Preparing for Your Academic Journey

Adjusting to a new campus or a new academic culture can be challenging. There are many resources available across campus and online to help you with this transition. We encourage you to review the following information about common topics related to your academic journey at UW–Madison.

U.S. Classroom Culture

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What is a “syllabus”?

  • A syllabus is a document that communicates the course information, including learning objectives, expectations of the student, and course materials. The syllabus is often provided to students and reviewed on the first day of class.
  • You may hear students refer to the first week of classes as “Syllabus Week”, as many classes take the first day or two of class to review the syllabus, course schedule, and course expectations.

What is a Teaching Assistant (TA) and how are they different than an instructor or professor?

  • Each class will have an assigned instructor or professor who will lead the class. Instructors may wish to be addressed in a formal manner, such as Doctor or Professor [last name], or they may be more informal and prefer to be addressed by their first name. The instructor will typically tell you on the first day of class how they prefer to be addressed.
  • Some classes may also have a graduate Teaching Assistant (TA) who assists the instructor in leading the class and grading assignments. The TA is also available to offer assistance to students with class material and assignments.

What are “office hours”?

  • Both the instructor and TA will offer office hours. This is typically published in the course syllabus provided to you on the first day of class. Office hours are for students who want to meet with the instructor or TA to talk about course material, assignments, or your overall well-being as a learner in the classroom. Many instructors and TAs are available to schedule a meeting outside of office hours as well.

What is “Learn@UW”? What is “Canvas”?

  • Learn@UW is a suite of learning tools and technologies used at UW–Madison. One of the most common tools in this group is Canvas. Canvas is part of the Learn@UW suite of learning technologies and is a cloud-based learning management system.
    • What this means is that Canvas is the online system where you will be able to access your courses and course materials. The course syllabus and reading assignments will usually be posted to Canvas, and you may use this system to submit assignments, participate in classroom discussions, and view your grades.
    • Other tools included in Learn@UW can be found here.

What are the differences between the course types such as “lecture”, “discussion”, and “lab”?


  • Instructors or professors use lecture time to present new information to students. The length of lectures varies and can be 50 minutes to 3 hours, depending on your course schedule. During lectures, professors may ask for interaction from students, including individual participation or group discussions. Students who need clarification about the material being presented are encouraged to ask questions. Asking questions of the professor is not considered rude as long as they are asked in a courteous manner. If the student feels their question is too complicated or unrelated to the information being presented, they can ask questions of the professor after class or during office hours.


  • Discussions are interactive sessions led by the professor or teaching assistant (TA). The length of discussion varies, but a 50-minute discussion is typical. It is expected that students use this time to discuss readings, talk about papers, and develop writing skills. Students are often graded on their spoken contributions, making it required for them to talk and ask questions in front of the class.


  • Labs are long periods of time where experiments are led by professors or teaching assistant (TA). Experiments are typically done in small groups of two to four people. The people with whom you sit at your table on the first day of class will often be your lab partners for the rest of the semester. It is common for labs to require organized notebooks. Some professors and TAs collect lab notebooks and grade them based on neatness. Lab grades are also based on written reports, quizzes, and examinations. These requirements are often separate from the lecture portion of a course in which students may be enrolled.


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What are “midterms”?

  • You may have exams periodically throughout the semester, including midterm exams. This is a general term for exams (usually 1 or 2) that are held halfway through the semester.

What are “finals”, and what is “Finals Week”?

  • At the end of each semester is a week during which only exams are held. This is called “Finals Week” and there are no classes held, just final exams. Not every class will have a final exam, as some classes may have papers, presentations, or projects instead.
    • It is up to you to check the syllabus and course schedule for each of your classes to determine what finals you have and when they will be held.
  • Final exam week is typically the Sunday-Saturday after the last day of classes. On these days, most courses conduct their final exams. Exam times can be as early as 7:45 a.m. and as late as 9:00 p.m. Exam times do not correlate with what time a class is normally held during the semester and may be held in a different location than that in which your class was held.
  • There are multiple methods a professor may use for the exam, including their own paper exam, Scantron, or blue book. The professor may or may not allow you to use notes or other materials, such as a calculator, during the exam. Instructions should be given to students prior to the exam.
  • The final exam may be cumulative, or including all content from the entire semester, or it could be just the content learned since your last exam (or midterm).

What is a “Scantron”?

  • Scantron is a sheet of paper consisting of empty bubbles. These sheets are used for multiple choice or true/false sections of exams. Students enter their information, including their student identification number, at the top of the sheet before the exam starts.
  • Once the exam begins, students fill the bubble of the letter they answered beside the question number. After the exam, machines process the scantrons and send score sheets to the professor. The machine only recognizes number two pencils, so it is imperative to use a number two pencil to fill in bubbles on the scantron sheet.

