Diana in Copenhagen: The Difference Between Danish and American Classes

While I’ve written a lot about the “abroad” aspect of studying abroad, I would now like to pay some attention to the “study” component. I’ve found that academics in Denmark, more specifically at Copenhagen Business School (CBS), are strikingly different from what I’m familiar with back in the States. CBS has over 20, 000 students attending the university, which is significantly more than the 3,000 undergraduate ones at Richmond.

Despite the large discrepancy in total enrollment, the class sizes are not grossly different from school to school. I’m currently taking three classes, all lectures, and will have a fourth starting halfway through the semester. Just one of these lectures is overwhelmingly large and fits my expectations for a school that’s roughly seven times the size of the one I’m used to. The other two are comparably sized to those I see in the Robins School, though, and professors engage students by asking questions and knowing the names of some class attendees.

This is my biggest class but it should give you an idea of what class sizes are like. I took this right after our teacher called our first break. We usually get 2-3 breaks every class because each lecture is about three hours long!

This is my biggest class but it should give you an idea of what class sizes are like. I took this right after our teacher called our first break. We usually get 2-3 breaks every class because each lecture is about three hours long!

 

All of my teachers teach from a PowerPoint and students take notes on their computers.

All of my teachers teach from a PowerPoint and students take notes on their computers.

The reason why class sizes seem so comparable, however, is because far fewer students actually attend lectures from week to week. Teachers say things like, “Now pull up the Excel spreadsheet to work on problems. If you don’t want to participate you can go take your break now” during class. No attendance is taken. No homework is checked. There are no quizzes, papers, or midterms, and one hundred percent of your final grade is your exam score. There is barely any accountability throughout the semester to keep up with your studies despite the looming thought of that four-hour long written examination at the end of the course. And even that is usually open book!

This system is completely different from ones I’ve experienced in attending small private schools all my life. I have never been granted the anonymity that accompanies large lecture halls with countless unfamiliar faces and I’ve always been expected to do work and participate. Since first grade, my class sizes have been small and I’ve had teachers who saw it as their job (well, because it was) to keep engagement high and ensure students learn the material at every step.

At Richmond, there are some professors who believe that their students are truly adults and therefore expect more independence from them. In my experience, however, this means that those professors don’t walk around and check homework, but instead use checkpoints throughout the course to keep their students accountable. They utilize tools like papers, quizzes, and midterms to ensure that the work is always being completed. The expectation of independence in Denmark is astounding compared to the standard I’ve seen back home.

In the Danish classroom, if a teacher asks a question that results in silence they will not cold call (randomly choosing a student to respond), but rather answer the question themselves. Yet again, this differs from what I’ve come to expect in America. I vividly remember my first class in the Business School, Microeconomics with the late Dr. Dean. I found him to be an amazing professor, one of the best I’ve had, because of his ability to make me want to excel and impress him. Yes, he had daily quizzes on required readings, but the greater incentive to do well for me was grounded in the fact that he called on his students randomly. You had to come prepared if you wanted to convey your intelligence and avoid the social awkwardness of saying something dumb in front of your peers. I also felt satisfied in answering these questions correctly—it felt as though I had been personally challenged and emerged victorious. I have yet to feel this kind of desire to prove myself and excel in Danish classrooms so far.

This is Solbjerg Plads where I have my Competitiveness and Operations Performance class. It also has a cafe that turns into a bar/nightclub on Thursdays (when is 815 going to start doing that?)

This is Solbjerg Plads where I have my Competitiveness and Operations Performance class. It also has a cafe that turns into a bar/nightclub on Thursdays (when is 8:15 at Boatwright going to start doing that?)

That being said, the Danes handle their structure well. To American students and those who have a similar educational system, the Danish structure seems like a free ride. No homework? No quizzes? No problem! I would analogize the feeling to the freedom that results in the infamous freshman fifteen. Danish class is like D-Hall to a naïve eighteen year old. They have finally escaped the paternal eye and wagging finger that used to stop them from eating froyo for dinner every night and now they answer to no one. Obviously this is not without its negative repercussions.
I like to think that I would better fit in this system if it weren’t so disparate from what I’m accustomed to. That is, if I didn’t experience that wave of freedom I just explained. That being said, I’ve identified three alternate incentives to work hard and do best in the Danish educational system.

  1. Group Projects: I have yet been assigned a group project, but they are quite common in the Danish school system. This activity encourages more work because you are faced with a responsibility to others. It is easy enough to forego reading to your own detriment, but most people respond to the social obligation of not bringing the whole team down with you. You work so you don’t let your classmates down, but end up benefiting yourself in the process too.
  2. Professional Connections: Professors at CBS are highly qualified and connected in their respective fields. Many students are focused and driven to excel professionally and recognize the value of building a relationship with the man or woman who stands at the front of the lecture hall. This means many students work hard to participate in class, speak with professors during breaks, and work diligently in the hopes of building a connection that could lead to a job or internship.
  3. Reduce Myopia: This one is simple in theory but challenging in practice. You can be less nearsighted in academics by looking at your circumstance from two different perspectives. The first is recognizing that even though there are fewer checkpoints along the way in Danish classes, the journey still culminates in an exam. To excel, you must constantly remember that end and disperse work over time to avoid a tsunami of cramming in the final weeks. You can extend your sights even further though and consider why you’re even enrolled in college in the first place. For most, the final goal is not simply to get a good grade in a class, although that is often integral to the process. The driving objective of these classes is to learn and to use your acquired knowledge to find success in life personally, financially, professionally, or otherwise. With long-term objectives like these, you won’t even need a teacher singling you out to keep you on track. Granted that is easier said than done.
    This is one academic building on campus called Kilen. I don't have class here but I think it's absolutely beautiful. The campus also has lots of outside areas like this to relax and you see students hanging out in them all the time.

    This is one academic building on campus called Kilen. I don’t have class here but I think it’s absolutely beautiful. The campus also has lots of outside areas like this to relax and you see students hanging out in them all the time.

    This is the inside of Kilen. I've been amazed at the architecture and design in all of the buildings at CBS and this is certainly one of my favorites.

    This is the inside of Kilen. I’ve been amazed at the architecture and design in all of the buildings at CBS and this is certainly one of my favorites.

The Danish and American higher educational systems have their differences, but each meets the needs of students differently. I have found that I much prefer having methods in place that make me accountable for information before the exam, as they make me work more diligently throughout the semester. With that being said, I can learn and grow in the Danish system and use its approach to improve myself in other ways. It is my hope that I find my own success at this Danish university. I hope to leave Denmark with tools, like self-discipline, that will help me wherever I go.

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