A Global Look at Educating Researchers

The curriculum differences between UCL and Princeton can almost be as stark as the contrast between night and day (photo credit: Jalisha Braxton)
The curriculum differences between UCL and Princeton can almost be as stark as the contrast between night and day. (In photo: UCL’s main campus building [top] and Princeton’s Nassau Hall [bottom])
A common question I’ve gotten since coming to the UK to study is “what differences have you seen between classes in the UK and classes back home?” I’ve given some thought to this question and have decided to map out some of the various differences I’ve noticed between the curriculum design and expectations for upper level Psychology classes at Princeton vs. at University College London (UCL).  Each system presents different strengths in developing student researchers.

Lectures & Course Readings

Princeton: Many of my Psychology courses at Princeton were structured around a pre-assigned textbook. This practice helped with giving the course an understandable and predictable composition, with each lecture matching up closely with the units of the assigned reading material. Although professors generally provided supplementary information not found in the textbook, common themes and key elements of the course could be identified through the textbook readings.

UCL: Every lecture I have attended thus far at UCL has been heavily based in current research literature. The assigned readings are the research articles themselves. In the lecture, the professor typically picks a topic related to the course, then discusses current research on the topic, emphasizing both the merits and shortcomings of various studies. It is then discussed how the studies interact with one another, showcasing how newer studies are able to strengthen or disprove claims made by previous studies through replicating or altering experimental designs.

Additional Coursework

Princeton: Most Psychology classes either have a precept or a lab component, both of which require some type of reflection on the lecture material before or after a class. Participation in lab and/or precept is also required, and assignments such as lab reports or essays are common and due every few weeks.

UCL: No additional coursework is explicitly assigned for the courses that I am currently taking at UCL. However, it is expected that all students spend time outside of class to discover research articles related to the topics discussed in class and become familiar with the current research. I am aware of a few classes here at UCL where essays are assigned throughout the term, but very few classes in the Psychology Department seem to be structured this way.


Princeton: Most psychology exams I’ve taken at Princeton have been typical, three-hour (maximum) multiple choice exams, with an occasional short answer section. The exam questions require minimal critical thinking during the actual examination period; instead, students are expected to make connections between lecture and textbook material prior to the exam, and should be able to “select” the best possible answer from a list of choices provided on the exam.

UCL: Although I have yet to take an exam here in the UK, I have been informed of the exam format over and over again: three essay questions, selected from a choice of nine, must be completed in the span of 3 hours. The essay prompts are not provided in advance, and each essay is expected to be roughly seven paragraphs long and include a multitude of citations and references to articles suggested from class and found in one’s spare time. This style of examination is extremely different from the procedure followed back at Princeton.  There is even a mandatory seminar for all study abroad students in the Psychology department here to help us learn how to prepare for these examinations accordingly.


Though seemingly different, both curriculums help students develop skills that are important for the research world. The Princeton curriculum grounds students in the basic concepts of a topic, pushing students to memorize, discuss, and write about the factual components throughout the course of the semester. At UCL, a strong attachment to and understanding of particular subsets within a field of psychology are fostered through the curriculum design. This system ensures that students are kept up-to-date with various studies and that they can express the importance of these studies in their own words.

I personally feel as though the UCL curriculum, though challenging, will be beneficial for me and any other individual planning on continuing on to graduate school, where the demands placed on students are more independent in nature. Overall, however, I believe I can only prosper from my exposure to both the curriculum design of both Princeton and UCL. With the varying demands and expectations of both systems, I’m sure I’ll be able to cultivate numerous skills that will help me grow as a researcher.

Jalisha Braxton, Natural Sciences and Study Abroad Correspondent