New game, new rules

The challenge of a degree brings with it a new study methodology. Current student Frank Tickner explains the secrets of academic success at university and college
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The Independent Online

Mastering the skills of independent study will be key to your academic performance when you get to university or college. To get the most out of your course or courses, you need to be prepared to put your back into private study.

Mastering the skills of independent study will be key to your academic performance when you get to university or college. To get the most out of your course or courses, you need to be prepared to put your back into private study.

Lectures, seminars, tutorials and practicals

Regular attendance is a must as roll-calls are commonplace. Lectures are often crammed full of students and are the key tuition for your course. They last an hour, are fairly intensive and are led completely by the lecturer. On the other hand, seminars and tutorials are more informal and have fewer students, usually about 10. they are a great chance to question aspects of the course, and to discuss key points raised in the lectures. For the scientists, practicals are the chance to put theory into action, although you will still have the write-up to complete afterwards.

Private study

Just as important as your contact time, if not more so, is the work you are prepared to do on your own. And here lies the main difference between sixth form and higher education: rigid timetabling is replaced by greater freedom at university or college to pursue your own interests in your own time. In this context wider reading is essential and the library is the best place to do it. At the beginning of term there will be plenty of introductory tours around what might seem at first a confusing place - and with habit comes familiarity.

When borrowing, you will find they are either long term or short term texts. The former will be given to you for anything up to a month, although they can be recalled by other students. In this case you will receive notification form the library, and the deadline will be shortened. With short term books it is vital you return them on time. They are usually only given out over night, and failure to return them early the following day results in some pretty hefty fines! Most students buy their set texts on campus, at slightly discounted prices. However, there are websites that offer cheap second-hand books, so it may well be worth some research.

Time management

Developing an efficient, ordered and well coordinated approach over the first month or so will allow you properly to enjoy the other aspects of student life.

To manage your time effectively, it is essential you timetable your contact hours and the times at which you plan to do the rest of your work. You will need to plan ahead so that your other commitments can be incorporated, and be sure to know when your deadlines are. By sitting down with a calendar at the beginning of each week and allocating time slots, you can ensure you will be fully prepared for the week's events.

The academic rules

With essay writing, many departments will ask you to adhere to a particular style guide. Fortunately they allow you time to adjust to it, but all assessed work has to be faithful to its instructions. For instance, among other rules, my English essays must be in a certain font and size, must be double-line spaced and correctly referenced.

You must reference all sources you consult, be they directly or indirectly incorporated into your work (thus the need for a bibliography in written assignments).


Plagiarism, the appropriation of another person's thoughts or writings, is taken very seriously indeed. In mild cases it will lead to docking of marks, in serious cases students may face dismissal from their course.


A word of warning, if work deadlines are not met, marks are deducted, usually on a daily basis. It pays to get your work in promptly! If you can't get to classes or complete work due to illness or other justifiable reasons, it is vital you communicate this to your lecturer or convenor. If you are in a similar situation in the exam period, or if you feel your preparation has been significantly impaired for good reason, there are forms that can be completed in advance of your examinations which ask for your special circumstances to be taken into mitigation. If your explanation is acceptable to the university or college, your difficulties will be taken into account and your work marked with them in mind.


If at any point you feel pressured by your workload, or for that matter by anything, there is plenty of help at hand. Advice can be sought from tutors and lecturers if you are having problems with your course. Emailing them is a simple and direct way of getting feedback, or you can arrange to see the person direct. Furthermore, in your department you will have a personal tutor (two if you are a Joint Honours student) who is there for more specific help.

The end of year exam period is often a stressful time for students, and counselling sessions are offered for those struggling. For more private and personal problems there are 24-hour confidential phone lines set up to help.

Summing Up

Higher education differs from what you have done before. However, it is your mindset, no one else's, that will determine whether you realise your potential. Good luck!

Frank is studying a joint honours degree in English and French at Birmingham University