What is learning at University really like?

Lectures, seminars, tutorials… lost in the University jargon? I remember thinking to myself “a lecture is something that my mum gives me when I’ve done something wrong. I don’t like the sound of some mad University professor shouting at me in an attempt to make me learn.” It is now safe to say that I had completely no idea of what to expect from teaching at University; films such as Legally Blonde gave me a completely misconceived preconception of what it is actually like to be taught at University.

From my experiences as a Student Ambassador, it seems that I was not alone in my confusion over the teaching terms, and many prospective applicants have questions over the teaching process. In fact, one of the greatest transitions when moving from Sixth Form or College to University is the way in which you are taught. Whilst you are expected to devote a considerable amount of time to independent study throughout a University degree, you are also taught in ‘lectures, seminars and tutorials’: here are what the terms actually mean.

 

Lectures

For many of you, the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about University is lectures. Essentially, a lecture involves a professor speaking about a particular topic in a large hall. There are often between 50 and 250 students in a lecture; meaning that lectures take the form of a talk about a subject, rather than an interactive discussion or question and answer session. Lectures are designed to give you an overview of a subject, and typically last around 50 minutes. You are then expected to undertake further reading. Most lecturers are specialists in the subjects and at the forefront of their fields, which allows you to find out about the latest research and the academic’s own perspective on the matter.

During lectures, the lecturer generally uses handouts, PowerPoint slides or a whiteboard to help guide you through what they are saying. My advice would be to make notes from these materials, and build up your notes in accordance with what they are saying. Most students choose to make notes on their laptops during lectures, as lectures are usually delivered at a fast pace. However, to get the most out of lectures, you are best to adopt to your lecturer’s style and don’t worry if you miss a few things as further reading will fill in the gaps. The important thing is to turn up on time, gain an introductory understanding of the topic and make notes for future reference.

 

Tutorials

Tutorials take the form of smaller group meetings which give you the opportunity to discuss a topic in depth. At Queen Mary, each tutorial generally has around 10 people, lasts for 50 minutes and is scheduled once a week for each module that you are studying. Tutorials are led by an academic member of staff, who will set a reading schedule and questions for each tutorial. Tutorials give you the opportunity to ask questions and share your own ideas, and are therefore a vital part of each course programme.

Before each tutorial, do your reading! You’ve probably heard the saying “failing to prepare is preparing to fail”; this is unfortunately true when it comes to tutorials. There is nothing worse than sitting there clueless, unable to participate in the discussion and benefit from what other students are saying. Most tutorial leaders also set questions in advance which you should also attempt prior to each tutorial. Whilst you may struggle to answer them, a tutorial is designed to challenge you so don’t panic. During your tutorial, you will be given the chance to discuss answers and ask any questions you may have from the work. Tutorials may also be skills based, and give you important tips on how to approach questions as well as vital exam advice to really boost your learning.

 

Seminars

A University seminar is somewhat between a lecture and a tutorial. Seminars are generally taught for more specialist modules and can last anywhere between 50 minutes and a few hours. They are usually led by a specialist in the field, but in a smaller format than in a lecture. In a seminar, you can therefore expect to be taught by an academic, but there is also a degree of opportunity to interact and ask questions. Prior to each seminar, you are often given reading and questions which will form the basic outline of the seminar. The seminar leader will then talk you through the subject in a similar format to a lecture and will often ask additional questions regarding interesting or controversial points.

A seminar is designed to help you develop your independent learning skills, as some seminars do not follow a lecture schedule as you are expected to undertake your own reading on the topic beforehand. During the seminar, you can then explore the material in greater detail than a lecture would allow for as the format allows for a greater degree of interaction and personal opinion. As a consequence, seminars are generally tailored towards an individual group; whilst the academic has a topic and an outline for the session, they often revolve around points which members of the group wish to explore further. My advice would be to prepare, participate and probe into the subject after the seminar to really make the most out of University learning.

 

Fundamentally, lectures, tutorials and seminars are there to help guide your learning throughout your University experience. Although lectures, tutorial and seminars are broadly similar across most universities, my explanations are based upon my experiences of studying law here at Queen Mary. Whilst other Universities may differ slightly in size, structure and delivery, the purpose and format remains largely similar to Queen Mary.

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