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Studying in the UK: survival tips for international students

By Margaret Adolphus

How is studying in the UK different?

Introduction

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.

Making the best of your time in the UK

This section explores some of the barriers you may face while studying in the UK, such as language difficulties or fear of speaking in class, and looks at ways of overcoming them. Not all of these points will apply to everyone. They are, however, reflective of situations that arise in response to requirements and teaching methods at most universities in the UK.

1. Language issues

You will probably have had to pass some sort of language test, such IELTS (the International English Language Testing System), for example, to be accepted on a UK course. However, you may still find that your skills are not quite adequate for studying in the language. For instance:

  • You may not be familiar with the language of your particular discipline, which may affect your understanding of key terms in your lectures, reading, assignment titles, etc.
  • Speaking in your own language comes naturally. Before you become proficient in a language which isn't your mother tongue, on the other hand, you are constantly having to think before you speak. This affects not only everyday situations such as shopping, but also speaking up in class or asking your lecturer a question. You may be embarrassed to speak up in front of others, take too long to express your contribution so that you lose your chance and the conversation moves on, or worry about phrasing a question to your lecturer in a polite way.
  • Reading and writing can take a lot longer, and you may find it difficult to summarize and paraphrase what you read.
  • You may not be able to understand other students, or even lecturers, who may be non-native English speakers themselves.

Examples

Chiang came to the UK to study for an MSc in human resource management. Despite having a good knowledge of English, she found academic reading difficult:

"If I want to understand an academic article, I have to read it more than three times: first, checking vocabulary; second, read; third, read again and organize the idea. If I want to participate in a tutorial, I have to read it again."

Hau-Jeng experienced a considerable language barrier:

"I could not speak fluently and respond quickly during class. My writing speed was not adequate to meet the schedule of coursework, and I couldn't understand the implications of articles I read. If you cannot speak the language well enough, it will inevitably affect your ability to communicate with other students. I would strongly advise any student to work on their English before they come to the UK, otherwise it will affect their ability to learn and absorb what they want from the course."

Getting help

Most universities have special units which can help students with their English. For example, the University of Glasgow provides both pre-sessional and in-sessional (before and during study) courses to prepare students for and help them with study. You should get what help you can, as proficiency in the language will vastly improve your ability to deal with the other problems.

2. Overcoming culture shock

Moving to a new environment which is very different, meeting and getting to know new people, learning about differences in food, weather and social behaviour can be disorienting, and result in culture shock. To add to your difficulties, you will be away from the important people in your life; you also need to come to terms with very different values; you will be taught by Westerners who may not have an understanding of your culture, or indeed of operating in an international situation.

Example

Ellen Ndeshi Namhila is now university librarian at the University of Namibia and a distinguished writer. She obtained her library education in Finland where the radical differences in culture were compounded by the fact that she was bringing up a child on her own. Used to the warm, sociable culture of Africa she found it hard to get used to the "coldness" – both in the weather and in the social behaviour – of Finland. For example, if she visited someone when they were eating, she was not asked to join them as would have been the case in her home country, but had to sit and wait for them to finish.

At first, you may feel excited by the differences, but then they may distress or anger you. But, as you gradually come to accept the differences, you will have learnt a valuable lesson in diversity.

There are a number of things you can do to help yourself get over the initial stages. Many universities will have an orientation programme for international students which includes social events. Here you can meet other international students, who will be experiencing the same difficulties as you.

You may well find that there are a number of other students who share your language and culture, and being part of such a group will provide emotional support. There is a balance to be struck, however: if you stay within this group, and don't venture outside it, you will not improve your English or expose yourself to another culture, so your experience of study abroad will be less rich.

A good resource on culture shock can be found on the site of the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA) entitled: "International students and culture shock".

3. Making the most of lectures

You will probably be accustomed to lectures, but here you will have the language problem, and you also need to remember that lectures serve a different purpose in the UK.

When you are listening to the lectures, make notes. These should just list the main points: you do not need to note everything that the lecturer says. Most lecturers provide handouts, including a copy of PowerPoint slides, which may be available before the lecture.

You don't need to write full sentences: just use key terms, abbreviations, lists, diagrams, etc. After the lecture, don't just file your notes away: write them up. You can also compare your notes with those of other students. Read the study skill on effective note taking for more information.

