Learning curve

The study methods might be new to you, but the academic standards and support are outstanding. By Sam Pope
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The Independent Online

The UK has some of the oldest universities in the world and, as such, its teaching methods have evolved over hundreds of years. The result is an approach that encourages students to be independent and confident and take control of their studies.

The UK has some of the oldest universities in the world and, as such, its teaching methods have evolved over hundreds of years. The result is an approach that encourages students to be independent and confident and take control of their studies.

In this way, the UK higher education system differs from that in many other countries. It's more autonomous and students must be self-motivated and enthusiastic to get their work done. No one is going to hold your hand and check every day that you've done your homework! Nevertheless, this lack of keeping tags on students doesn't mean that the quality of teaching or learning suffers - in fact both meet the highest of standards.

Teaching methods

Students enjoy a wide variety of learning methods at university. The following are the most common:

Lectures - these are classes led by a tutor, an expert in their field. There will be a series of lectures about a particular topic relevant to your course. The size of the group can be anything from 20-100 students, and lectures typically last anywhere between one and two hours.

Small classes or seminars are sessions with other students on your course, normally led by a tutor or at least a qualified PhD student supervisor. In these sessions you will usually talk about a set piece of work that you will have prepared beforehand. By discussing the topic in a group, you get the opportunity to exchange and share ideas and methods with fellow students.

Practical sessions/lab work - this is more common for science students. Much of your time will be spent in a lab, undertaking and writing up experiments relevant to your course. This not only helps to develop your knowledge of your subject but is also a great way to gain some useful practical skills.

Tutorials - some universities, particularly Oxford and Cambridge, base much of their teaching on tutorials (also known as supervisions in Cambridge). They are rather like seminars but are generally smaller in size with a maximum of three students per tutor. Sometimes teaching takes place on a one-to-one basis which is a real privilege. When else in life will you be able to talk so exclusively to an (often) world-renowned expert? Be warned - your ideas, your entire work, could be challenged - and be prepared to stand up for your opinions!


How your work is assessed will depend on the university you attend. Your work will constantly be monitored but whether this will count towards your final mark, or degree classification, will depend on your university's preferred method of assessment. For some, coursework will feature and count towards your final degree but many still rely on your performance in your final exams (Finals). For this reason, most of your final term of your final year as an undergraduate will be spent with your head in the books revising!


The people

The UK is made up of three different countries: England, Scotland and Wales and the province of Northern Ireland. These countries all have very different characters and identities, with their own languages. Moreover, the UK is a multiracial, multicultural society that is tolerant and democratic, respectful of different political and religious beliefs. In the large cities, you'll find shops selling every imaginable type of food from around all over the world. All major world religions are represented.


Traditional English food - how much of this do you recognise? Fish and chips (with vinegar!), black pudding (a blood sausage), Yorkshire pudding (a thick, savoury pudding made out of batter, usually served with beef) - all these are typical dishes you can find in English pubs. And what about Scotland? Haggis, shortbread and oatcakes are specialities, while in Wales you can tuck into laver bread (a seaweed pancake) and Welsh rarebit (cheese on toast). Northern Ireland's regional specialities include champ (potato and spring onions) and colcannon (potatoes and cabbage).

Your health

If you are on a full-time course lasting six months or more, you can access free health care with the National Health Service under the following conditions:

* you're a national or resident of an EEA country

* you're from a country that has a reciprocal health agreement with the UK.

If you're not sure you're covered, ask the health authorities in your country what treatment you can expect to receive. If you're not entitled to NHS treatment, take out a medical insurance policy, either before you leave home or as soon as possible after you arrive.

To be treated on the NHS you must be registered with a doctor or GP (General Practitioner - a doctor trained and experienced in diagnosing and treating a wide range of health problems). You need to register with a GP as soon as possible after arriving in the UK and have a permanent address. Don't wait till you're ill to start the process! If you're eligible for NHS treatment, you can receive your dental treatment at a reduced rate - as long as you can find an NHS one! There aren't many in the UK now who are taking on new patients, so ask as soon as you can at your student union if they can give you a list.

Your university's student services can advise you on how to find and register with a GP - they might even have a local surgery that they use. A list of local doctors is available from the Post Office or by contacting the Family Health Services Authority in your area (look in the local telephone directory for their contact details).

The weather

This is a subject the British love to talk about as it's just so unpredictable! Generally speaking, the UK has a mild, temperate climate. However, in the winter be prepared for some cold and wet weather; in the spring, cool and windy; in the summer, warm and dryer; in the autumn - anything really! Rain can fall at any time of the year and you may find the climate rather damp if you're used to a hot and dry weather.


In the UK, as in most countries, safety is common sense. When you're out at night, go with a group of people, or if this isn't possible, stick to well-lit streets with lots of people. Many universities run their own minibus service into town at night and many have special services for women to ensure their safety. Make sure that you take out insurance on any valuables in your room as student accommodation is often well known to criminals. Follow your instincts and use your head - if a situation feels wrong, get out.