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  • Toby Baverstock

A Guide to University Education for Freshers

Updated: Apr 24, 2020



Even though it may seem somewhat nerve-racking at first, you should not worry about starting university. That being said, you will soon notice a big ‘gear shift’ between the eduction you had in school and the education you will receive at university. Unlike school, at university there is very little ‘spoon feeding’ and a much greater expectation of you to be an independent learner and a critical thinker. There are also many academic skills to learn, such as Harvard referencing and academic writing.


This may all seem somewhat intimidating at this stage, but by the time you graduate this will all become second nature to you! This short guide aims to explain some of the aspects of university learning that you may not be familiar with and hopefully help settle some of the fears that a first-time fresher may be feeling!


Lectures and Seminars

Lectures

A lecture is a ‘teaching’ session, in which a lecturer will provide you with important knowledge for your learning and assignments, often by delivering a presentation with accompanying slides. There may be any number of students in a lecture, from under ten to hundreds (depending on the size of your university and the number of students on your course). Most lectures last for about an hour.


The important thing to remember in lectures is to keep focused, pay attention and take plenty of good quality notes that will help you plan your assignments. Make sure to bring everything you need, which will include paper, pens or pencils and a coffee (that’s very important!). Also make sure to bring a copy of the lecture slides, for making notes – these are generally uploaded to your university’s Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), by your lecturer, close to the day of the lecture. Some students prefer to take their notes on a laptop, but just be mindful that the loud tapping of keys may be off-putting for others.


Seminars

In contrast to a lecture, a seminar is a ‘learning’ session. In a small, group environment, you will have the chance to work with other students by discussing the topic. This kind of learning environment is designed to get you thinking critically and independently; two important facets of being a university student! Therefore, it’s important that you speak up and engage with the session – ‘coasting’ will not get you very far.


Do not be afraid to make mistakes or be challenged by others, as you cannot learn without making mistakes and it’s having different points-of-view that leads to a constructive debate. As well as challenging others, also challenge your own assumptions – that is critical thinking – especially if you have come from a related job, because you will find that there are many more layers to what you think you know!


Being prepared for your seminars is also vital. Make sure to do any pre-seminar tasks and readings (which are usually on the VLE) and bring your lecture notes with you. You will encounter many tutors who will insist that unless you come prepared, there is no point in turning up at all! Don’t forget to bring all your stationary to seminars too, as many activities involve making notes or mind-maps. But as seminars generally follow lectures – with a short break in between – this shouldn’t be an issue.


What If I Miss a Lecture or Seminar?

If you cannot make a particular lecture or seminar for whatever reason, do not worry. University is not like school – you will not be disciplined for non-attendance. However, most lecturers do insist that you let them know in advance if you won’t be able to make it for their lecture. For just this kind of circumstance, many universities record lectures, which can then be accessed on the VLE. Seminars may not be recorded, but getting some notes from the seminar should not be an issue as, well, that’s what friends are for!


Getting Prepared for Writing Assignment

Writing Academically

One of the most important skills you will need to succeed at university is an advanced level of English and grammar. This may sound obvious, but being able to write in an accurate way and with a clear academic voice is vital, and many marks will depend on you doing this well! Do not be worried at this stage about what is meant by an ‘academic voice’ as this is one of the skills you will start to develop once you begin your degree. In the meantime, you may find reading a some essays and dissertations helpful to ‘get a taste’ of academic writing.

Keep an eye on me website for an upcoming guide about writing academically.


Independent Learning and Using Sources

As previously mentioned, one of the most important aspects of being a university student is independent learning, so developing skills of effective reading and note-making is important. Many new students find independent learning or study tough at first, as it’s a totally different style to what many are used to doing in school. Doing your independent study usually involves using books, journal articles and the internet to develop your notes in preparation for writing your assignments.


Journal articles are often the most respected references in assignments, as they are usually bonafide, peer-reviewed academic material. Most universities will have an online bank of journal articles that you can access at any time. You can also find many journal articles on Google Scholar, but just be careful about the credibility of what comes up in your search results! Before committing to reading a whole journal article, make sure to check that it’s up-to-date (within the last ten years, ideally) and have a read through the abstract (the academic equivalent of a blurb) to make sure that it’s going to relevant to your assignment. Many university libraries have a large collection of printed journals, but if you cannot find a copy of an article you think will be really helpful, then you can always request an Inter-library Loan at the main desk.


Books can also be very valuable sources for your research, especially when trying discussing different perspectives on a topic or gain a deeper understanding of a particular theory, among many other things! When using books for study, avoid reading them cover-to-cover, as this will take a lot of time. Instead, use the contents and index to find the chapters and pages that may be relevant for your assignment.


When you begin your course, have a good explore of the library, finding out where the books for your subject live and where the good workspaces are (preferably with a plug socket for a laptop). Most universities will have a large library containing enough books to serve your independent study well, but if there is ever a book you really want to read but the library do not have, ask them if a copy can be ordered rather than buying it straight away as academic books can be very expensive. It would also be worth finding out how many books you can take out at once. Just be aware of any fines for overdue books, as if you have many books out at once, the fines can become heavy.


