Learning curves

Give yourself time to adjust to the new styles of learning in higher education, advises Wendy Berliner. It won't take long to master the secrets of success
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The Independent Online

How different will it be to study at university or higher education college? What can you expect when you sit down at your first lecture? Wherever you have been studying before, it will be different and you will need a bit of time to adjust.

If you have taken your A-levels or Highers at school or sixth-form college, the difference will probably be quite marked because you will not be used to the extent of independent study which will now be expected of you. If you are coming in from a further education college, you will have had a taste of more independence in your work, so it won't be such a jump.

At first it may all seem easier than school because many subjects will have fewer "lessons" and less work to do, although this will be less true of the sciences. You may even have covered some of the work at school already because the tutors will make sure that everybody is at the same standard by covering topics that some students will not have studied yet but others have.

You will be given a reading list but no one will check up on whether you have read all the books on it, although your work might not be as good as it could have been if you don't. Also, you are expected to read around your subject and in more depth than you were used to at A-level although no one will check on that either. Just don't expect to get good grades on the bare minimum of work.

The big difference is that you will no longer be treated like children. There will be no notes or phone calls home or nasty incidents on parents' evening if you overdo the socialising and fail to keep on top of your work - you'll just lose your place!

LECTURES

Lectures can be big and in some institutions very big. Think of at least 100 students in the room with you and maybe a lot more in some places. You will probably be able to collect a hand-out of the basic ideas which will come up, perhaps even via the internet. You will then have to make notes of your own from the lecture - it is highly advisable to write these up in full soon after the lecture so that they will be comprehensible for revision.

You don't normally get a chance to ask questions in lectures, but if you don't understand something, email your lecturer or make an appointment to see them.

SEMINARS

Seminars involve a tutor discussing a topic which is set in advance with a small group of students. You might be asked to give a presentation on the issue either on your own or with other students. The idea is to encourage debate rather than to come up with a "right" answer.

TUTORIALS

There may also be tutorials in which a lecturer will give guidance to one student or a very small group about work they are doing or have finished. It might also be used to help a student or students having difficulty either with part of the course or with study methods.

PRACTICALS

Some courses, such as science or drama, will have practical sessions. Others will have practical sessions which will take you away from university or college - field trips for geography or archaeology, for example.

ASSIGNMENTS

You will be given deadlines for your assignments. Try to keep to them. Just like school, some lecturers will give you extra time if you ask for it and others won't. If you keep on top of your work, you won't have to ask. If you have to come up with your own title for a piece of assessed work, make sure you clear it with your lecturer before you start. Also do be careful about word counts. If you start to lose control of the count, stop and re-assess how you are doing the work.

TIME MANAGEMENT

If your university or college offers an induction course in study skills, it is a very good idea to take it because it will help you develop skills which will ensure that you will make the best use of your time. And if you find yourself struggling to keep up with the pace of work, do discuss this with your personal tutor who should be able to give you some key pointers about time management.

LIBRARIES

Make good use of university or college libraries. If there is an induction course available about how to make the best use of them, then take it. Make sure you reserve books in good time for the work you need to do. Some very popular texts may be available for only very short loans - perhaps only a couple of hours - and during 24-hour library opening you don't want to be the student stuck with doing your research in the small hours of the morning.

AND FINALLY....

If you are getting stuck on something or not understanding work, say something to your tutor. They want you to do well and they can't help you unless they know whether you need extra help. It's more mature to ask than to keep silent.

'USE YOUR INITIATIVE'

BECKIE KNIGHT

19, from Birmingham. Just finished her first year of an English Literature and creative writing degree at Warwick University

The main difference you notice when you come to university is that when you study you are completely on your own. I did my A-levels in the sixth form of my school and although we weren't spoon-fed we did have our hands held.

Once you get to university, you realise that you have to use your own initiative. At lectures there are 200 people and you are bombarded with information and you have to adapt and learn to get notes down quickly. In my seminars there are about 10 people and you can ask questions and thrash things out. It suits the way I work well.

If you go to all the lectures and seminars and do the work that's set, you can't go wrong. But when you get to university, there are so many other things you want to do you have to be prepared to sacrifice some things. You have to ask yourself "Am I going to get up and go to that 10am seminar when I've been up late the night before?"

Compared to A-level, you don't have to work that much - even the mathematicians only do 18 hours of lectures a week. I do seven and a half. You do have to be organised though and get your priorities right so that you get the work done and have fun too. There are tough times but you just have to work through them. It's the best time I have ever had in my entire life!

Beckie's top tip:

Don't leave your work until the last minute but enjoy yourself

'MANAGE YOUR TIME'

KEVIN BARTON

19, from Luton. Just finished his first year of a media production degree at Luton University

It's much more relaxed at university - A-levels were the hardest thing I have ever had to do. The thing you have to do is get used to doing a lot more things on your own and scheduling your time properly. I went to Luton Sixth Form College and it was a lot more personal. If there was something you didn't get, you could just stick your hand up and ask a question. Here you go to lectures with more than 100 people and you have to take in a lot of information and take notes on the most important stuff. If there is something you don't get, you have to ask your mate or go home and read a book.

What is good is that if there really is something you need help on, you can email the lecturer and they'll give you the information you need. We also have some seminars where the professor will play a short clip from a film and then we all discuss it. I really enjoy that.

I still find it hard to manage my time because I'm so busy. I don't just study, I play in a band, go to the gym a lot, work part-time and try to go out with my friends sometimes. I've only got behind on assignments a couple of times and I've caught up with the work in a couple of all-nighters! It's still the best time of my life.

Kevin's top tip:

Don't play in a band and don't go to the gym! But if you do, make sure you leave enough time to do your university work

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