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Studying in the UK: survival tips for international students

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Article Sections

  1. How is studying in the UK different?
  2. Making the best of your time in the UK
  3. Sources of help

By Margaret Adolphus

How is studying in the UK different?


Are you thinking of studying at a university in the UK? Do you have a place and are making preparations to leave your home? Or are you already in the UK, and trying to come to terms with a very different way of life and study?

While study in the UK may be an enriching experience in the long term, at first it might be rather bewildering: study methods in the UK are quite demanding and likely to be very different from what you have previously known.

You won't be alone: many UK school leavers also find university a bit of a culture shock, as ways of studying are quite dissimilar to those experienced at school. But you will be coping with all this, together with differences in food, social behaviour, the transport system, weather, very probably a different language, and the fact that your "important people" are far away.

Some international perspectives

Shen came over to the UK from Taiwan to do an MBA three years ago. This is how he describes the different academic cultures:

"In Taiwan we don't normally have tutorials, discussion or group work: we have one, three-hour module in which the lecturer speaks for the whole time. In the UK, there is more interaction and we students spend more time studying on our own. Then, all assignments need to be referenced, and we need to write critically and discuss different points of view."

The use of group discussion and independent study, as well as the lecture, and less time overall spent in class (known as "contact time") are probably the main ways in which a UK academic education differs from that in many other countries.

Some countries may put more emphasis on listening to the teacher and memorizing facts. For example, Hau-Jeng, currently studying for an MBA at the Bradford School of Management, has this to say about how teaching in the UK differs from teaching in his home country:

"The learning style in my country is more passive. We tend just to receive what our teacher gives us and memorize the material rather than elaborate on our own. In the UK, the teaching style is more interactive. Students here need to be prepared to read on their own. And students are encouraged to express their own ideas and create their own thinking."

UK teaching methods

There are four main methods used for teaching at a UK university:

  1. The lecture: this is a formal presentation to a large number of students, often accompanied by visual aids and handouts. A good lecturer will give an outline of the main points of a topic, with the most up-to-date information that isn't necessarily found in the textbooks, as well as references to other sources. They will not provide you all the information you need, and you will need to do some additional reading.
  2. The seminar: these are discussion groups with the lecturer and a small group of students (about 8-16). The students will do most of the talking, and someone may prepare a paper in advance. The idea is to allow a deeper investigation of a topic.
  3. The tutorial: this is where you meet with your tutor, sometimes weekly, on your own or with 1-3 other students, to discuss your own work, and/or cover a topic in greater depth.
  4. The workshop: students meet with the lecturer to work on a practical project (such as an experiment) or group work which has a particular structure.

The above should not be taken as an exhaustive list: much will depend on the institution and the course of study. In some practical courses, such as medicine, you will be spending time in a working environment, e.g. a hospital ward.

UK study methods

These are some of the main ways in which you will be expected to study:

  • Independently: you cannot rely on the teacher to provide you with everything you need. For each course you will be given a reading list, which will include books, journal articles and websites, and you will be expected to do a lot of reading on particular topics. This means that you will need to be a self-starter and learn how to organize your time.
  • Critically: whereas the bedrock of some educational systems may be facts, in the UK opinions matter as well. You will be expected to identify different points of view, and assess whether an argument is coherently constructed and supported by the evidence.
  • By discussion: the theory is that discussion – and even argument – is a learning experience because you have to defend a point of view and interact with others. So you will be expected to speak up in class, which you might find difficult if you come from a culture where questioning or discussion is limited, or where you are not expected or encouraged to have your own point of view.
  • Continuous assessment: some academic cultures rely heavily on the exam for assessment, but in the UK, students are expected to submit a number of pieces of coursework throughout the year which count towards their final grade. This means doing a lot more writing, of essays or assignments depending on your subject. If your written work uses other people's ideas, you need to reference.
  • Using technology: most universities these days use technology in teaching as a matter of course. This includes a "virtual learning environment", which is a dedicated website to which course members have access, and which holds course documents, as well as links to the library and useful online resources. Many classes also have "smart" technology including a smart board through which it is possible to access the Internet, and others will have computer workbenches.