The Internet may sometimes be a useful resource for your study. However, don’t get caught out, as there are some definite no-gos with using the internet for your assignments. For example, NEVER reference Wikipedia – it can serve well as a starting point in your reading, but only use it to search out more bonafide material (some lecturers threaten to fail assignments if they see a Wikipedia reference!). However, some non-academic sources from the internet may be useful to you. Reputable news websites, like The Guardian, are often accepted as referencing by lecturers as long as arguments are supported by academic material. Finally, many lecturers may advise you to avoid ‘.com’ or ‘.co.uk’ websites, as any information on these sites may be anecdotal (in other words, it may not be totally true or researched in an accurate way). They may advise you that ‘.org’ or ‘.org.uk’ websites are fine to use, but just be aware that some of these websites, especially charity websites, are likely to use anecdotal information as well – be savvy in your research!


The more time you invest in your independent study and the more good-quality notes you produce, the better your chances of writing a good assignment. It may sound cliche, but at university you really do get out what you put in!


Helpful Software

Most students will use Microsoft Word as their word processor for writing assignments. Many universities will offer you a free student membership of Microsoft Office 365, which will include the full, latest suite of Office programmes as well as 1TB of cloud storage.

Mendeley is a fantastic free programme that’s available on most platforms. This programme will store and sync your journal article PDFs across devices. You can also highlight and add notes to your PDF files that will also sync across your devices. But the best part? Mendeley will automatically produce references for you, in any style you ask it to (including Harvard, of course)!


Many students also like to use Grammarly, which is a particularly useful spelling and grammar tool. The premium ‘education’ version of Grammarly will also be able to help you with writing in an academic voice, pointing out more advanced issues such as phrasal verbs and tautology. Grammarly also comes as an add-on for Microsoft Word.


Referencing

Another skill you will need to develop quickly after beginning your degree is Harvard referencing (unless you university uses a different referencing system). Referencing is the way in which we credit the sources that we read in order to write an assignment, and the Harvard system is a popular style that is favoured by many universities. Many students feel daunted by referencing at first, but do not worry – once you’ve done a few assignments, it’s another one of those skills that will quickly become second nature! Reading some essays and dissertations will also show you how referencing works.


Don't Worry – It's Not All Essays!

Even though most of your assignments will be essay-based, depending on your course you may also have a lot of coursework, presentations, portfolios, reports, and so on. This is not meant to sound scary, but quite the opposite: if academic writing seems daunting, then you may be able to claw back some good marks in assignment tasks that may work better for you and your style of learning and working.


How Are Assignments Graded?

If you have come from school, you may be used to the letter (A*, A, B, C, etc.) system of grading. However, university grading is not like this. In fact, for most assignments you get two grades; a percentage, which also relates to a classification. Every assignment you do will be graded using a percentage score in the same way, whether it’s an essay, presentation, portfolio or poster. Percentage scores relate the academic classifications as follows:


70%+ = First Class (1) 60-69% = Upper Second Class (2:1) 50-59% = Lower Second Class (2:2) 40-49% = Third Class (3) <40% = Fail


You will get an individual mark for each assignment. From all the marks from your assignments in a module, a module average is calculated. One you have completed all the modules you need to graduate with a degree, your university will use these module averages to calculate your final degree mark.


When you first start your degree, you may be getting scores between 40-50%. This may feel disheartening, but do not be disheartened. To pass you first few assignments as a new student is something to be proud of! Higher marks are earned over time, by continuing to practice your academic skills and be making use of the feedback your tutors give on your work.


Teaching Staff

In comparison to school, university ‘teachers’ are called lecturers. Not only will they perform your lectures, but they will also run your seminars. One of the lecturers in your department will also be appointed as your ‘personal tutor’ or ‘academic advisor’ and will be your first port-of-call for any academic, personal or university-life-balance related concerns that you have. For questions relating to a particular module of learning, you should ask to speak with the module leader (the lecturer who runs that module) or your seminar leader.


One of the biggest mistakes made by new students is that they forget that they can make use of the lecturers by requesting tutorial appointments. At the end of the day, as a student, you are paying to gain the best education that the university can offer, which includes one-to-one time with lecturers. However, it’s not their job to chase you – remember, this is not school – but rather your job to contact them to book meetings and tutorials. Lecturers love it when students take an interest in their learning and book an appointment, so go for it… do not just complain about a lack of support before you’ve asked for any!


‘TOP-TIPS'

  • Remember that university is all about independent learning and thinking critically.

  • Pay attention in lectures and take good quality notes to help with planning your assignments.

  • Come to seminars prepared and make sure to contribute to discussions.

  • Check your university’s VLE regularly for any pre-session tasks.

  • Make sure you let your lecturer know in advance if you cannot attend a session.

  • Brush up on your English and grammar before starting your course.

  • Read some essays and dissertations to get a taste of academic writing and referencing.

  • Look into any software that you may find useful to you.

  • Familiarise yourself with where things are in your university’s library.

  • Do not feel disheartened with low marks at first – as you practice, they will improve!

  • Remember to make use of your tutors by booking tutorial appointments if you need to.

  • Keep calm: you will learn all the skills you will need to succeed in good time!

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