Are you ready for university? The skills you need to learn

Are you ready for university? The skills you need to learn
A lot of life lessons will be learned. Source: Suad Kamardeen/Unsplash

If you’re starting university, there’s a lot to learn – but the subject you’ve chosen is just the start.  Many new students underestimate the challenges Higher Education can bring.

You’re likely to be living away from home for the first time.  This means not only getting used to being apart from family and friends, but discovering what it means to be responsible for doing your own shopping, cooking and washing.  On top of this, international students face the added challenge of immersion in a whole new culture and language.

But the main challenge new students face is more fundamental than that – it’s how to learn. Becoming an undergraduate means you need to be an independent learner.  This doesn’t mean learning on your own or teaching yourself, it means developing a sense of intellectual curiosity and being accountable for your own development.

Achievement as an independent learner requires a certain set of expertise. By understanding the skills you must develop, you’ll be better prepared for university and more likely to succeed.

Manage your time

If you’re used to five full days of teaching a week, you’ll find that your university schedule looks comparably rather empty.  On average, UK undergraduates have less than 14-hours of contact time per week, meaning you’ll spend more time out of the classroom than you’ll spend within it. Learning to manage your time wisely is important.

Though the amount will vary between courses and institutions, you’ll have reading and preparation to complete and assignments to work on.  Most courses will specify the amount of independent study expected based on the number of timetabled sessions you have. For example, you might be expected to undertake two hours’ independent study for every hour of contact time.

Finding the balance between contact hours and independent study takes structure and discipline. Source: Shutterstock

Listen and take notes

On top of having less contact time, the structure of that contact time is likely to be different to anything you’re used to.  Many students come to university with the experience of being taught in a classroom, being set a follow up activity for homework, and then completing a practise exam question.  University is quite different.

As a science student, you’re likely to be spending much of your time in the lab, but as an arts, humanities or social science student, your standard pattern of contact time is likely to be a mixture of lectures and seminars.

The lecture is generally a new experience for university students.  Different lecturers will have their individual style of delivery but generally, lectures aren’t particularly interactive.  The purpose of a lecture is to allow the teacher to present and explain theory to a large group of people.  It depends on your subject and the size of the rooms but it’s not unusual for lectures to be delivered to over 150 students and for the lecturer to be talking for about an hour.

Yes, there will be PowerPoint slides showing key information but good lecturers will talk in more detail than what’s written on their slides.  To get the most out of your lectures you need to prepare.  Make sure you know what the lecture topic will be and most importantly, take along a pen and paper or laptop so you can make notes.  The content of a lecture can move along at quite a pace so you need to be a discerning listener and a speedy note-taker.

Engage and discuss

Seminars on the other hand, are much smaller classes.  They’re usually highly interactive as the purpose is to discuss material that has been presented in the lecture.  There will usually be a directed activity – perhaps some set discussion questions or case studies.

Don’t feel shy about asking or answering questions since the more you engage and contribute to the seminar, the more you will improve your language skills and strengthen your understanding of the subject.


In most cases, the lecture material itself is only the beginning of understanding the topic, and you will be expected to read from specified texts to supplement the content.  It’s a personal choice as to whether you do this in advance of the lecture or after the lecture but remember that you’ll be expected to study independently as well as turn up to timetabled classes.

Make sure you take notes and aim to do your reading as you go along – it’s much easier to absorb and understand a chapter a week than to try and read a whole book in one sitting at the end of term.  Learn how to skim read; time pressures mean it’s not always possible to read texts in full.  Skimming to understand the general discussion is usually acceptable in the first year, especially when the required reading is from a textbook.

Discussing content with teachers and peers is a great way to enhance your understanding. Source: Shutterstock


Consolidation is even more important than preparation.  Many lecturers will talk about the need for ‘synthesising’ information and ‘thinking critically’ about what you’ve learned.

Use your independent study time to go back through your notes.  Synthesise your notes – this simply means that rather than reviewing your lecture and reading notes separately, look at where your sets of notes cover the same topic and holistically review that information.

In asking you to think critically, your lecturers are expecting you to consider what you’ve learned and have a reasoned opinion about it.  Be able to explain why something is so, and be able to consider a counter argument.

None of these skills in themselves are difficult to develop and most students have, at some point in their education, utilised them all before.  The key is to recognise they’re needed and to persist.  If you can do that, you’ve mastered the art of being an independent learner.

Emma Winter is the Director of Undergraduate Marketing Programmes at the University of Portsmouth and teaches on a number of modules, particularly in the areas of services marketing and marketing strategy.  Prior to academia, Emma spent a number of years working as a product manager for a UK bank.

Her research interests relate to services marketing, specifically the concept of servicescape and issues related to the provision of Higher Education as a service, and she has published and spoken at a number of academic and industry conferences on this topic.

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