American Classroom Culture

If you are applying to or have already been accepted to an independent school in the US, congratulations!  Studying in a new country can be exciting and rewarding. However, your success in your new American school may depend as much on your understanding of American classroom culture as on your academic abilities.

What is American classroom culture?  American classroom culture includes the way teachers and students interact in the classroom, the way they expect each other to behave, and the actual structure and content of the class.

To start, let’s look at teacher and student roles and participation expectations. As a student, you may think you know what you’re supposed to do, right?  Arrive at class on time, complete all assignments, and show respect.  Although these are all expected in American classrooms, there is much more! 

Participation!  Probably the most misunderstood aspect of the American classroom, participation is more than raising your hand to give an answer to a homework question. Teachers expect students to participate in an active way. “Active” in American classroom culture means that you volunteer to speak in class and add to the learning that is going on.  Here are some types and tips for participation:

  • Basic 1: You wait for the teacher to call on you, and you give a brief answer to her question.  This is not really considered participation.
  • Basic 2: You raise your hand to volunteer and only repeat something that the teacher has said. Although this is participation, teachers do not need (or want) to hear their own ideas repeated back to them, they want to hear your ideas too.
  • Active 1: You raise your hand and ask the teacher a question that shows you are listening and thinking about what’s going on in the class.  Yes, this is a good start!
  • Active 2: You raise your hand and make a comment about what is being said, how it connects to the work the class is studying and/or something you have already learned in or out of the classroom. Yes, this is quite good!
  •  Active 3: You listen carefully to other students participate and then either ask them a question or add a comment to their ideas. Yes, this is quite good!
  • Great = A combination of Active 1-3! Yes, this is active and strong participation!


Why is participation so important?  Teachers want to hear your own ideas and learn about the way you think!  Teachers expect you, the student, to add to the learning going on in class.  Here are some questions and answers to help you understand this part of American classroom culture.

What if you don’t understand what’s going on?  For the most part, teachers expect that you don’t know or understand 100% of what’s going on, that is why you’re a student.  You need to participate to show what you understand, so teachers know how best to teach you!

How can you, the student, add to the learning? When you ask a question or add a comment during a class discussion, you are adding to everyone’s learning, the teacher’s included.

Why should I listen to other students?  They are not the teacher!  It is equally important to listen when other students speak as their questions and comments also add to the learning going on.  Many teachers expect (and even require and grade) students to question each other or add comments during class time. 

Isn’t it the teacher’s job to decide what is being taught and the students’ job to learn it?  Yes and no!  Teachers can learn a lot from their students. For instance, based on student comments, a teacher may decide to spend more time on a certain topic so that there is better understanding of the topic.  If students don’t actively participate, teachers have no way of knowing until poor tests and weak writing assignments are handed in. When you, the student, participate teachers learn more about you and the way you think!

There is certainly more to learn about American classroom culture, but participation is clearly the best place to start!  Take advantage of your role as a student and participate as much as possible.  The more you practice the easier it will be and the more you will learn!


Caroline Grinnell, M.Ed., CTEFL

Ms. Grinnell has over 15 years experience teaching French and ESL as well as literacy skills in primary and secondary school classrooms.  Ms. Grinnell spent nine years teaching grades 9th through 12th  at a New England boarding school and is currently a literacy specialist at the International School of Boston, an independent K-12 French-English bilingual school in Cambridge, MA.

Any views or opinions presented in this blog post are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the International School of Boston, which is neither affiliated to nor endorses New England Boarding School Advantage.
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