That School Across The Street: the Differences Between American and Italian Universities

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SAIS Europe students recognize the University of Bologna (Unibo) as the school across the street. Though considered one of the most prestigious universities in Europe, many SAIS Europe students nonetheless are not familiar with the activities taking place beyond that brick gate.

In order to gain a better understanding of the university, the SAIS Observer spoke with Professor Massimiliano Marzo, a Professor of Economics at Unibo. He explained the differences between American and Italian universities.

University of Bologna

At Unibo, Professor Marzo teaches classes in English on Asset Pricing, International Economics and Portfolio Theory to Master’s degree candidates. Classes are typically taught for 30 hours per semester, though International Economics carries on for 60 hours. Unlike most professors at SAIS, Professor Marzo does not assign a midterm exam, but this appears to be more of a personal style rather than official university policy. However, he noted that students tended to complain about midterms, and this may have pushed the faculty into this unofficial policy.

Nonetheless, Professor Marzo takes a similar approach when conducting both his classes at SAIS and at Unibo. He instructs the classes using comparable syllabi, material and pedagogical methods, but finds the SAIS students to be more interested in discussing the policy implications associated with macroeconomic theories.

On average, Professor Marzo finds the classroom discussions to be slightly more interactive and lively at SAIS than at Unibo. However, he believes that the Italian students are more focused on the letter grade attached to their transcripts, and thus have a tendency to stay more focused on the material explicitly designed for the final exams. Along those lines, there are structural differences between final exams at Italian universities.

Generally, the academic subject in question plays a role in determining the evaluative method for a final exam. Economics classes only have written exams, though law and humanities classes sometimes offer an oral component. In those classes, the oral component may compensate for a weaker written exam. However, Italian professors seem less likely to award a higher grade to a student as a result of a stronger oral than written exam component.

Interestingly, it also appears as if Italian universities operate within a different set of incentive structures. Compared with American universities, in which students are sometimes viewed as customers, Italian universities appear to show little regard for student evaluations and feedback.

Although it may sometime seem like Unibo is merely “that school across the street,” many of its practices are similar to our own here at SAIS Europe. Ultimately, no matter where students end up, both university experiences help students continue along their path towards becoming global citizens and living a richer, better and fuller life.

Toni Mikec is a staff writer for the SAIS Observer. He is an MA student concentrating in Strategic Studies at SAIS Bologna. You can find him on his website.

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