Adam’s Blog – 23 July 2014

Transitions – College and University

Exams are finally finished! I hope you are all feeling confident and are ready to move on to the next stage in your educational career: university – you’re going to love it! For this blog post, I will share with you some of my own experiences of the college-to-university transition, whilst providing tips that I wish I would have known before starting.

1. Lectures, seminars & tutorials: One of the things that I found most surprising about university study was the class sizes; the lectures are really big, whereas seminars and tutorials are much smaller. The first few lectures can be scary. My first year English Literature lectures had over two hundred people in them (a lot more than my sixth form class of seven)! You quickly become accustomed to the larger lecture sizes though, and within a week or two they are a lot less intimidating. Instead of asking and answering questions to the lecturer, learning takes place through note-taking. A lecturer will speak about their specific field of research and students record the most important information, either by hand or through their laptops. At The University of Manchester, many lectures are recorded and uploaded to the Internet, allowing students to repeatedly listen to parts of the class that were particularly difficult.

Each session is then followed by a smaller classroom discussion, known as a seminar, which focuses on the more specific details that students might have missed or found especially challenging. In these sessions, the lecturer or teaching assistant acts as a facilitator to your learning. In English, students often respond as a group to a question that the teaching coordinator asks, prompting the group to arrive at a correct answer through discussion. These classroom sessions are the perfect time to ask questions to your advisor, catch up with other people on your course, and investigate areas of the module that you find interesting.

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 to ensure 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 this service offers.

2. Time management: The way in which students have to manage their time is very different between college and university. Undergraduates often have less contact time than college students. In the first two years of my English Literature and Linguistics degree, I had around eight hours of allocated lectures and seminars per week. This is due to drop down to four hours in September when I start my final year of study; a stark contrast to the twenty plus hours per week of supported learning that I had at college. The rest of my hours are unallocated, but are still used productively in ways that support the development of my subject knowledge.

I struggled to make full use of these free hours within the first semester of year one. I moved out of home 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. Furthermore, unlike at college, there is no one to constantly remind you about essay or assignment deadlines. At university, it is not the lecturer’s responsibility to ensure that your work is on time; it’s yours and, if an assignment is late, you will be significantly penalised for late submission.

However, the stresses of a heavy workload did ease once I had found a balance between my work and play hours. Students usually find that three or four hours extra study on top of their scheduled lecture and seminar class is enough to complete any required readings or tutorial tasks, although most do extra work to broaden their understanding of certain stimulating concepts. In second year, I started to treat my degree programme as a full-time job, which allowed me to make use of my time much more effectively.

3. Contact hours & University support: The amount of assigned contact hours that you have will vary from course to course. Students of science, for example, often have full timetables of supervised laboratory sessions and additional workshops throughout their week (up to 35 hours!) but they have a lot less supplementary reading to do outside of class. Obviously, students aren’t completely alone when they are completing independent research or projects, and strong support networks exist within each higher education 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!

4. Course content: One of the other main differences between college and university centres on the extensive range of different modules that can be studied.  At university, students are offered a much broader pool of modules that they can take. It is possible to tailor your degree to your own interests and research by choosing topics within your degree programme that you appreciate. I like studying medieval cultures and literature and have been able to do so since my second year at university. In my final year, the modules that I have picked to study all focus around this interest; I no longer have to read books from genres and periods that I’m not interested in like I did in my A-levels. My programme is created by me, for myself.

Some degree courses, often those that are more vocational, such as architecture, dentistry, law, and medicine, do not allow students as many choices or options at undergraduate level, usually because the whole syllabus is essential.

My top tip to new undergraduates would be to start your assignments early and ensure that you have enough time to write, read, and reread every piece of work that you submit. With such a small number of contact hours, I presumed that I would have more than enough time to write my papers and finish my prescribed reading. It can be easy to trick yourself into believing that you have an infinite amount of time to get your tasks completed. Creating assignment timetables that clearly set out what targets you have to meet by certain days can help to reduce the chances of procrastination occurring; a strategy that I adopted in my second year. By doing this, I could ensure that I always knew which stage I was at with my work, and how long it would take me to complete it. If I needed more time, I could rearrange my plan, and if I needed help, I could make time to get and visit my tutors in their office hours.

Most of all, I would advise new undergraduates to enjoy the experience of university and to engage in all of the fun activities that the first few weeks of higher education offers. Unlike most colleges, it is likely that you won’t know anyone when you arrive, so it’s a fantastic opportunity to try out new things and meet new people.

For more hints and tips on how best to prepare for university, subscribe to The University of Manchester’s Aspiring Students’ Society.

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