Now that I have finished up my 2nd year at StAs I feel like I now know enough about the British system to comment on it. The first thing that students at StAs will come to know is that your reading is fundamental and the primary source of learning. Now this does not mean that lectures are unimportant or lacking in substance, but they are supplemental to your reading, as opposed to the other way around. The degree of this depends on the type of class, but it still seems to be the case in most social science courses.
Now, an important consideration to keep in mind at StAs is the relative importance of the grades of students in the Programme. Within the British system students are only expected to pass their first two years of stud, a 7 on the 20 point scale (or a D- at W&M) for classes in which a student does not seek honours, and an 11 on the 20 point scale (or a C-) in their 2nd year in classes in which a student seeks honours classes. The only determinants of whether a student at StAs receives a 1st class (>16.5), a 2nd class (10.5-16.4), a 3rd class (7-10.4), or a fail (<6.9) are the final two years of study. This basically means that a student can have a 0.7 GPA average by W&M standards for the first two years, but still get a 1st class (the closest comparison to W&M standards would be a 4.0) if they get good grades in their last two years.
NOW, THIS IS NOT THE CASE FOR STUDENTS OF THE PROGRAMME. No matter which institution students of the Programme start, our grades in our first two years do matter for our GPAs. Practically, this means that students within the Programme have to hold themselves to higher standards and if they want to get the higher marks, they must do it consistently over four years and not just in two.
Also, a warning on languages, they are treated differently in Europe and if you take an entry level class you should expect to commit to becoming at least functionally fluent by the end of your first year (I have heard that if you take an intensive course then you should expect to reach the vocabulary of a 14 year old native speaker by the end of your first year). This study is also largely on your own, you will be expected to learn vocabulary on your own with class time devoted to going over grammar. Also, a warning to students going into 2nd or 3rd years of study, students who spent the first year at William & Mary and the second at StAs found that the courses’ vocabulary/usage/expectations did not have as much desired overlap between their first year at W&M and their 2nd at StAs, you will now likely be warned by your advisors, but I’m including this warning just in case. If you are committed to doing a language (or required as in the History major) either try to discuss the differences in the programs with your advisor, go a level down from what you believe to be your ability, or simply do not do it.
Exams at StAs as you can imagine are very important. They count for 40-60% of your grade in just about any class with the notable exceptions being languages. With such a high emphasis placed on the exams, the lead up to exams is treated as very important with ‘reading weeks’ (either one or two weeks between the end of classes and the start of exams) in order to give students a chance to study. My experience with exams is that they are mostly consistent across subjects depending on the area of study. In my international relations and philosophy class I was given two hours to complete three essays (other subjects that I believe this to be the case are English, History, etc.). However, it is a general rule that exams last two hours no matter the subject. The grading of these exams places just as much emphasis on how well you conducted your essay as on your knowledge of the subject. This means that American students are at a disadvantage because students within the British system have been conducting practice essays of these tests for several years, even before university so it is imperative for these students to learn as much as possible about the system in which they are being graded and the rubric on which they are graded.
Note: the expectations of students within the Programme are changing all of the time, part of the nature of being a new program. So some of the information above could change in the next few years, for instance the conversion rates of grades from the 20-point scale to W&M grade has already been changed in this past semester.