How to Study at University

Practical tips and general thoughts on how to study at a Western university

The strange case of the vanishing jobs – Part 1

Posted on | September 14, 2011 | No Comments

Point: You don’t know what jobs will still exist in the future

My father trained to be a coach and wagon builder for the Australian railways. He built and repaired wooden railway cars.

As you can probably guess, that was a long long time ago. He worked for the railways in Australia and New Zealand for most of his life but well before he retired he was not working on wooden wagons anymore. By then most wagons were made of metal. The job he had trained to do had disappeared. 

It took over 30 years for Dad’s job to disappear. These days it takes a much shorter time. When I started work, each company and government department had a typist or a typing pool. These were women (not many men were typists) who would take your handwritten letters and reports and type them up neatly and without mistakes.

Now typists do not exist. They have been replaced by computers and the internet.

What happened to my job?

There are dozens of jobs that were common 20, ten or even two years ago that do not exist today. Most of them you have never heard of, either because you are too young or they were very specialised in areas such as printing and architecture that have been overtaken by new technologies.

If that was true of the past, it is even truer of the future. There are dozens of jobs that exist now that will not exist in 20 years time.

Will actors exist in 20 years time? Or will animation be just as realistic and a lot cheaper? What about cashiers? Will checking out our shopping become completely automated? What will robots be able to do? Surgery? Fly planes? Wait on tables in a restaurant? Will we need librarians or teachers?

Well, will we?

Who knows?

And that is the question, isn’t it? Who knows what jobs will still be around when you are in the middle of your career? Will the job you graduated into still exist?

There is a very good chance it won’t. And if it does still exist, there is an even greater chance that it will look very different than it did when you started, and you will have to do and know very different things.

The world is changing so fast now that even if you trained at university to do a certain job – say, accounting or environmental engineering or web design – your employer will probably spend your first few months or longer training you in the specific methods the company is currently using.

How are you feeling?

Are you feeling depressed yet?

Don’t be, because there are a few things you can do now to prepare for the future.

And one of them is to do nothing at all.

I will explain what I mean in the next post.

Till then though, think about this: The Chase Manhattan Bank found that 60 percent of its worst managers had MBAs while 60 percent of its best managers had BAs. (Thomas Hurka, Globe and Mail, 2 January, 1990)

Why do people with a liberal arts degree (BA) have higher and better paid business jobs than those with a specialised business degree (MBA)?


Your forgetory

Posted on | September 6, 2011 | No Comments

 Point: Your brain is designed to remember

I had this wierd thought the other day: Our brain has a forgetory, not a memory.

Here is how I arrived at the thought.

Things enter our brain through eyes, ears and other senses. The main job of a brain, therefore, is to sort out and then to forget all the unimportant stuff that enters it. 

When we are young our brain doesn’t know what is important and what is not. As we grow, we learn that not everything we see, hear and sense is equally important. We have to know what is important – and let that stay in our brain – and what is not important – and chuck that stuff out.

So, despite what you may think, your brain naturally remembers things. As it got older it had to learn to forget what was not important and leave in what was important. Some brains, however – and they are a very few – never learn how to forget.

An unforgettable brain

Imagine how horrible it would be if you remembered everything.

“Horrible?” you say. “It’d be wonderful. I’d pass all my exams. I’d remember everyone’s name.” And if you’re a male, “I’d remember her birthday. Every year!”

Not so fast! Remembering everything means not forgetting anything.

There was a man once who remembered everything. Or at least a whole lot more than most of us. He was Russian; he lived from 1886 to 1958; and his name was Solomon Shereshevskii. A psychologist called Alexander Luria studied him and his amazing memory for over 30 years and decided he suffered from a severe form of synaesthesia (don’t worry what it means; you can look it up if you want to).

One result of this condition was that Shereshevskii found it almost impossible to forget things. Years after an event he could remember every detail, every important and unimportant detail. He was a living video recorder.

But there was a problem.