What is a “Blue Book” exam?

  • Blue books are small packets of paper that are used for essay and short answer portions of exams. Students fill out their information on the front before the exam starts. Once the exam begins, students are expected to write all of their essays and short answers in the book. Anything that is not in the book will not be graded.

Academic Integrity and Plagiarism

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What is “academic integrity”?

  • Academic integrity is central to the educational standards of UW–Madison. Core values of academic integrity include honesty, trust, fairness, respect and responsibility. It is important to understand the standards of academic integrity to avoid serious consequences to your academic and immigration statuses. The Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards has produced the following academic integrity video for international students.

What is “plagiarism”?

  • Plagiarism is the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own (Oxford Languages).
  • Plagiarism is often connected with similar concepts like cheating, academic integrity, and copyright. As a student, you may be unsure about whether or not something is an example of plagiarism, especially since what counts as plagiarism can be different in different cultural contexts.

Where can I find more information on the topics of plagiarism and academic integrity?

  • UW Libraries has a list of more resources explaining academic integrity. View that resource list here.
  • UW Libraries “Intro to Plagiarism” online tutorial available here.
    • Read the article on the creation of this tutorial, which had input from ISS staff, and why it is important here.
  • UW Libraries tips on avoiding plagiarism available here.

Academic Advising

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How can I find my academic advisor?


  • If you have declared a major or program, you should have an assigned advisor in your Student Center (on the right side of the screen). This advisor may be different from the advisor you met during SOAR or other orientation activities.
  • If you have not yet declared a major, or want more information on the majors offered at UW-Madison, Cross-College Advising Service is a great resource. You can meet with any advisor in CCAS to discuss which options may be best for you to explore. The Office of Undergraduate Advising also has a Find an Advisor tool.

Graduate Students:

  • Graduate programs have graduate program coordinators that act as academic advisors for the students within that program.
  • Some graduate students may also have a faculty advisor, who you can also contact.

Professional Schools

  • Professional Schools such as the Law School, School of Pharmacy, School of Medicine and Public Health, and School of Veterinary Medicine all have program coordinators which can help you with your academic needs.
  • Depending on your program, you may have a faculty advisor who you can also contact.

Non-Degree and Special Students

  • If you are a J-1 Exchange Student, you will have academic support with your Exchange Coordinator for your program. You can find more information here.
  • If you are a J-1 Pharmacy Exchange Student you will have academic support with your Exchange Coordinator for your program. You can find more information here.
  • If you are a J-1 Law School Exchange Student you will have academic support with your Exchange Coordinator for your program. You can find more information here.
  • If you are an F-1 Special Student or Capstone student, you can contact the Visiting International Student Program (VISP) for support. Depending on your program, you may have a coordinator who will directly support your program. You can find more information here.

What is the difference between my ISS Advisor and my academic advisor?

  • Your academic advisor is the knowledgeable resource on your academic resources, including course selection and degree requirements. ISS advisors are here to counsel students on the legal immigration requirements of your F-1 or J-1 student visa.

Academic Support Resources

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Support Offices Across Campus

UW–Madison Tutoring & Learning Support Resources

  • You can search by student classification, type of support you are seeking, and academic subject area to find a list of the best free resources available to you.

Greater University Tutoring Services (GUTS)

  • Connects you with volunteer tutors for assistance with academic courses, study skills, conversational English, and intercultural exchange.

Departmental Tutors and Learning Centers

  • Some departments will also offer tutoring services specific to a course or subject matter. Search a particular department’s website for available tutoring services.
  • Additionally, there may be learning centers associated with your program. You can reach out to your academic department for more information.

Writing Center

  • Assists students in all academic disciplines to be more effective, more confident writers. Individual support, workshops, and resources are provided to students free-of-charge.

UW–Madison Libraries

  • Looking for an academic paper, article, book, or other resource? Check out the databases at UW–Madison Libraries. They also have lots of resources, tutorials, and courses available online. Not sure what you’re looking for or how to start? Try the “Ask A Librarian” chat feature on their website.

Computer and Technology Support

  • If you need help with technology, DoIT at UW–Madison is the place to go. DoIT, or UW–Madison’s Division of Information Technology, is the place to go when you need technical assistance. They can help you if you are having problems with your computer, tell you what services and software you have access to as a student, and provide online trainings.

English as a Second Language (ESL)

  • The English as a Second Language (ESL) program provides a wide range of ESL courses for undergraduate and graduate students. Any non-native English speaker admitted to the university may take ESL courses. Special students and exchange students may be allowed to take ESL courses when space is available.

McBurney Disability Resource Center

  • The McBurney Disability Resource Center is the office for students with disabilities and classroom accommodations on campus. As part of the student accommodation process, this office works collaboratively with students and instructors to provide and support effective student accommodations and to create an inclusive campus environment.