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Studying at British Universities - Six things you need to know to do well in the coming year

Studying in the UK is likely to be different from what you are used to. Here are the six key differences between what you may be familiar with and the standard practice in UK universities. Read them carefully and think about how they differ from what you did in your undergraduate degree.

1) Where do you ‘get knowledge’?

The British model has a ‘constructive’ model of learning that places emphasis on you ‘constructing’ your own knowledge about a topic rather than being taught what you need to know. Students are expected to progress beyond simply studying what is contained in textbooks and reproducing it in the exams. By reading many different sources, for example journal articles, taking notes on them and compiling your understanding from each of these sources (which may disagree with each other) you will form your own interpretation of what is known about a particular topic. That is, you are expected to demonstrate a systematic understanding of knowledge as well as originality in the application of this knowledge. Much of the assessment in the UK will evaluate the extent to which you have developed your own understanding of the subject rather than your ability to repeat the facts that you have been told.

It is likely, therefore, that you will spend more hours on private or independent study than you are used to, and fewer hours being taught in the classroom. Study, in that sense, is much more of an individual activity.

2) What makes a ‘good teacher’?

Universities in the UK have a dual role. They are places for teaching students but they are also places where the academics spend considerable time doing research. Indeed, students might be taught about the research that their professor has just completed. Because senior lecturers are often busy with their research, students may spend more time interacting with graduate teaching assistants than with their professors.

One benefit of this research–led environment is that you will often be taught about the cutting edge of ideas in the subject, but it might also mean that your professor has less time to spend with you than you spent with your previous teachers at university.

3) What makes a ‘good student’?

Remember, in the UK you are expected to develop your own understanding of the subject and a good student is someone who is able to do this well and can demonstrate that they have done so. At MSc / MA level you are expected to do similar things to those undertaken by academic staff, i.e. research debates and produce your own well–considered position. A variety of teaching formats exist. Apart from lectures you will probably also have seminars or classes, which tend to be smaller and are more interactive. In seminars and classes you will be expected to participate in discussions or present your own project work. You are also responsible for your own learning –so you need to make sure that you use the opportunities provided for you, for example in the library. Just because there are times when there are no lectures timetabled, this doesn’t mean you have time ‘off’.

Your teachers might check to see how well you are progressing by asking you questions in classes. They will normally welcome you asking questions of your own. Students need to identify relevant sources of information and spend time researching, reading and writing by themselves or in groups.

4) How do I develop my own understanding of the subject?

In order for you to develop your own understanding of the subject you will need to identify and locate suitable sources about the subject that go well beyond either the textbook or a quick internet search (for example on Wikipedia). The library and your department will offer specialist sessions on how to take advantage of the resources the university has to offer, and you will learn how to access and search databases and use the library collections. These research skills will prove invaluable for your degree and for your later professional life. Something that might be new to you is the use of academic journals, which most British academics believe to be the best source of up-to-date reliable (peer-reviewed) information. Journal access is available only to registered students (you can’t buy these journals in a shop). A good library with extensive academic journal access is one of the key benefits of studying at a university.

Whereas you may previously have got most of your information from one or two textbooks, the UK model presumes that you will read more widely on a subject and be able to use these different sources. A key role for the Librarians is to help you find suitable literature. If you are struggling, go and ask them –they will be delighted to show you around and explain things. Access to academic journals is often online, but you will need a pass word and you will need to familiarise yourself with how to search the relevant journal databases.

5) How do I demonstrate my understanding of the subject?

The most common form of assessment for demonstrating your understanding of a subject is an essay, which might be a long piece of coursework (several thousand words) or essay type examination questions. Writing long essays is a skill that you may have to learn how to do. The best way to develop any skill is to do as much practice as possible, so that you can learn from mistakes along the way. You will probably find the university Language Centre or English for Academic Purposes courses helpful for practising and developing the skill of essay writing. As you are using many sources, you will need to clearly indicate in your written work where the ideas come from, a process known as referencing. Be careful with copy-paste, there are strict penalties for not properly acknowledging the sources you have used in writing your essay!

If you are not used to writing long essays in English, you should take advantage of all the support services offered by the university. Taking a pre-sessional course (for a month or so before you start your course) is likely to help you prepare in terms of the appropriate skills and it means that you are more likely to be able to concentrate on the content of your new course (rather than struggling with new conventions). These courses are often called ‘English language’ courses, but they have a much wider remit than language competency alone. In particular make sure you understand the academic writing conventions about acknowledging other people’s words or ideas.

6) What can I do if I’m having problems?

UK universities provide a whole range of support services to help you do well while studying. You might have an MSc / MA course tutor as well as a personal tutor whom you can approach for advice and guidance. Your professors and class teachers will have special times when you can see them without an appointment (usually known as office hours). You can always also make an appointment to see staff outside of their office hours.

All British universities have a range of specialist support staff who can offer advice on study skills, library skills and English for academic purposes as well as specialist international student advisors. All these resources are there to help you so do take advantage of them (within your own university, these are free). It is OK to ask for help and they will keep your concerns confidential. Remember that many students will have struggled with similar problems to the ones you are facing.

In contrast to what you might be used to, it is up to you to contact the excellent support services offered by the University. Make sure you use the feedback that you are given by your teachers in order to figure out whether you properly understand what is required of you. Support will only be provided if you ask for it – nobody will come looking for you to see if you might need help or support.

In General

Learning about new and different academic conventions in the UK is relevant even if you have always been a particularly good student. You will want to do just as well in your UK degree, so look out for these differences and make sure you understand them well before any deadlines when you need to present or submit your work.

It is important that you are aware of your university’s requirements of its students. You need to make sure that you understand these and that you develop the necessary skills to satisfy them. If you are not clear about the requirements, or are unsure whether you are satisfying them ASK FOR HELP.

Be careful about relying on the advice of your friends (who may also be unclear about the requirements), so go and ask for help from people whose job it is provide such help — your lecturers, professors, class teachers or staff in the various support units. A good first source of information is the student handbook, which is specific to your course and which is usually handed out when you register for your course or at the first introductory session for your specific programme of study. Most degree courses will also have a course website, which will have this information. Once you have started studying, you should explore the virtual learning environment that is used by many institutions and programmes.


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