It's common to find you don't understand key terms, so miss important parts of the lecture. Shen's strategy for coping with this problem was to do background reading beforehand, and not be afraid to ask about things he didn't understand:

"When I first started going to lectures, I would only understand about 10 per cent because there were certain key terms which I didn't know. So, I would prepare myself by going through the lecturer's slides before the lecture so that I could check key words which I had not met before. I would also read up about the subject, not necessarily in English, sometimes in Mandarin, so that I could benefit fully from the lecture."

The lecture is a key part of your learning. So it's important to ask the lecturer a question if you don't understand. You can do this by writing an e-mail, making an appointment to go and see the lecturer (most lecturers will have set times when they are available to students), or by waiting behind after everyone has left the room and then asking your question.

There is good advice on learning from lectures on the website, Skills4Study.com.

4. Making the most of seminars and tutorials

The main feature of these is that you are expected to speak out and discuss things with other students, rather than just listen to the lecturer.

This may go against your own experience: in your culture, the expectation may be that you take what you need from the lecture, and/or that you discuss the issues in your group before you voice an opinion.

However, in the UK, the individual's opinion counts. You need to have the courage to speak, and not worry too much about making mistakes in your English, or even if the discussion becomes heated. Don't worry too much if your English isn't prefect, it really is important to make that contribution. Apart from anything else, it will put other students at ease, particularly if they too have problems with their English.

As with lectures, it's helpful to prepare for the seminar as much as you can by reading around the topic. You may also need to make presentations: read the study skill on how to make a successful presentation for advice on this.

5. Working in groups

Group work, both assessed and non-assessed, is another feature of British education, favoured because it teaches important teamwork skills.

Working in a culturally diverse group with people from different countries and backgrounds may be challenging: you may come up against different ideas and expectations about how work is shared and decisions made. However, the experience can be invaluable and help you acquire important intercultural skills which will vastly benefit your subsequent career. For this reason, many tutors deliberately try and mix up nationalities.

This is how Shen found being part of a group:

"I found it frustrating because I felt that I could finish the assignment more quickly if I worked on my own. We had to divide people up and give them different tasks, and at the same time coordinate the whole operation so that people pulled together with the same goal in mind. In the end, we got an A grade. The difficulty was working with people who might be lazy, and wanted the benefit of the assignment without the effort. But I also made some good friends from the process, and learnt how to deal with people in a diplomatic way."

Read the study skill on group work for more help.

6. Writing and referencing

Writing for academic study is a huge topic, and one that is covered extensively elsewhere on this site. The main purpose of this section is to draw your attention to some of the things which you may find different, or surprising.

You may find yourself doing a lot more written work than you are used to. Courses will be assessed not just by an exam at the end, but by a series of written assignments. For each of these assignments, you need to make sure that you know:

  • exactly the format required, i.e. is it an essay or a report, etc. (read more about the different formats in the Emerald study skill on structuring your writing);
  • how long it should be, i.e. how many words (many students think that long is good, but this isn't always the case);
  • what the assessment criteria are and, in particular, how much is awarded to good English (some courses will not penalize the student for imperfect English, providing the content is good);
  • is it to be formally assessed – that is contribute towards your eventual mark?

If you are unclear about anything, do not be afraid to ask. The same applies when you receive feedback.

You will be expected to write in a logical way, with a clear structure and with sentences following on from one another without jumps in the sense. Time spent preparing for your assignment, reading and preparing your thoughts, will help you write in a logical manner. Read more about the preparation stages of writing in "Getting ready to write", and about tips for a clear writing style in "Writing better essays" (especially Part 2).

Preparing to write your essay will also involve you in a lot of reading, particularly at master's level. For this, you will probably have to go to your library. Read about how to make the best use of this invaluable asset in the study skill, "Making the most of your library".

When you write your assignment, you will make considerable use of other people's ideas. You should always provide the source for these ideas: this is known as referencing, and you can read more about how to do it in the study skills article, "Referencing".

This is unfortunately one of the issues that most often trips up international students, who may be unaware of the convention, and believe it sufficient to provide a bibliography at the end of the assignment. However, to present someone else's words or ideas as your own is known as plagiarism, which is a very severe offence in the UK. Read more about this in the study skill on plagiarism.