Shereshevskii’s problem 

He could remember all the details but he couldn’t see the bigger picture. If he read a book he could tell you, page by page, what happened, even word for word, but he couldn’t summarise the story for you. If he saw a dog facing right, he couldn’t tell that it was the same dog if he then saw it facing left. He found it especially hard to recognise faces because their expressions were always changing.

Is that smiling woman the same person I saw a minute ago who was frowning?

What Shereshevskii couldn’t do was rise above the details and see patterns in them. He couldn’t make connections, or draw conclusions, or guess. He couldn’t look at the stars and see a crab or a dog. (To be honest, neither can I.) Or look at the moon and see a man, or a rabbit, or whatever your culture traditionally sees there.

Your problem

Being unable to forget was Shereshevskii’s problem. Forgetting too well is (probably) your problem.

You have probably developed such a good forgetory that you forget too much. When you were young you had to train your brain to forget. That allowed you to focus on the important things and to see patterns. But now it has become a habit. You forget too much, too quickly.

  • You need to relax and calm down your forgetory.
  • You need to be ever better at knowing what is important.
  • And you need to look more actively for patterns.

Too much information is the enemy of thinking.

Remembering more and more facts will not solve the world’s problems, nor will it help you get a degree. Seeing patterns, making connections, taking a step back and wondering will. 

Letting your mind wander through the information, and letting it choose carefully what is important will.

Narrowing your eyes and seeing a man in the moon, or the DNA double helix, or the matching shapes of tectonic plates, or a baby’s grasping reflex will.

Forgetting the unimportant, in other words, will get you your degree.


Interview: Dr Roshni Mooneeram

Posted on | June 22, 2011 | No Comments

Interview series: From the Horse’s Mouth. When we hear things from the person most likely to know, we say it is ‘straight from the horse’s mouth’. Sometimes I will ask some academic horses – and I mean it in the nicest possible sense – for their advice and comments on how to study at a Western university.

Dr Roshni Mooneeram is the Head of the Division of English Studies at the University of Nottingham Ningbo, China. For more on Dr Mooneeram click here.

On entering university

In the UK, A Levels are a great preparation for students coming into university. Obviously, I’m speaking more from my own discipline, but students coming from international backgrounds need to bridge a huge gap coming to study their first year at a British university.

On reading

Students need to have reading skills. It hadn’t crossed my mind till I came to work in China but students need to know how to read. A lot of our students don’t know how to read, and reading for them is a huge problem. Especially in English Studies, when they do literature, they have incredible difficulty reading.

It’s not just a question of the volume of reading. It’s not just a question of coming across difficult vocabulary. It’s also, I think, a particular mindset, of not having a reading culture and thinking that reading is an enormously difficult thing to do.

Reading literature should start with reading for pleasure. In the UK we have students coming in because they love to read for pleasure and then proceed to reading critically. If students come in not having the ability or the culture of reading for pleasure then it’s incredibly difficult to take them to where they need to be in that first year.

Obviously this is made harder by the fact that students are reading in their second language, but our students in the UK already have a reading culture whereas many of my students here have only read one or two books in their whole life, and that’s because they were coerced into reading. Reading is not seen as an everyday activity, is not seen as something pleasant to do.

On research skills

Another skill that we would like our students to have is research skills. I think that until the middle of the first semester they don’t really understand that we expect a lot of them, that we don’t just spoonfeed them, that they have to go and read books and find out for themselves. They need autonomous learning skills.

On arguing

Rhetoric and argumentation are also needed. When you are writing essays, particularly literary ones, most of the time you are constructing persuasive arguments, or you are dismantling other people’s arguments.

The ability to put together persuasive arguments is one of the pillars that people need in order to write an English Studies literary essay. They also need suitable turns of phrases to allow them to construct arguments.

On preparing for university

Read, and also do some critical reading because that gives you a bit of a template. Read the literature, the texts, but also read journal articles and criticism of the texts.

When you arrive, we can give you links to examples of the best student work in Nottingham to give you an idea of what critical writing is meant to be about. We have a library of samples of really good student essays in different areas of English Studies.

