Last modified: 23 August 2013
UK academic culture
It may take some time for you to adjust to studying in the UK. Academic culture and expectations vary according to the subject, the level of study and the type of institution. However, there are some general trends that you may notice in the UK:
- Students often work independently, studying on their own for significant periods of time.
- Students are expected to develop critical judgement, which means an ability to assess whether an argument is coherent and well supported by evidence.
- Learning large amounts of factual data is important in some subject areas, but in many cases a critical approach is considered more important.
Many UK students will also be going through the process of learning the conventions of academic life. Study skills classes may help you understand what is required. Your tutors should also be able to guide you as to how to approach your work.
Know what is required
It is important to know what you need to do to fulfil the course requirements. By finding out the answers to some of the following questions, you may be able to plan your work and how to use your time effectively:
- when writing an essay or assignment, how long should it be?
- is a piece of work assessed, or is it for "practice"
- what proportion of your marks does a piece of work or examination represent?
- how much work will you have to do, and at what stage in the course?
Much of this information may be included in a course handbook: this will be a useful reference throughout the course.
When you attend lectures, you will need to take notes.
- you don’t need to write down everything the lecturer says: concentrate on the main points and important details
- most lecturers use asides (stories to illustrate a point), examples and even jokes. You don’t need to write all of these down.
- abbreviations and symbols for common words and terms can help you write faster, but use ones that you will understand later
- if there is something you don’t understand, make a note to ask after the lecture or in a tutorial
- keep your notes in order in a file. Most students "write up" their notes neatly after a lecture
- don’t just file the notes away until your exams. Read through them regularly: this will help with revision
- if you want to record a lecture on tape, ask the lecturer’s permission first
Don’t worry if you find it difficult to understand the lecturer. This will get easier as you get used to their style and, if you are not a native speaker, as your English improves.
Seminars can be intimidating if you are not used to this kind of teaching. Don’t worry. Many other students feel the same at first. Participating actively in seminars is an important part of the learning process, so try to contribute, even if it seems difficult at first. It is best to do some reading before each seminar, so that you are familiar with the topic and can follow and contribute to the discussion. It may help you to make notes before the seminar of any points you would like to make. If you are having difficulty in seminars, discuss this with your tutor.
On most courses you will be given a book list. You will not usually be expected to buy or even read every book and journal article on the list. Items on a book list may contain:
- essential, basic reading or reference material for the course
- an overview of the subject
- background information
- useful information for a specific topic or piece of work
Check with your tutor and other students in later years of the course which books are essential for you to buy. Most books will be available in your institution’s library but essential titles ("core" texts) may be difficult to borrow because everyone on the course needs them. You may be able to reduce the cost of buying books by:
- buying second hand editions (from students in later stages of the course, or from a second hand bookshop) – but make sure you buy an up-to-date version
- forming a group with other students on the course, each buying some of the books and sharing them
When you start to read a book or article, it can be useful to scan through the contents page, chapter headings and introductory sentences. This will help you understand the structure and ideas that will be discussed. You can then read in detail. It is usually best to take notes as you read, starting with the title, author and any other reference information (for example, date, publisher). Try to avoid copying out large sections from the text. Make a note of the main points and summarise arguments in your own words if possible. If you copy out a section of the text, put it in "quotation marks" so that you know to reference it if you use it in your work. The contents page and index are useful for locating specific information.