When I was just a mere Sophomore, I had heard many differing rumors as to the structure and difficulty of the major curriculum courses in Japan. Advisors were afraid of me bombing out, and people who had been there were telling me it was the longest vacation I'll ever have. Here's my take, a month into the semester.
The typical course format at Tohoku University is a 90-minute lecture, which meets once a week. Typically the division of grades is along the lines of 20% attendance, participation, and reports, and 80% decided by the final exam. The idea of a report here is that you write an essay near the end of the semester to summarize what you had learned. In many classes, there is little to no homework, and textbooks are almost always optional in classes that do not involve reading comprehension.
The lecture style is more similar to that of Purdue; technical classes are dominated by Powerpoint presentations and overheads, while language classes and the like are very handout/worksheet-oriented. Unlike at Purdue, I appreciate presentation slides here because it is much easier for me to decipher a slide with kanji than to struggle to decode high-velocity Japanese lecturing. There is also a very minimal amount of interaction; most of it takes form of randomly calling out students to answer quick comprehension check questions.
As for the individual classes, i'll summarize quickly here.
- Japanese grammar class (level 3): Almost entirely review, so I do not have to pay much attention in this class. There's a weekly worksheet, which I can easily do over coffee the morning its due while half asleep. Still, they cover more variations and subleties than grammar class at Purdue, and it forces you to learn the boring parts. Nobody likes to study alone out of a grammar book.
- Japanese listening/dictation class (level 3): The teacher in this class is a huge drama queen, and routinely fusses about tiny mistakes and gets annoyed when students don't know the answer. Thankfully there is no homework, and the reward is also good: almost every class I walk out, muttering "so THAT'S what they said that one time.."
- Japanese reading class (level 3): I went to this class one time, and it was not a very good use of my time. They used a lower-level reading book, and spent the whole 90 minute lecture on a passage that I could read on my own in 5-10 minutes, at the most.
- Technical Japanese III: This is among my favorite classes, mostly because there is no attendance, grades, or even registration. It is held by the Engineering school's international office, and covers technical Japanese. The best part is the class size: the most that have ever been in this class at once is 5 students including myself. Essentially, a 90 minute free tutoring session.
- Artificial Intelligence: Very slow, so I usually just doodle in my notebook, study kanji on my phone, or similar things. I even have the option to take the final in English, so as long as I keep up in the english textbook I'll be totally fine.
- Coding Theory: This class is the wildcard, because I have no background at all in it. Okay, that's a lie: I haven't learned anything yet, because all of it was covered in the ECE270 (Digital Design) textbook's first two chapters. I think eventually though it will get hard, as I'll have to parse the Japanese to get further ahead in the material. Thankfully the slides are online and free :)
All in all, I'm able to concentrate on more important things (like research! and foundation reading!) to a much greater extent than at Purdue. I think I will enjoy this "intellectual vacation".. in that I will be freed from the enormous time sink that i'm strapped into at Purdue.