And not only good essays from the UK. We also have really good work produced in the past couple of years from our Chinese students here, so you can see what students are doing in the UK and also what the best students are doing in China.

A good presentation is like dog poo

Posted on | June 14, 2011 | No Comments

Point: Don’t deliver a boring presentation

The weekend before last I went to a conference. I saw ten presentations and gave one myself. Last week I marked student presentations – 138 of them. This week I am checking other teachers’ marks for student presentations.

I have had enough of presentations.


But I must say, watching so many presentations, by experienced presenters as well as by novices, is a great way to remember all the little jobs you have to do when you get back to the office.

Your mind wanders. You try to focus but … your mind has a mind of its own. It wanders.

Don’t get me wrong; I kept alert enough to follow what was being presented and to give accurate grades but my mind was like a puppy on a leash, always trying to tug me off the presentation path into the smelly bushes where other dogs had recently been.

Until suddenly, every now and then, my puppy mind saw and smelt something fascinating right there on the path. It stopped tugging at the leash. It bent down to sniff this … thing … and I don’t like where this analogy is heading, so I’ll say it plain.

Every now and then I saw a great presentation. Or a presentation with great parts in it. One that grabbed my attention.

Worth saying again

I have written a number of posts on how to give a good presentation and if you click on the Presentations link in the Index on the right you can find them there. But what is worth saying once is usually worth saying again. So here are a few things I noticed again over the past couple of weeks about presentations.

1. It’s very natural when you are giving a presentation to speak fast. You are nervous. Most people are.

There are a couple of clues that tell a listener if the speaker is speaking too fast; they speak too fast, and they finish well before they are supposed to.

Remember that a presentation is a performance. There is a world of difference between reading what someone will say and watching them say it. When they – or you – stand up and begin to speak, the performance begins.

Pauses are a vital part of any performance. When you are speaking, don’t talk continuously (and fast) from start to finish. It’s not a race. Pause every now and then. Take a breath. Repeat important points. Look at your audience. Enjoy – yes, enjoy – the moment. I talk more about pauses here.

2. If I have been listening to you for ten or twenty or forty minutes, following what you have been saying, agreeing or not agreeing; if I’ve listened to some questions and answers and maybe asked one or two myself; if I’ve done all that and if after answering the last question you look down at your computer, close the PowerPoint, pick up your notes and maybe say, “Thank you,” or maybe not even that, and walk off, then you leave me with a bad impression.

You may have given a pretty good presentation up till then, but the ending is too important to let it look after itself. You must prepare your ending. In fact, you must prepare two endings; one at the end of your presentation before you ask for questions, and one after the questions.

Leave the audience with a good impression. Finish strongly and cleanly. Confidently. Your audience will feel better and so will you. I talk more about endings here.

3. The last thing I want to mention is organisation. Be organised. Know what your PowerPoint slides say before you open them. Know what your mouth is going to say before you open it. Organisation not only helps your audience, it helps you. And the best way to appear organised is to practise. In this respect, I must say that, on average, the students were better than some of the experienced presenters, who fluffed around, lost their place and line of thought, didn’t finish on time, you name it.

To be organised is to be courteous to your audience.


So there you have it. There is more I could say about presentations but, as I’ve noted above, for now I’ve had enough of them so I’ll leave it at that.

And that is – You can help your listeners keep their puppy minds on the presentation path simply by putting something irresistibly smelly on it.

A good presentation, of course. What else could I possibly mean?

(federico stevanin/

Don’t answer that question!

Posted on | June 7, 2011 | No Comments

Point: Don’t waste time writing facts if you are not asked for them

This is the post you’ve been waiting for.

This is the one that will put you out of your study misery.

The one that will get you your degree.

It’s on how to answer questions.

To get your degree you will have to answer exam and essay questions. (By the way, if an exam or essay says Discuss or Outline or Evaluate something, those are instructions, not really questions, but in academia we often call them questions anyway.)

So the topic of this post is …


First, though, a question; What is the opposite of a question? I mean, if somebody asks you a question, what do you give them?

