From secondary school to university

Secondary school and university studies differ in several ways. These differences relate to:

How subjects are presented and structured

Secondary school University
Selected aspects of a subject are taught in a carefully structured way. Students are introduced to a discipline and are expected to become increasingly knowledgeable about their discipline during the course of their study. Through reading, attending lectures and participating in tutorials, students are exposed to a wide range of information, principles, theories and debates in their field.
Students are generally not expected to have a broad and deep knowledge of subjects. Graduates are expected to have expertise in their discipline at a level that most people do not have.
Teachers direct students to the most important information and ideas in a subject. University staff select and structure the most important aspects of a discipline. Lectures and study guides take students systematically through these concepts.

Reading and research requirements

Secondary school University
Teachers direct students to what they specifically have to read. University lecturers usually give out long reading lists. They may point out what is essential to read from the list and what is desirable to read but not crucial.
For assignments, reading only the set textbook is often enough. These texts provide fairly generalised ideas. In preparing an assignment, students can use the textbook, if there is one, for gathering basic background information, but they need to supplement this with wider reading. Students are expected to search for relevant, specifically focused material to deal with particular assignment topics.
Teachers may supply photocopies of important articles or book chapters. Teachers sometimes provide outline notes. Students have to read texts, listen to lectures and make their own notes. Lecturers may make their lecture slides available for downloading and printing. This does not do away with the necessity for students to make their own notes!
Students may use the internet and newspapers for research. Students need to develop good research strategies, skills for finding information in online databases and evaluating internet sources.


Secondary school University
In assignments students are expected to reproduce the core knowledge they have learnt. