Portland Community College | Portland, Oregon

Academic Structure

The System of Higher Education in the U.S. is similar to education systems of other countries, however there are also many differences that International students must be aware of. The U.S. Education system is very complex and has many different models and systems.

Types of Institutions of Higher Education

There are close to 3500 institutions of higher education in the United States and that number includes two-year community colleges (offering two-year associate degrees), four year colleges (both public and private; offering Bachelors and Masters degrees), and English language institutes. There are also institutions that offer instruction through distance education (online education).

Academic Year

The academic calendar/ year varies from school to school. Two common examples of different models are 1. Quarter (term) system, which includes four sessions: fall, winter, spring, and summer (summer is generally a vacation break), and 2. Semester system, which includes two sessions: Fall and one in winter/spring (summer is generally a vacation break). PCC's academic year runs on a Quarter (term) system.


U.S. classrooms are managed by highly trained teaching professionals, that have a wide range of credentials, experience, and backgrounds. At university, it is not uncommon for students to receive education from faculty, graduate assistants, professors, associate professors, and assistant professors. At the community college, students are educated by instructors. All of these different titles represent levels of education and rank within the particular institution and learning community.

Educational Styles

There are two different types of educational styles that a country can model and knowing this, helps when comparing classroom approaches.

The two models are "Teacher-Centered Approach" and "Learner-Centered Approach." The Teacher-Centered Approach is very authoritative and top-down, where the instructor is the only one giving information and the students are recipients of knowledge, with an expectation they will memorize and absorb all that is being presented. The Learner-Centered Approach is a "cooperative, participatory, interactive" learning experience between the instructor and learner, where students are encouraged to ask questions and think critically about the information being presented.

The U.S. education style is more of a Learner-Centered system, but at times can be very dependent on the subject area of the class and preferred style of the instructor.

Classroom Interactions

Interactions in the classroom can be much different in the U.S. than in other countries, due to the differences in classroom approach, as mentioned above. Because the U.S. is more of a learner-centered system, students are encouraged to interact with their instructors and classmates much more closely. In order for these interactions to be successful, students should be open to learning their instructors expectations, and communicating with their instructor and classmates in an open way, asking questions, working together, and expressing problems freely as they arise. The classroom environment may be less informal than expected due to differences in approach.


Communication is a critical element to the Learner-Centered Approach. Directness, specifics, and clarity are all highly valued in the U.S. in all forms of communication, including Oral, Academic Writing, and through Electronic means (email) Instructors encourage students to ask questions in class and raise important points, and also communicate purposefully through their emails, academic writings, and oral communications in the classroom. As mentioned before, informal interactions in the classroom may be present, and this also includes informal communication. *Communication styles will take time for students to understand, especially those who are non-native English speakers.

Classroom Expectations

Students play an active role in their own learning in the classroom and need to know their expectations as these may be different from the educational culture they are accustomed to.

1. Always attend the first day of classes

2. Arrive to class on time, be prepared, and do not leave early

3. Notify your instructors when you will be missing class (ahead of time)

3. Ask for help or clarification when needed

4. Take initiative

5. Participate in class by asking questions, contributing to the discussion and/or group work

6. If you need extra help, go to your instructors office hours

7. Be responsible for your own work

8. Gain motivation for learning, not just because you want to pass or earning the highest grade

9. Do not text, listen to music, or surf the internet during classroom time

Campus Resources

There are many campus resources at PCC to help you to be a successful student in the U.S. and at PCC. Some of the many academic resources available to you are:

  • International student advising (academic and Immigration advising)
  • English for Speaker of Other Languages (ESOL) Tutoring Centers
  • Counseling Center (career and personal)
  • Career Resource Center (skill building)
  • Disability Support Services
  • Student Learning Centers (tutoring and help with writing)
  • Multicultural Center
  • Women's Resource Center

Academic Integrity

Students are expected to be honest and ethical in their academic work. New international students to the U.S. may not understand what is meant by "ethical" and this is very important, so they won't unknowingly commit this academic transgression. Cheating, plagiarism, falsifying, and working with others to cheat are all forms of academic dishonesty. Various penalties may be imposed and a fair hearing process is in place. To learn more about this policy, please visit: http://www.pcc.edu/about/policy/student-rights/student-rights.pdf#academic-integrity

*Some information from above adapted from the NAFSA, U.S. Culture Series, on U.S. Classroom Culture, by Michael Smithee, Sidney L Greenblatt, and Alisa Eland (2004). Copies of this brochure available upon request from the PCC Office of International Education.