You give them … an answer, right?

If you are studying a subject that requires calculation (and even some that don’t), yes, an answer, the correct answer, one or more facts, is what you give them.

If you are studying a subject that requires taking a stance or holding an opinion or giving an interpretation though, an answer is not what you should give them. You should give them a response.

They’re the same!

No, a response is not the same as an answer.

Let me give you an example.

Q = Question A = Answer R = Response

Me: Did you like the movie?(Q)

You: That’s a stupid question.(R) Of course I did.(A)

Another one.

Santa Claus: Do you believe in humans?(Q)

Rudolph: Why do you ask?(R)

And another.

Your lecturer: Outline the Situational and Contingency theories of leadership and discuss how they could be incorporated in a staff training programme at a large manufacturing company.(Q)

You: …

What do you think you should do?

You should give an answer and a response in this case. The answer is the outline of the two theories. The response is your opinion on how to build them into a staff training programme.

How about this one?

University of Warwick: In what ways can we see communism as a global response to the Enlightenment Project?

You: …

Do you have to give an answer to this question? Or a response? Or both?

You have to give a response. You do not have to describe in detail what communism or the Enlightenment Project are. It is presumed that you already know.

You do have to give an opinion, and you will have to provide correct facts to support your opinion, but don’t, don’t, don’t waste time describing what communism and the Enlightenment Project are. Please! You are not asked to do that.

Learn from me

This was my own first mistake at university. For my first ever history essay I got a C-. (I didn’t even know that C- existed.) My lecturer said that if I hadn’t added a few of my own comments towards the end of the essay I would have failed. (At least C- wasn’t a fail.) I had spent most of the essay just describing what happened (it was about migration from England to New Zealand) without taking a stance on what happened, without interpreting it in any way.

This is one of the most common mistakes students make when they write an exam or essay answer. They give facts when they should interpret.

Okay? So you’ll have no problem with this one then, will you?

Me: What is the difference between answering and responding to an exam question?

You: …

(renjith krishnan/

Interview: Dr Andrew Sowter – Part 2

Posted on | May 31, 2011 | No Comments

Interview series: From the Horse’s Mouth. When we hear things from the person most likely to know, we say it is ‘straight from the horse’s mouth’. Sometimes I will ask some academic horses – and I mean it in the nicest possible sense – for their advice and comments on how to study at a Western university.








Dr Andrew Sowter teaches in the Division of Engineering at the University of Nottingham Ningbo, China. This is the second part of my interview with him. Part 1 is here. For more about Dr Sowter click here.

On taking exams

In Engineering in the UK, we’re not interested in how much you write; we’re interested in getting the right answer. We like precision in our exam answers; we like bullet points rather than pages of flowery language. We just want to get straight to the answer.

And also in the UK, and at UNNC, we do try to trick the students sometimes, to try to question things in a different way. Often we will change the question from year to year quite subtly so that a question that looks like a question from a previous year is not. For example, one year we might ask What are the advantages of the internal combustion engine? And the next year we might ask What are the disadvantages of the internal combustion engine? And I can guarantee to you that some international students will answer the advantages question because they’ll think it’s the same question from the previous year.

So, read the question, and answer with precision.

You see, in Engineering we seldom ask the question What’s your opinion? In that case, of course, you need to answer differently.

On successful international students

In the UK we have exams in January and in May, and more often than not the international students will not fare so well in the January exams and then do really well in the May exams. This is because they are not used to the way the exams are set up.

You can give them revision aids, you can give them everything but sometimes they’re just not used to that style of study. We always say that it’s a shame that they seem to need to go through at least one exam to get the shock before going through to the next exam.

The students that do particularly well are the ones that are asking questions straight from the start, are asking What does this mean? What does that mean?

The international students that come to us before the first lot of exams and say I’ve got this past paper. I’ve gone through this myself in my spare time. Have I done this right? Is this what you want? Is this what you expect to see? are the students who do well from the start.