Academic writing, and particularly correct referencing, are complex issues. If in any doubt, you would be well advised to seek help from your tutor or attend any courses run by your university's study skills unit (see section 3: "Sources of help").

Examples

Shen found writing essays to be his biggest problem at first, because his English was poor. He took the first essay to the English tutor he had met on his pre-sessional course – "by some means I needed to know what's right and proper". In general, he tried to use simple language and avoid long sentences.

Chiang also finds writing difficult: she copes by revising the text several times before asking someone else to proofread it.

7. The critical approach

The reason why plagiarism and lack of referencing is frowned on in the UK depends upon another key academic value: the ability to construct one's own understanding of a subject, rather than merely reproduce the ideas of others. Constructing one's own understanding inevitably means being able to "take apart" other people's ideas, and not only explain it in your own words, but also make a judgement as to its value.

This is part of the critical approach. Being told to be critical often leaves students confused, because rarely is there an explanation of what it entails. The "Developing critical thinking" study skill provides a useful introduction.

One of the main activities of any course is reading and searching for information. See the "Searching for information" study skill for more details.

Example

According to Hau-Jeng, the fact that his country of origin has a passive teaching style meant that he was not used to critical analysis. So the fact that in the UK students were expected to "contribute their own thinking or come up with relatively new ideas" was quite challenging.

8. Managing your time and studying independently

Studying successfully in the UK means being a good self-starter. While it may appear that you have a lot of free time, in fact you will need much of this time to fit in all the reading and writing you need to do for your study.

You will need to learn to organize your time – time that is not planned tends to disappear. Try making weekly study plans, which need to take into account:

  • Existing commitments – for example lectures, seminars and tutorials.
  • The way you work, for example are you the sort of person who works best under pressure, and can therefore best complete an assignment by staying up all night? Are you methodical, writing lists, and carrying out tasks one by one, or do you like to do many things at once?
  • When you work best – people function differently at different times of the day.
  • The steps towards completing a particular task: for example, a 2,000-word essay requires analysis of the question, reading and searching for information, structuring and planning, writing and re-writing, proofreading and printing out.
  • Time spent not studying – make sure you have time for relaxation and socializing.

You can read about time management and getting organized in the Emerald study skill, "Getting organized". There is good advice on studying independently on the website, Skills4Study.com in the learning strategy, "Independent study".

9. Getting the best out of your tutor

The best university teachers in the UK try to be helpful and approachable, particularly with students who are keen to learn. What may appear unusual to some international students is the informality of the relationship between student and tutor; for example, lecturers are often addressed by their first names.

You will probably have a number of different lecturers who teach different modules. It's also quite common in the UK system to have a personal tutor who will meet with you on a regular basis, perhaps together with a few other students, to discuss your work and study methods. He or she will also be responsible for your pastoral care. This means helping you deal with personal issues which may affect your coursework, such as illness, family bereavement, etc.

Sources of help

Much has been written, both here and elsewhere, about study skills at university. However, there is no substitute for talking to people face-to-face, and you should look for help directly from wherever you are studying. Most institutions will have a number of services which can help with:

  • study skills and learning issues
  • English language
  • specialist units for international students.

For example, the University of Bradford has a learner support service which offers help in study skills through its learner development unit. The University Language Centre offers modules in English as a foreign language for international students. Other sources of help on the Web are listed below:

The Emerald site

Emerald's Learning Zone contains a number of articles on study skills.

Skills4Study

The Skills4Study site has been prepared by authors from Palgrave's Study Skills series and contains excellent and well-organized material.

Prepare for Success

Prepare for Success is an excellent resource which is aimed specifically at international students, designed to prepare them for study in the UK. It contains exercises and video and audio based resources where students talk about their experiences.

The UK Council for International Student Affairs

The UK Council for International Student Affairs is a body devoted to the welfare of international students, this site has information sheets covering all aspects of studying and living in the UK.

University of Glasgow Faculty of Law, Business & Social Sciences

The University of Glasgow Faculty of Law, Business & Social Sciences website contains introductory study material, with lots of student views, including videos.