My Exchange in UW Madison

by Nian Li


Posted on May 12, 2019



I am lucky to have my exchange in UW Madison, one of the most authoritative universities in United States, in Spring 2019. To share my experience, I would like to summarize my journey based on campus academic atmosphere and infrastructure together with the comparison to my home university.

First of all, courses here are extremely practical and enjoyable. I had 6 courses in total, among which three are Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) courses. There are two courses that leave me a great impression. Microprocessor (ECE353) is about arm assembly code and C language programming based on Tiva Launchpad processor while Networking (ECE537) is about introduction to mechanism and composition of internet. Unlike courses I took back to my home university, most of ECE courses in UW Madison contain multiple projects by using the knowledge in class to develop something creative and useful. For instance, in Microprocess, we developed our own board game and in Networking we wrote scripts to parse, analyze and monitor internet packets. In addition, both courses are perfectly related to my internship and I also implemented the knowledge I learned from class in my website nianliblog.com.

Apart from that, students here are amazingly dedicated! They are incredibly hard working and I have never seen this kind of academic atmosphere in my home university before! Due to the heavy course load, ECE students usually study and do project till midnight. I was shocked to hear one of my friends she usually slept only 4 to 5 hours a day for few weeks during midterm period as she had so many projects and work to do. For me, my average GPA is in top 5 percent in my major back to my home university and I can hardly get used to the speed here at the very beginning. Moreover, in contrast to my home university, it is not easy to get an A here. Not just because of the heavier and harder course materials, but also the fact of furious competition between a group of elites.

On the other hand, campus infrastructure is relatively weak. Both ECE and Chemical Engineering, another well-known major in UW Madison, are congested in a tiny 5-floor Engineering hall building. Graduate students’ office, undergraduates’ classrooms and labs are sharing the space in each floor and there is only one large lecture hall in this building. Meanwhile, most of the appliance are only accessible for graduate students’ research and budgets available for undergraduates’ competition and private product development are very limited. In comparison, in my home university, we have three 7-floor huge buildings for our major only and 8 huge lecture halls available in south spine. Graduate students’ offices, labs and classrooms are well separated and there are magnificent amount of budgets and scholarships for undergraduates to apply.

Lastly, I would like to compare electrical engineering major course quality between UW Madison and my home university, another top university in Singapore. Recently my friends are complaining the teaching quality back to my home university because of the plunge in the latest Asia Times Ranking. In my own opinion, there are a lot of similarities in teaching styles between these two universities but they are intrinsically different. For example, many of my home university friends are complaining the shift from physical lectures into online lectures. However, it is a trend for many universities and I believe it is a more efficient way for teaching. It is formally called as “Learn Before Class” and my Microprocessor course taken in UW Madison uses this teaching method as well: students view their online lectures before class and do exercise in class, which largely enhances students’ hands-on ability. From my perspective, what the problem in my home university is the quality of those online courses and students are unable to gain practical skills in classes. In fact, some of those courses have not been updated for years and some professor in the online videos are not taking time efficiently. My home university is like an extractor to crush knowledge and impose them on students, instead of focusing on increasing students’ ability to solve real life problem and stimulating students’ interest to courses. For example, the final will usually count up to 60 percent of the total weight of the course and students can still easily pass the course by studying within 2 weeks before the exam, which gives me a feeling that the only job school has done is just to pass those knowledge to students. What’s more, in most of classes homework are not graded and inactive students may not finish their homework, which makes students even harder to understand those concepts. However, in UW Madison, courses are not just to pass knowledge but more to incent students to solve problems, which is why there are a lot of projects during each course and the final exam usually takes around only 20 percent while other projects may added up with more than 30 percent of the total weight.

Personally, to be honest, I would prefer the teaching system in my home university since I like having my own time to do things that I am passionate with. For example, joining competitions, creating something that is cool and can benefit our community etc. in the meantime, I am able to implement things I learned in class and learn things out of class, which is how I sharpen my practical skills. In the very end, I am really grateful for everything that my experience in UW Madison has brought to be and I do wish I can stay longer there. I wish you all my best!