What is university like? A guide for all VCE students

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Many high school and VCE students perceive University as an education “haven”. No longer is there any control on whether or not you show up to class, no longer do teachers terrorise you for your uniform, no longer is there any uniform to wear – it is the ultimate freedom. University life is very different than school life; in this article we will explore what you can expect in University and how you can make the transition more comfortable.

What are lectures and studying like at university?

As mentioned previously, university is very different that school. Normally at school you sit in a classroom with perhaps 20 students – these students did not change. Within the lesson your teacher would go through the theory of the subject studied, and then the teacher would give you half of the lesson to go through some selected questions from the textbook. Normally you would be expected to finish that exercise as homework. At university the theory is taught in lecture rooms, these are known as lectures. Often lectures last about 55mins – however there are 120min lectures depending on your faculty. For example if you are studying Law, you may encounter 120min lectures whereas for engineering subjects you generally have 55-minute lectures (otherwise you brain may explode :P).

There are many students that fit in the lecture – much more than a simple classroom. For example in some Biomedical lectures the amount was about 240 students. Of course this drops down to half throughout the semester – because many students cannot be bothered attending. It really depends on the ability of the lecturer to keep the subject interesting and grasping the attention of students. During some of my chemical units there were 150 people at the commencement of the subject, which dropped down to an average of 8 people. No one could be bothered showing up, because no one could understand the lecturer – self-learning was the best way to learn the subject. Unfortunately as you move into higher education there is absolutely no guarantee that the lecturer can communicate the knowledge – even though they may be exceptionally bright.

Lectures are generally not marked for attendance – if they are then you will be alerted at the very beginning of the subject. Most lectures have notes available online, normally power-point slides, which you are expected to bring with you to each lecture. It is rare that the lecturer prints these out for the students because it is costly. Also you may find it more economical to buy the bundle of lecture notes for the whole unit in the local bookshop of your university – if available. Sometimes – if you are lucky, the lectures are recorded together with the video of what is going on. It is advisable not to rely on online lectures because due to technical issues, you may find that you are self-learning that topic.

Attending lectures is a good idea if you want to keep a track of the material being taught and if you have an ability to connect with the lecturer. Also many students attend lectures just to get to know other students and form a social network. In reality I have found that in my engineering lectures I found it pointless to attend lectures. This was because it involved a more independent way of learning, I found that lecturers rushed through formulas and didn’t really explain how they connect together. Personally, I find myself independently self-learning the concepts of engineering – and going at a rate that is suitable for me. Whether or not this is a wise idea is debatable, however judging from results – I am yet to fail a subject, so perhaps it is a good method for me personally. On the other hand subjects such as law and biomedical science are more “lecture friendly”. In these areas of study the lecturer normally welcomes audience participation and discussion, which is almost not seen in engineering. The method of teaching is normally in the form of “story-telling” where one concept is explained and then builds up the next. Again some people may find that studying independently from a textbook is faster and more effective – it really depends on the type of learner that the student is.

How much do you learn in a lecture?

Many VCE students feel bombarded by the amount they have to learn in VCE…. unfortunately the amount of content given in lectures at university level at times can be called ridiculous. I vividly recall our biomedical science lectures containing 105 slides for a 55-minute lecture. There were times when the content was simply overwhelming – within that lecture there were about 2 new terms to “remember” be slide … that amounts to about 210 terms per lecture which was absolutely insane. Remember that for the exam there were on average 33 lectures to “study” – so either your brain must be turned into Google or you need to be selective on what you focus your studying energy on.

You will find that the study skills you develop in VCE will be completely changed in university – a new study “paradigm” must be introduced otherwise you will buckle under the amount of learning material. Whether you achieved an ATAR of 75.00 or an ATAR of 99.00 plus your study skills and methodology will be challenged at university. I recall my first semester of studying Biomedical Science, I believed that everything taught in the lectures was meant to be remembered – just like normal school subjects. I studied non-stop and tried to write notes for each lecture, but soon I encountered “information overload”. Once exam session approached I thought I have to study every little aspect of each lecture – this took an entire month of full time study. In hindsight about 50% of what you learn is examined – the other 50% is usually ignored, or placed into your notes for “reference”. In my second semester I found that it was pointless in making notes – I found that I learned quicker by trying to understand how the concepts linked together, and the mechanism behind how things work. I watched hundreds of You Tube animations and found that this was not only more entertaining, but also more effective for my learning.

In VCE every single little point had to be known, and paying to small detail is important. On the other hand at university you need to be selective of what is RELEVANT and what isn’t. You need to learn to filter the information and only capture the true essence of the course and what is necessary for you to know.

To really appreciate and give you an example of how much you learn in a lecture – the entire Biology unit 3 coursework was covered in our first 2-3 weeks at university. The semester normally contains 12 weeks of theory, and each semester contains four subjects, if you take a full time load. Many people find that the workload is fairly high – therefore it is best to know this before deciding for a particular course.

What are tutorials?