On asking questions

The one’s that are self-critical, who know they’re coming to a UK university, who realise that the culture’s different and therefore from day one are wondering if they’re doing things right will ask us. The ones that ask us Am I doing this right? are the ones that do well.

We worry more about the ones that are quiet and you never see until the exam. Sometimes they’re alright, sometimes they do well but they’re the ones that are more likely to have problems. So my advice is to ask questions.

In some cultures there does seem to be a reluctance for students to ask questions during a lecture. At an appropriate time some students will stand up in a lecture and say Sorry, I didn’t understand that. And usually the lecturer is very happy to say Oh, didn’t I make that very clear? and go through it again. But we don’t find many international students doing that.

But we welcome that. We want students to ask us questions, because in the lecture we’ve only given directions. We know our lecture notes don’t cover the whole problem so we like the students to ask us questions and interact with us.

Some international students don’t seem to like to do it, though. It’s usually the international students who come to you with questions after the lecture whereas the home students tend to do it much more during the lecture.

Once more, with feeling

Posted on | May 24, 2011 | No Comments

Point: Improve your subject and language knowledge at the same time

There is a fundamental problem when you are trying to learn stuff in a language that you are also trying to learn.

If you are trying, for example, to learn sociology in French while trying to learn French. Or learning mechanical engineering in Spanish while also learning Spanish. Or Japanese in English while trying to learn English. Seriously, it happens.

The fundamental problem is that it takes so damn long to do anything.

So long to read an article. So long to prepare a presentation. So very long to write an essay. So when you get a chance to do something in your own language, guess what. You do.

I don’t blame you. I’d probably do the same. So it’s just as well I ask you to do what I say and not what I do.

And here is what I say.

On the Horns

Let’s say you need to talk with your study group or other classmates about an essay or presentation or some other assignment. If you all speak a different language (Chinese, say)  from the language of study (English), then naturally you want to use Chinese because that’s the quickest way to express your ideas and to understand each other’s ideas correctly.

You also know that the more you use English, the sooner you will learn it, and you really need to learn English.

You are on what we call the horns of a dilemma. (No, a dilemma is not a kind of dangerous animal. Find out what it means yourself; it’s an interesting word.)

Being on the horns of a dilemma means you have two unpleasant choices and you have to choose one of them.

You either talk in Chinese and don’t learn English as quickly or as well as you should; or talk in English and don’t learn your subject as quickly or as well as you should.

Ouch! Two ways to lose, right?

Not necessarily.

Worth doing twice

Why not have the discussion in your own language first. Share your thoughts, make your decisions, focus on the subject.

Then, when you’ve finished, don’t. Finish, I mean. Keep on talking. Summarise the discussion you just had, but this time in English. You don’t have to spend the same length of time, just go over the same points, reach the same conclusions, crack the same jokes. Laugh in English if you want. Or can.

In the first discussion you can concentrate on the subject; in the second on the language. You will have to use that language later in your essay or presentation anyway so using it now will help you do that.

You will have to find others who are willing to join you, of course, so here’s a chance to develop your leadership skills, too!

Repeating the discussion has a number of benefits.

  • You learn your subject efficiently because you are doing it at your natural thinking and talking speed in your own language.
  • You improve your English discussion skills and fluency.
  • You improve and practise the English that you will have to use later in your assignment.
  • You hop off the horns of your dilemma.

Having said all that, though, I must also say that the best way, and your ultimate goal, is to have every discussion in your target language, the language of your study environment.

But you knew that already, didn’t you.

Of course you did.

Ben’s Way

Posted on | May 17, 2011 | No Comments

Point: Learn to write well by imitating the best

If my father found some emails I’d written to a friend, read them, and criticised my writing style – said it wasn’t elegant or clear, that my line of reasoning was weak, and that my friend wrote better – I wouldn’t be very happy.

I’d probably say something like, “What? Were you reading my private mail?”

“It was there. I’m your father,” he might say to me. “Your spelling and punctuation are okay.”

Which may have been what Benjamin Franklin’s father said to him 300 years ago about some letters of Ben’s he came across.

