I’m going to write several posts that deal with issues facing undergraduate students. These posts will be most relevant to British undergraduates studying in the humanities, but other groups of undergraduates will find some useful tips, too.
I’ve taught at three universities; at all of them, some staff had a tendency to expect students to know how to be students from day one. If you’ve finished your A-levels and secured a university place, you’ve likely been told that ‘university isn’t just an extension of school’. So far as it goes, this is true. However, knowing what university isn’t doesn’t do much to prepare you for what it is.
One of the biggest changes you’ll have to adjust to is that your time management is all up to you now. Most of you won’t be living with your parents or guardians, so you won’t have anyone to make sure you study, go to class, sleep, eat the occasional vegetable…
This newfound freedom is exhilarating. Enjoy it! Go out with your friends, stay up too late (on occasion), and have fun. You’ll have more fun throughout the academic year, though, if you develop a plan for keeping up with your studies.
When you receive your timetable, you’ll probably have about 10 to 12 hours of timetabled events (lectures, seminars, etc.). This does not mean the other 154 to 156 hours in the week are ‘free time’.
British universities, more so than their American counterparts, expect students to engage with a lot of independent study. How much, you ask? If you’re enrolled in five units, you should plan to spend seven to eight hours each week on each unit. If a unit has a one-hour seminar and a one-hour lecture, you need to spend five to six hours preparing for those and engaging in further study. As a full-time student, you are expected to see your academic work as your full time job.
Below I’ll show you what a weekly calendar would look like for a fictional student called Maggie (after my sweet 16-year old cat; in the picture below, she’s investigating a clome oven).
S = Seminar, L = Lecture, Numerals = Course name
As you can see, Maggie works, is enrolled on five units (each with one seminar and one lecture), and is involved in Drama Club. Though she is busy, she manages to have most evenings free and still get all of her work done.
How does Maggie fill 26 hours of independent study time?
This will vary from course to course, and unit to unit. It is common for your lecturers to outline topics or questions you need to be prepared to discuss in each seminar in addition to the more general discussion you can expect to have about the assigned reading. Thus, a large portion of your study time should be given to reading the assigned text(s) and making notes—write down questions you have, answers to the suggested questions, etc.
When you finish the prep for the next seminar, you’re not done. Students on courses with heaving reading loads will benefit from reading ahead—ideally you’ll start this the summer before, but if not start now.
Look at when your assessments are due; if the first one isn’t due until the middle of term, take the first couple of weeks to get ahead on your reading and seminar preparation. This way, when you need to devote more time to researching and writing essays, you’ll have more time. Also, if (when) you catch whatever head cold/flu/stomach bug is going around, you can take a day or two off to recover without falling so far behind.
Once you’re a couple of weeks ahead on reading and preparation, stay ahead by continuing to do about a week’s worth of reading/prep each week. However, now you should devote any ‘extra’ time you have to engaging with secondary resources and preparing for assessments.
Most tutors give you a recommended reading list or unit bibliography. You generally aren’t expected to read every text on these lists, but you should read some of them. If you have the essay prompts for your upcoming assessments, choose texts from the list that will help you with the title or question that most interests you. If you were particularly interested in a subject or text discussed in seminar read secondary sources related to it. If you’ve been confused about anything, do some research—the secondary texts might help, or at least help you articulate what it is that you’re confused about.
In future posts, I’ll discuss how to engage in seminar (even if you’re painfully shy), how to stay focused when studying or writing, how to get more out of lectures, how to prepare for exams, and how to approach writing coursework essays. Until next time, have fun!