Tutorials are smaller class like session in which you will have the ability to interact with a tutor to learn the concepts taught at the lectures. Not all subjects have tutorials – but it is a great way to get more personalized help if you find that you do not understand a particular topic. Tutorials are often marked for attendance, and an 80% attendance rate is normally expected. Sometimes tutorials attendance may be a hurdle requirement to pass the subject – other times tutorial attendance will only be bought into consideration if a student has failed the subject, to decide whether they are eligible for a near pass or fail.

In the tutorials you often go through questions from the textbook and have an opportunity to ask tutors about problem areas. The tutorials can last 60 -120mins.

How long will I have to spend at university? Can you work & study?

Again this depends on your personality. Remember that now you will be treated as an adult, and therefore it is up to you if you decide to present yourself at university or not. It comes down to character – if you find lectures effective then it is recommended to go, however if you find that self-studying and listening to lectures online is more effective than obviously that is better.

Normally if studying science or engineering subjects the time that you spend at university is greater due to more practicals and laboratories. I personally recall some labs in my Chemistry unit to be 240mins long – and it is expected that you attend such sessions.

The normal contact hours spent at university is about 23-28 hours a week. This may vary depending on the faculty. However remember that each subject requires about 7 hours a week of studying at home (Monash University guideline) – this amounts to 28 extra hours. From personal experience, I find it impossible to devote this amount of time to university because I tutor VCE student full time and manage the business – this takes a lot of time. I often attend university only when there is something compulsory, and spent my time studying at my own pace after my tutoring day, for me this works best because I work 30-40 hours outside of my studies – I would run out of life if I needed to attend lectures. However most students find that they can easily manage 10-15 hours of work outside of university and still manage to lead balanced lives and attend all their tutorials/lectures – it is very flexible, much more than school.

What are university exams like?

University exams are generally stressful for students because they are on the content of the entire semester – this amounts to approximately 33 lectures. The amount of content that can fit into 33 lectures is HUGE. There is a big difference between VCE exams formed by VCAA and university exams. If university exams were similar to VCAA exams, I would probably fail half of my exams! VCAA exams are specific; even if you understand and know the topic the questions can be twisted, confusing and tricky. On the other hand university exams are more testing how much you know about the topic – they are not as specific. The exam is not constructed with tricky questions that you have to think about – it is more recite.

Biomedical science exams were generally 3 hours long – and they were made up of 70-110 multiple choice questions and three essays about given topics. These exams were generally worth about 60% of the semester score. The exams were generally well spread out, normally about 5 days apart, however I do recall having exams on Thu, Fri, Mon, Tue, which was very painful.

On the other hand Engineering exams are generally worth 70% of the semester mark and they are challenging. The questions require a much deeper level of understanding than Biomedical Science because you are given problem solving. They are normally 3 hours long; personally I find engineering exams to be much tougher to study for than Biomedical Science exams. Biomedical Science was more of a memory game, mixed with understanding how mechanism work – this was easy to do by watching animations on the Internet. In fact, most of the time I did not bother buying the textbooks because the information could be found online. On the other hand engineering exams require you to practice calculations and various questions from the textbook.

Normally you should receive a set of past papers from your lecturer – analyse these past papers very carefully because the questions are normally similar. However again, it cannot be said that they will be similar – if you are really desperate to study for the exams and are running out of time, focusing and understanding the exam questions is a good strategy.

What about books?

University books are big, bulky and expensive. When I started Biomedical Science in 2005, I bought all my books brand new – which cost well over $400. On the first day of university I carried all four of these massive books with me, I believe that they were about 8kg in weight. To my frustration the lecturers didn’t even use the books – they were simply references for self-study. So I spend my first day of university dragging them around … did not enjoy that day.

University books can be bought through the campus bookshop, or they can also be bough second hand. There are many people selling their textbooks on bulletin boards around the university. Often these books are in excellent condition – and can save you hundreds. Another idea is to buy them through eBay. I find that even though companies make new editions and upgrades of the textbooks – there is almost no change to the actual content. The front cover is “newer” but most of the time this is the only difference between the editions.
Another idea is simply saving $400 and borrowing them from the university library – although this works, sometimes they are not available because most of the other students within the course have borrowed them.

Social life!

Most students do not enjoy the lectures and tutorials – but the social life is appealing. University life is dynamic and can be great socially. The best way to meet new people and make friends is to (1) Attend the faculty orientation camp (2) go to tutorials/lectures (3) join groups (4) become a member of a student group (5) attend social events. If you walk through university on a normal day you will find free BBQ and beer…maybe pizza – to obtain these you simply have to sign up as a member and you have free lunch!

The energy of the campus is very dynamic and busy – there are cafes, restaurants, pool tables… even cinemas! There is heaps of activities to do outside of studying, which is how most people stay sane within their degrees.

Although university can be tough, and there are stressful times – you do get much more freedom and flexibility. You cycle of friends will definitely expand – and you will experience many changes within your university years.