I am not Ben

Now if I were Ben I might have said some pretty direct things to my father. Who likes other people reading their private mail? Even fathers. Especially fathers! So it’s just as well for humanity that I’m not Ben Franklin.

Ben says he “saw the justice of his (father’s) remark.” And maybe he did, after he cooled down. But I’m sure he needed time to to cool down. I mean, he was a son whose father read his private mail…!

Then again, Benjamin Franklin was pretty special; a Founding Father of America, author, printer, political theorist, politician, postmaster, scientist, inventor, satirist, diplomat. And not only was he these things – and more – he was often among the best of them.

His face is on American $100 bills.  He signed the American Declaration of Independence. He played the violin, harp, and guitar.

And he went to school for two years.

Yes, only two. In other words, he taught himself.

So what did Ben do when his father criticised his writing? He taught himself to write better.

Ben’s way

This is what he did.

He found a magazine called The Spectator in which he liked the style of writing. He then devised a system of writing practice that went like this:

  • Read an article.
  • Make notes from it.
  • Put the article aside.
  • A few days later, looking at the notes, rewrite the article.
  • Compare with the original.

Sometimes, instead of notes, he would write poems from the original and rewrite from the poems. Or he would mix up his notes so that he had to first put them into a good order before rewriting.

If you want to write better academic English, you could use Ben’s method too. Instead of a magazine article, take notes from a section – a couple of paragraphs perhaps – from a journal article on one of your subjects.

  • Read the section.
  • Make notes from it.
  • Put the article aside.
  • A few days later, looking at the notes, rewrite the section.
  • Compare with the original.

Ben says that when he did this he would find many things he did wrong and would correct them, but that sometimes he reckoned that he actually improved on the original. And that gave him a buzz.

A hard truth

Here’s a truth that’s not new: If you want to be good at something you have to practise it. You have to spend time doing it again and again.

Ben practised in the morning before work, at night after work, on Sundays instead of church (seems he didn’t do everything his father wanted).

It can be hard. I’m not going to apologise; it’s just the way it is.

But if you do practise, and get better, even good at something, you’ll feel the same buzz that Ben did.

Later in the paragraph where he describes that buzz, that pleasure, Ben says something very telling. And important. He says that, regarding becoming a tolerable English writer, he was “extremely ambitious”.

Not just ambitious. Not even very ambitious. But extremely ambitious.

How ambitious are you to become a tolerable writer of academic English?

If you’re not at least a little ambitious to write decent English I can tell you right now what will happen.

You won’t. Ever.

Passionate Souls

Posted on | May 10, 2011 | No Comments

Point: Study what interests you

Their clothes are untidy, ill-fitting, and possibly even smelly. Their hair is untidy, ill-fitting, and possibly even smelly.

They are tall, short, or average height. S, M, or XXL.

They may speak five languages fluently, or only one, badly.

They’ll know the past 10 leaders of Guatemala and their views on financial controls, or they’ll think Guatemala is a kind of pasta.

They are often called nerds. Or geeks.

And they are, for all their peculiarities, or because of them, the soul of a university.

Us and them

Most of us – I include myself – stumble through university, half an eye on our study, half on having fun, half on love (or lust at least), and half on our future career. And if we seem to lack focus during our university years it’s because we are trying to make those four halves equal one. It can’t be done. (Though we make some great memories trying.)

Your average nerd, on the other hand, while we are wondering if we’ve read enough sources to make our reference list long enough, has already read sixteen more than us. While we are settling for a relatively small sample size to analyse, your nerd has collected twice as many samples. And analysed them. Twice. With a statistical tool they devised in their head between waking up and the toilet.

While we are looking for what is enough, in other words, they are looking for what is possible.

And they are doing it because, believe it or not, they just want to know. They are studying for studying’s sake. The truth, they believe, is out there, and they want it.

Some universities are blessed with nerds. Others are blessed with me. All kinds are needed. Cash is cash, and bums on seats are bums on seats. But universities with lots of nerds are doubly blessed; they get passion with their bums.

