Learning at University

Studying at university is completely different to school. It is important to identify what ‘type’ of learner you are before beginning a higher education qualification. Are you the type of person who enjoys talking through course material in groups, or would you rather lock yourself away with relevant textbooks? Would you choose to implement virtual learning environments, such as tablet apps, dedicated websites on the internet or YouTube in your learning, would do you prefer studying in libraries, coffee shops or other quiet areas?

The Main Library

In this blog post, I am going to outline some of the key differences that affect the way in which students study at the University of Manchester, and how these may differ from what you’re used to at school, college, or sixth form.

One of the most noticeable differences between university and school are the class sizes. In my first-year lectures, there were often two hundred to three hundred students turning up to each class. Instead of asking and answering questions, learning takes place through note-taking; an academic will speak about their field specialisation or research that they are conducting, and students record the most important information either by hand or through their laptops. Each lecture is then followed by a smaller classroom discussion known as a seminar. These classes are much smaller (maybe five to fifteen people per class), and focus on smaller details that the students may have missed within the broad content covered in the lecture. Seminars are also a perfect time to ask questions and investigate certain areas of subject that are particularly interesting and colourful.

With such a large cohort on each subject strand, peer mentors (second or third year students who ‘buddy up’ with first-year undergraduates) often arrange additional study sessions and meetings where difficult topics can be further discussed, ensuring that all of the course’s subject matter is fully understood before new, more advanced material is introduced. Personally, I prefer to study independently rather than attending these extra classes, but many of my friends appreciate the support that peer mentors offer.

It is vitally important that students working towards higher education qualifications are self-motivated and passionate about the course that they are studying at university. On my course, English Literature and Linguistics, I am often given a range of different books and critical essays that are recommended reads for each course module that I take. Although it is often difficult to find the time to read two or three books a week, I have to make sure that the work is completed to guarantee that I do not fall behind.

Unlike school, college or sixth form, lecturers are not responsible for ensuring that your work is submitted on time to a high standard. Instead, it is up to the individual to hit the deadlines and quality that is expected. If a piece of coursework isn’t submitted on time, for example, or if certain specified criteria aren’t addressed, the student will be harshly penalised, causing a deduction in the candidate’s overall mark.

It can be difficult to juggle your working life with your leisure time in the first few semesters of university. I moved out for my first year, and found the balance between going out and completing set tasks challenging for the first few weeks: compared to the five books that I read throughout my English Literature A2, reading two books a week seemed impossible. However, the stresses of a heavy workload did ease once I had found equilibrium within my work and play hours. Students usually find that three or four hours extra study on top of their scheduled lecture and seminar classes is enough to complete any required readings or tutorial tasks, although most do extra work to broaden their understanding of difficult or interesting concepts.

Obviously, students aren’t completely alone, and strong support networks exist within each institution to ensure that learners are not over-pressured. While deadlines are often rigorous, there are many opportunities available where guidance can be attained. At the University of Manchester, each member of staff has office hours, giving students the opportunity to talk to their course leaders and mentors in a less formal setting about areas within their field that are particularly difficult, or more general questions relating to anything! Contrary to popular belief, lecturers are always happy to help their pupils out, and most are actually quite cool!

Conclusively, the learning that is undergone at university varies considerably from that which takes place in schools. In university, students have to take responsibility for their work, and be willing to accept the consequences that both positive and negative decisions can cause. Although it may initially seem difficult to get to grips with the different learning styles that are used in university life, it can be incredibly rewarding to learn how you want in a way that is perfect for you. ​

UMASS is running learning style workshops in April – sign up here