What to expect at university.


I saw headlines recently that students were expecting university to be a more intensive version of school – and students found this to be not at all the case. So here is my very brief guide about what to expect.

Contact hours

The basis of the research was that students expected more lectures and lessons than at school. In fact, the exact opposite is the case. I think there are some people who would then assume that this means lecturers are sitting at home with their feet up eating biscuits. Actually what is happening is a different phase in your learning. Some subjects do have quit a lot of contact hours – engineering, physics and chemistry for example have labs and experiments for you to do as well as a lot of teaching. Other subjects have much less contact – English and history for example. This is because a great deal of those subjects relates to students engaging with the body of literature. In other words, you need to read a LOT. There isn’t a shortcut for this and there certainly isn’t any point in making you sit in a room and read silently together. You will be given reading to do and hopefully your lecturer will give you guidance about what you have to read first and then what is optional. But expect to spend a lot of time working on your own. Your timetable might appear to have acres of blank space. This should not be taken to mean you should take this as free time. Your degree is equivalent to a full time job so if you aren’t spending about 35 hours a week on your work (yes – seriously!) then you perhaps aren’t doing it right.

Its up to you

Learning at school tends to be structured, formal and enforced. By this I mean you are in general terms told what to do and how to do it. As you moved from GCSE to A level you would have noticed a little less of this but your learning will still be mostly directed by your teachers. Whilst good lecturers will show you what you need to do, they will not check up on you. So if you don’t do the weekly reading for your module, it is probable that nothing will happen. In many cases, nobody will notice. You should under no circumstances think that this means it isn’t important. You can perhaps miss a little and catch up but don’t expect anyone to help you catch up. Maybe your lectures are recorded so you can listen to any you miss. But the general rule is always attend lectures and always do the work as you go along.


You can (and should) be proactive

Further to the first two points, university students are expected to direct their own learning. In practice this means recognising when you are struggling and finding help. This might be as minor as checking with a lecturer about some elements of a lecture you didn’t understand or making sure you understand what you are expected to do in an assignment. It could mean you feel you aren’t coping for one reason or another. Lecturers tend to run appointments rather than be available at any time. Many run “Office Hours” when you either book a slot or you can turn up at set times. Others respond to email best. There are also support services such as study support and counselling which these days tend to be excellent. Universities provide education for adults so they expect you to know when you need help. So don’t pretend things are fine when they aren’t. Help is there but you have to ask for it.


Most of all, in my view university is about finding things that excite and interest you. Find them in the curriculum and in the great opportunities you can find. More details about how to do these things and how to get the best our of university are in my blogs and also my study skills book which is available here.


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