Friday, May 19, 2006

Tips from an independent learner

If you know in advance that you need to increase your independence upon entering university, you’re one of the lucky ones.  Most people don’t find that out until the first day of the new semester, and then it comes as a shock.  I know, that is what happened to me on my first day of study at university.

Prior to that first day, my experience of learning had been at High School, studying for my GCE A-Level examinations, which are like entrance exams for a place on an undergraduate course at university.  Studying for A-Levels is itself very different from normal, everyday life at school; it is geared to taking the final examination and passing it with a grade high enough to get you a place.

At High School, teachers help students; they talk to them, advise them, tell them exactly what they have to do – all the time.  At university, very few people tell you what to do, virtually nobody advises you.  You are given a timetable, an essay assignment schedule, and reading lists.  The rest is up to you.

If you want to do well, and most people do, you learn very quickly.  The kitchens, common rooms and cafeterias are the places where freshmen (new 1st year students) learn where to go, what to do, and when to do it.  Some people drop out – slowly – from this first encounter with learner autonomy, while the majority learn to cope.

What helped me most, was my ability to be organized.  I organized my time, and I organized my learning; my reading, and my writing.

One of the things I learned to do very quickly, was that I had to get work in on time.  At university, you are given deadlines, and left to hand work in on or before the time stipulated on the schedule.  If you are late, and many are always late, you do not get a mark for that particular assignment.  There are no arguments.  You don’t get informed.  You find out at the end of the course that you didn’t receive a mark for the work you didn’t turn in one time.

Similarly, students are expected to do the required reading from the list.  However, reading lists are always much too extensive.  Nobody could possibly get though everything, but then you are not really expected to read every page of every book on the list.

You have to be selective in your reading, and good tutor can and will help freshmen in tutorials or seminars.  In fact, students are generally expected to present seminar papers based upon specific issues or topics.  You learn quickly, you have to do.  But seminar papers form no part of assessment at university; they merely help students to focus on important subject areas.

As well as handing work in on time, it is best to make sure your work is of the highest quality, as marks for assignments generally count for the final grades that determine the class of degree you are awarded at the end of the final year.

Practical advice goes as follows:

  • Plan your time according to what you have to do and when you have to do it.
  1. lectures

  2. seminars

  3. tutorials

  4. written assignments

  5. seminar papers

  6. workshops

  7. what time to eat and sleep also need timetabling

  • Do the work you are required to do.

  • reading for your own information

  • reading for specific tasks like presenting seminar papers or writing essays

  • Writing

  • writing up notes from a lecture

  • writing up notes from your reading

  • writing formally assessed assignments and essays

  • Plan sport and recreation activities.

  • gym

  • swimming

  • playing regularly on a team

  • jogging

  • walking

  • socializing with others

  • Plan your free time

  • time that is not timetabled – free time for yourself

  • time to rest

  • time to think

  • time to do something else besides all of the above

You don’t really have to write all the items down on paper, although the first items on your list do need special note.  My advice is to have copies of your timetable in places you regularly look – next to the washbasin mirror in your study bedroom, on your writing table, on the inside flap of your bag, in your purse or your wallet – everywhere to help you to remember.

Peer groups are good, healthy things – everybody needs them – it’s good to know you are not going through this by yourself – everybody on your course has your headaches and problems – probably even your nightmares too.

It is also worth remembering too though, that people have different ways of managing.  Some coping mechanisms are fine and work, while others are just ways of setting yourself up to fail.  Take advice, but also monitor by observing others.  If the person who normally gives you most of your advice suddenly drops out or misses a deadline, you may want to think taking his advice again.

Universities are beginning to tailor their freshmen procedures to prevent students dropping out or failing courses, and so counseling services for students in difficulties are always on offer – take advantage of them – they are there to help you manage this most important time to date in your early adult life.  
Robert L. Fielding


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