The search

Universities are supposed to search for truth. (They are also supposed to train students so they can enter the workforce, serve society and get rich but I want to keep our gaze a little higher for the moment. In fact, that’s the point of this post.) But institutions don’t search for truth; people do. And the people in universities that most insistently and passionately search for truth are the nerds. That is what I mean when I say that nerds are the soul of a university.

I’m not saying that everyone should be a nerd. You might be one or you might become one as you get more interested in your subject, but it’s fine if you are one of the majority of students who stumble through university. It’s fine if you are like me.

What I do want and hope, though, is that you treasure the part of you that finds your subject interesting. The part that gets lost in an article about your subject. The part that loses track of time when you are working on an essay or doing some research. The part that gets curious, upset, and even a little passionate at times about whatever you are studying.

That is your inner nerd reaching up from deep within and squeezing your heart. Get in touch with it. Nurture it.

Don’t settle

Universities began as an organised search for and/or preservation of truth. They will help you find a job and make money, sure, but your life, and your university’s life, have a higher purpose also. Don’t settle for spending four years of your precious young life only calculating how to get a good job with a high salary, a company car and dental cover.

Find what interests you. Feed your inner nerd. Go find some of the truth that is out there.

And don’t worry; you can be a tidy part-time nerd that dresses well and has a nice haircut if you want. It really does take all kinds.

(; master isolated images)

Interview: Dr Andrew Sowter – Part 1

Posted on | May 2, 2011 | No Comments

Interview series: From the Horse’s Mouth. When we hear things from the person most likely to know, we say it is ‘straight from the horse’s mouth’. Sometimes I will ask some academic horses – and I mean it in the nicest possible sense – for their advice and comments on how to study at a Western university.









 Dr Andrew Sowter teaches in the Division of Engineering at the University of Nottingham Ningbo, China. For more about Dr Sowter click here.

On expectations

The difference between students in, say, China and the UK is their expectation of university. The expectation of the students is that they will get a lot of classes. The expectation of the lecturers is that the students will do a lot of self-study.

For example, in a ten credit module we expect the students to do 100 hours of work. That may include 30 hours of lectures over a ten week period. There may be some practical classes in there making an additional ten hours, but we expect then that the students will do a further 60 hours of self-study.

On lectures

Students often think that lectures are somehow going to be a complete set of notes for their course. But at a UK university we see lectures as giving direction. We expect students to go away, look at the reference material, go to the library, and learn a little bit more of the subject.

One of my colleagues said something that I think is quite memorable; that if you learn the subject from the notes I give you during the lectures you will only get an average degree. If you want a first class degree then you must read around the subject.

Lectures are important, but primarily for direction. Lectures are really to tell you what’s going to be in the exam. If you don’t turn up for the lectures, you won’t know what will be covered in the exam. You won’t know what fundamental things you will need to know in order to get through the course.

On notes

Usually lecturers will give you copies of their presentation, or notes to go with the presentation, and the lecturer will talk around those points.

Now, if a lecturer is like me, he will tend to go off in different directions and it’s important that students make a note of what’s not on the PowerPoint slides, what’s not in the given notes because the lecturer may also give some other direction and other information in more detail that’s important to understand what the lecturer is trying to get across.

On preparing for university

I would look at the curriculum before you come to university and maybe spend a day or two in a library looking at different textbooks.

When you go to a library and look up a topic on, say, dynamics or mechanics you’ll find several books, good introductory books on those topics. And one of the things you’ll note is that they will use different styles.

The books won’t all agree on how to introduce the topic. Some will start with some theory and move into examples. Others will start straightaway with examples and describe the theory behind the examples.

And lecturers do the same.

So it’s worthwhile, I think, looking at books and forming your own notes, picking a small subject and forming your own notes on that subject, just to practise.

When I was at high school, one of my teachers would say, right, over summer research this area. And when you get back to school in September you can do a presentation on what you’ve learned. That was really quite useful in honing our self-study skills, and I think the students who are good at self-study will do well at university.

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