- 1 How is university learning different?
- 2 Changing Expectations
- 3 Knowledge Delivery
- 4 Getting the Most out of Your Courses
How is university learning different?
Learning at university looks different from learning in high school or on-the-job training in the labour market. Whether you’re coming from high school or from a job, there are going to be some adjustments. That’s okay! We’re here to explain how expectations might look different for you now, how professors commonly teach at university, and ways that you can maximize your learning in and out of class time.
From high school learning to university learning
This transition can be particularly difficult, as you are moving from one learning model to another. High school teachers see you in class every day or every other day. Your class is small enough that your teacher knows your name. Your teacher takes attendance, calls you out when you’re missing too many classes, and tracks you down when you haven’t handed in assignments. In high school, teachers take a pretty big chunk of responsibility for your academic success.
University won’t look the same. Some of your classes may be huge, especially if you’re taking courses on main campus. You might see your professor a few times a week, and for the most part no one’s keeping track of your attendance. There is a lot less structure, and a lot more personal accountability. The idea is that now, you’re an adult. You take responsibility for your academic success.
From the job market to university learning
If you’ve been out of school for a while, there’s a good chance you’re coming to university from full- or part-time employment. That means that you’re used to taking responsibility for yourself and taking direction from a boss. These skills will serve you well as you transition back into an educational setting. That said, university will probably present you with some new challenges. Working at a job tends to be a lot more straightforward than taking university classes: you work a set number of hours, there are concrete expectations, you get paid for meeting those expectations, and when you leave work, you’re done for the day.
University is less structured. Your workload changes from week to week, assignments will require creative and independent thought, and your schoolwork tends to follow you home a lot more than many jobs do.
There are a few common ways that professors teach at university.
Lecturing is the most common way that professors teach classes in first- and second-year courses. Professors will introduce new concepts, give you new information, make connections between different concepts and/or topics, and expand upon any materials you’ve been assigned (i.e., class readings, talks, etc.). How interactive a lecture is will depend on the professor and the class size. Some professors will ask the class questions, some will put you into small groups or pairs to discuss things, and some professors will do the majority of the talking during class time. This year, there will be an extra set of variables, as most courses will be taught remotely.
Labs, Tutorials, and Seminars
These are smaller, more hands-on classes. The format they take will vary depending on the subject matter, but the common theme for them is that they will in some way require your active participation. This means that good preparation is key. It also tends to mean that you’ll get more guidance from the teaching assistant, professor, or tutorial leader.
Getting the Most out of Your Courses
One of the main differences you’ll see between high school and university is how little time you actually spend in class. That’s because you’re expected to do a lot of independent work. It’s easy to feel lost or intimidated when you read that, but there’s actually a pretty simple set of activities that will help you succeed in this new learning environment:
Try to do all of your assigned readings in advance of class. Even if you don’t have time to do a full reading , at least skim the materials so you have a sense of the day’s topics.
This is especially important for lecture-based classes. It has the twin benefits of helping you pay attention in class and also giving you materials to look back on when you are writing papers or studying. Even if you are watching a lecture that’s been or being recorded, taking notes will still improve your learning outcomes. Remember:
- You don’t need to write down literally everything the professor says: write in point form and listen for key concepts.
- If you can, write by hand. Studies show that writing notes longhand helps you retain information better and for a longer period of time. If you remember it the first time, you won’t have to do as much studying later.
Asking questions is both the most useful and most underused tool at your disposal. It is truly amazing how many bad marks, misunderstandings, and late-November breakdowns can be avoided by asking your professor the right question.
There are several types of questions you might ask. Here’s a brief guide to what they are, how to ask them, and when it’s best to ask them.
- The “I don’t understand” type of question. These are the questions you ask when the professor uses a word you haven’t heard before, you’re not quite sure what they meant, or what they’ve said seems to contradict what they’ve said before. It’s good to ask these questions in the moment if you feel comfortable to do so. If you are confused, there’s a good chance someone else in the class is confused, too.
- The “I want to know more about this” type of question. These are the questions you ask when the professor mentions something you think is super interesting, but they don’t go into detail. It’s fine to ask these questions in the moment but be prepared not to get an answer right away. Your professor will have a certain amount of material they need to get through during class, and the intellectual detour you’re proposing might not be possible at that moment. Sending your professor an email after class, setting up an appointment to chat, or dropping into office hours are all great options.
- The “I think you’re wrong” type of question. These are the questions you ask when you want to challenge what your professor has said. Depending on your personality, these are either the hardest questions or easiest questions to ask. University is about discourse; disagreement is part of that, so don’t shy away from it. They can be a learning opportunity for everyone. Just remember: you may disagree with your professor, but your professor likely knows a lot more about the subject than you do, so be respectful, be prepared to continue to disagree after the discussion, and also be willing and prepared to be proven wrong.
- The “I want to impress my professor” type of question. If you don’t know what type of question this is, you probably don’t do this, and if you do know what type of question this is, you know exactly when you are doing it. This question usually comes up on the first day of class, and it’s less about asking for information and more about proving you know stuff. Don’t worry. You’ll have lots of opportunities to prove you know stuff throughout the term.
- The “I might not have read my syllabus” type of question. These are usually purely practical questions about readings, due dates, essay formatting, and exams. They usually arrive around midterms or end of term. It is fine to ask these questions, but for the love of God, check your syllabus first. Without question, the number one professor complaint is that students don’t check the syllabus before sending an email. You know how you’re super stressed because you have five papers due in two weeks? Imagine being the professor who has to mark all of those papers. Now imagine getting 30 emails asking questions about that paper. Now imagine that the answer to 25 of those questions is in the syllabus.
COVID-times tip: asking questions in the moment will likely be more complicated with remote classes. Check your syllabus to see if your professor has guidelines regarding in-class questions. If there’s nothing in the syllabus, and your professor doesn’t address this in the first few days of class, feel free to send them an email about the best way to ask questions.
Reread Your Notes
Revisit your notes before your next class. It’s best to do this the night before or the day of the next class. It helps solidify concepts in your mind, reminds you of any questions you might have for your professor, and gives you a solid foundation to move on to the next set of concepts your professor wants to introduce. Remember, this doesn’t mean you have to rewrite all of your notes and highlight them with six different colours of markers, you overachiever. Just reread them.