Studying at higher level is always a tough challenge, yet you can make it one of the most satisfying experiences of your life by rising to the challenge and taking control of your studies. But to do that you need to understand the nature of university study.

Taking responsibility for your own learning

University is a world of its own, with customs and values you encounter nowhere else, and extraordinary freedom to do, think and speak as you please. Faced for the first time with this openness, it is natural to feel confused. Here is an account of two campus-based students. Ryan, a full-time student, is a recent school leaver. Tracy is a mature student with young family and a part-time job.

Ryan looked around the coffee bar,soaking up the atmosphere. It was his first week at university. Round the other side of the table he could hear Tracy telling a friend that she was really determined to try for a good degree, in spite of her family and work commitments. She was saying that she’d worked out a plan for setting aside 25 hours week for study and she was hoping this would be enough. Ryan listened sceptically. He was anticipating afar more intensive study routine. At the departmental fresher’s talk he’d been inspired to remodel himself as a serious student. He wasn’t sure how, but he imagined himself working round the clock if necessary. Tracy, he guessed, was heading for disappointment.

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This account is based on real people. Can you guess which of the two was the more successful in their studies? Back to the story …

Three years on, Tracy achieved an excellent degree, while Ryan struggled to more modest achievements. As Ryan discovered during the semester when he was studying the same course, Tracy produced her work very consistently. She said she had only a few ‘windows of opportunity between her shifts and looking after her children, so she had to be disciplined and use them to the full. In spite of crises when children were ill or child a minding arrangements broke down, she had mostly been able to find 25 hours, or thereabouts. Looking back, Ryan realised that Tracy had seemed as much on top of the work as any of them. By sticking to a well defined and realistic plan, she had achieved what she intended. She also visibly enjoyed her studies.

Think of some reasons why Ryan was less successful. Jot down a few ideas.

Tracy said that studying in short bursts suited her,as she found it difficult to keep her mind focused intensively for more than a couple of hours at a time. However,Ryan, with no job or family commitments, aimed higher,vaguely committing whole weeks to intensive study. Yet, he found himself easily distracted. Stretches of day would slip away and, feeling guilty, he blotted his studies out of his mind by sneaking off to play pool or cards. He comforted himself with the thought of all the potentially virtuous days that lay ahead. At school, Ryan’s work had been timetabled. Teachers made sure he fitted all that was required into the school year. Now he was at sea. At university, time came in vast undifferentiated swathes. What to do with it all? With112 hours in a week (allowing eight a night for sleeping) how many was it reasonable to spend on study? And working out what to do with the hours was just as hard. Take the booklists. How many books should he try to read? How long should a book take? It took him so long to read just a few pages, he felt defeated looking at the lists. And should he take notes as he read? If so, how long should that take? He would sit in the library for hours, dipping into one book after another,stopping frequently to gaze around at other students, or out of the window. What was he trying to achieve? How would he know when he had achieved it? By comparison, he went to lectures gratefully. It was clear when they started and finished and what he was supposed to be doing. At the end, his lecture notes were scrappy, but at least he felt he had met a target. Eventually, during his final year,Ryan discovered that he could learn a lot from close reading of just selected sections of text and that taking notes could sometimes be very satisfying, while at other times it was not necessary. The trick was to take control, to decide what he wanted to find out and then work at it until he had absorbed enough to think about for the time being. It was ashamed that he had not talked to Tracy about these matters in the first year In the end, like most students, he stumbled his way towards an adequate strategy for coping with the work, but he could have got there much quicker,learned a lot more and avoided a lot of anguish on the way.

The most significant difference between Ryan and Tracy was that from the outset Tracy knew that she had to take responsibility for her studies. The teacher on her pre-degree access course had impressed this upon her and had emphasised the value of intensely focused, high equality study, compared with bitty times filling. Ryan, by contrast, just had good intentions. He thought big, but did not know how to deliver. Nobody had told him what university would be like and he had given little thought to how he would cope. Here are some aspects of university study that took him by surprise:

Independent study

Ryan expected to be learning mostly in a familiar group of students, as at school, with a teacher shepherding them along together. But, though he attended several lectures and seminars each week, he was surprised to have little personal contact with staff and little guidance; and he was often amongst students he knew only by sight. He had no idea that he would be spending so much time studying under his own steam.

Absence of work schedules

Nor had it struck Ryan that organising his time was now his own responsibility. If little work was set for a particular day, then he generally did little. He never thought to follow Tracy’s lead and write out a schedule of tasks for himself. He just hoped for the best. He assumed that success was mainly to do with how clever you were. He had yet to appreciate how central is time management to achievement in adult life.

Breadth of courses

He was also completely taken aback by the broad sweep of the courses, with more topics and suggested texts than were possible to cover. Hehad expected to be told what to study when. And he assumed that teachers would help to pull the courses together from time to time to make sure everyone was keeping up. Instead, they just moved on to new topics. Some topics were not even covered in class. He had not realised he was expected to make decisions about where to focus his efforts.

Long time horizons

Ryan had never worked to assignment deadlines so many weeks ahead. He did not think to plan his assignments across a semester,fitting them in alongside other study commitments. He assumed there would be time later He felt he had enough to worry about with the reading and that, anyway, he would be better able to tackle the assignments later on, when he had learned more. He did not realise that working on assignments would help him understand the reading, nor that spacing them out would help him build up his skills and confidence. He got into particular difficulties with the dissertation, the deadline for which lay more than a year ahead. In spite of secret hopes of carrying out an impressively penetrating study, he ended up cobbling the thing together in a last-minute panic and consequently learned little from the experience.

Responsibility for seeking help

Unfortunately, even when Ryan began to recognise that he was not coping, he did not think of seeking support. He kept his feelings of inadequacy to himself and sank into a cycle of avoidance and denial. Though he knew about the counselling service, it never occurred to him that it was for people like him. He did not realise how common his experiences were, nor how quickly the support services could have helped him transform his studies. He did not even talk things over with friends, such as Tracy. Instead, he took the long slow route of bitter experience. In summary, Ryan was completely unprepared for taking responsibility for his own studies. He felt that courses ‘happened to him, rather than he taking advantage of them. For along time he felt adrift, until eventually it dawned on him that he had to seize control.

Key points

It is vital to take responsibility for your own learning at university because:

You spend a lot of time in private study.

You’re responsible for your own day-to-day work schedule.

The scope of courses tends to be broad, touching on many more topics and texts than you can cover,so you have to decide where to focus your efforts.

Youoften have distant deadlines and have to work out your own strategy for meeting them.

Youare expected to seek out support when you need it, not wait for it to come to you.

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