General Education

What Differences Will I Encounter in African Classrooms When I Study Abroad?

What Differences Will I Encounter in African Classrooms When I Study Abroad?
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Greig Roselli February 8, 2019

Wondering what a classroom is like in a different country or continent? Check out our field guide to education culture across Africa.

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The number of American students who study abroad has tripled over the last twenty years. In 2013, the total number of U.S. students who participated in study abroad programs was 283,332, according to the State Department’s Open Doors study.

Studying abroad affords you the opportunity to experience other cultures, and you will find yourself shaped by a set of pedagogical norms vastly different from what you’re used to.

In this series, we take a tour of classrooms around the globe, as students share the cultural differences they experienced studying abroad.


Serena Piol, who taught English in Marrakech, speaks about the relativity of time in this Moroccan city. She says, “Here, 8 p.m. could mean 8 p.m., but more likely it means 9 or 9:30." Differences in the perception of time are often seen as markers of cultural difference. The way cultures interpret time can also translate into how teachers expect students to learn in the classroom.

Piol recalls that in her kora class, “Dances and songs were taught as cohesive wholes, rather than discrete parts that we would put together. When learning violin in the U.S., I first learned individual notes, scales, and how to read music, and then later learned basic and then more complex songs. When learning kora, my professor would play us a song in its entirety, and then we would go about learning it through repetition of various parts and of the whole."

Mariana Robertson, who studied with the School for International Training's National Identity and the Arts program in Dakar, said that her classes were taught by local professors visiting from Dakar’s universities. Classes were offered in local languages. For example, one of the math professors taught classes in Wolof, the local language spoken in Senegal, Gambia, and Mauritania.

The beauty of studying in an African country is the ability to experience a wide-range of cultures and languages. A class offered at a university in Morocco may be taught in French, but your dealings in the market or at the mosque will be conducted in Arabic, and you could pick up Spanish from European tourists you’d encounter on weekends.

The northern coast of Africa along the Mediterranean has a lot in common with the rest of the Arabic-speaking world, but the continent of Africa is as massive geographically as it is culturally diverse. For example, West African countries, like Cameroon and Senegal, offer a different cultural experience than Kenya or Tanzania. On the southern tip of the continent, at The University of Cape Town in South Africa — the second oldest extant university in Africa — students take classes in English, but they can also learn Afrikaans or Bantu.

Interested in learning more about cultural differences around the globe? Check out the next part of our series: What Differences Will I Encounter in Latin American Classrooms When I Study Abroad?.


Lewis, R. (2014, June 1). How different cultures understand time. Business Insdier.

Open Doors (2013, November 11). Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange. Retrieved online from the Institute of International Education.

Twombly, S. B., Salisbury, M. H., Tumanut, S. D., & Klute, P. (2012). Study abroad in a new global century: Renewing the promise, refining the purpose. New York: Wiley.