productively. Americans expect promptness or "being on time" in both academic and social settings.

Work Orientation: Americans place a high value on hard work; they judge people by how hard they work and how task oriented they are. Some believe that people achieve results on the basis of how hard they work.

Achievement Orientation: A very high value is placed on a person's accomplishments and productivity. Individuals evaluate themselves and are evaluated by others in terms of their achievements and accomplishments.

Individualism: Americans view themselves first and foremost as individuals with both freedom and responsibility to manage their own lives, make their own decisions and accomplish their own goals. Families and friends are important, but individuals are expected to first consider their own needs, desires, and values. In this culture, people are not comfortable being obligated to or dependent on others.

Direct Communication and Problem Solving: A strong value is placed on direct and straightforward communication. When problems arise between individuals, Americans prefer to discuss them openly and solve them. Americans will say "yes" or "no" to questions even if the answer might hurt someone's feelings.

Pragmatism: Americans are very practical and like ideas that are seen as "useful." This goes together with the orientation toward work and achievement. You must be able to relate "theory" to "practice."

The values listed above shape the academic environment in the following ways:

  1. Active classroom participation is expected.
  2. Time pressure is high, and time management is an important skill to develop.
  3. Critical thinking must be developed.
  4. Independent thinking is highly valued.
  5. Presenting ideas articulately in class is expected.
  6. Assignments (reading, writing, homework, tests) are numerous.
  7. Competition is a normal part of most students' thinking.
  8. Achievement and hard work are highly valued: the finished product is most important.
  9. Self-reliance - students must be responsible for themselves.
  10. Equality - all students should be treated equally.
  11. Informality is normal.
  12. Direct and straightforward communication is expected.
  13. Friendship is usually based on doing things in common - sports, studying, etc.
  14. Combining theory and practice - the practical application of ideas is emphasized.
  15. Problem-solving orientation - "If it's broken, we ought to be able to fix it."
  16. The scientific method and the use of logical proof are emphasized academically.
A friend is anyone from a passing acquaintance to a lifetime intimate. A friend is someone with whom one is very close.
Friends are often limited to an area of common interest, such as work, school, or recreation.
A friendship embraces the whole person.
Friends get together to enjoy an activity together. Friends gather just to be together.
Someone with a problem may go to a professional (i.e. counselor) for help. Someone with a problem goes to a friend or family member for help at any time.
Friends are changed if they do not live up to our expectations or standards of behavior. One tolerates a lot from someone who is a friend.
Friendships cross genders. Friendships are mostly with the same gender.
Friendships cross generations. Friendships are mostly with people of the same age group.
One schedules time to see friends. Friends are available at any time.
Americans act friendly. People who don't know each other maintain a formal relationship.

The problem of names and titles
In general, people in the United States are very informal about titles and status. This can make addressing professors, Teaching Assistants (TAs), and staff very confusing for international students and scholars. Do you call a professor by a title such as "Dr. Brown," or do you call him or her by first name, such as "Judith," as you may hear other students do? Sometimes it's one way, and sometimes it's another, so it is difficult to tell when each is appropriate. When dealing with professors and TA's, it is best to use their titles -"Professor, Doctor, Mr., or Ms." - unless they tell you otherwise. Often instructors will tell you on the first day of class what they would like to be called. You may also ask them how they would like to be addressed. Graduate students, especially graduate assistants and TAs, are more likely than undergraduates to be on a first-name basis with their professors. And most professors are on a first-name basis with each other. Office staff, receptionists, and secretaries are almost always on a first-name basis with students. It is most important to remember that informality is not an indication of disrespect. It is more an indication of mutual respect, equality, and a willingness to engage in open dialogue and intellectual exchange.

Dealing with organizations
We have all experienced frustration in dealing with organizations. This frustration is often worse in a foreign country. When this frustration is combined with common misperceptions that many international students and scholars have about the roles and status of office personnel in their host country, there can be serious misunderstandings. The following guidelines can help in getting things done.

Guidelines for getting things done

  • First, be respectful of all employees. In the United States, secretaries and receptionists are important people. They often have power to make decisions, and they often have the information you need.
  • Second, remember that in the United States, rules really are followed, and procedures are not often negotiable. Arguing or demanding to see someone "in charge" will not lead to success. It is more effective to explain exactly what you need and what kind of problem you have been having, and ask, "What do I do now?" or "Is there someone who could help me?" Even though employees usually can't "bend the rules"; if they like you, they are more likely to put a little extra energy into problem solving.
  • Third, if you follow procedures and instructions carefully, a lot of time and energy can be saved. In the U.S., many things are done over the phone or through the mail, making a personal visit unnecessary. Take the names and phone numbers of people you talk to, in case some delay or complication does arise and you need further help.

Adapted by S. Smith from American Ways by Gary Althen, University of Iowa.

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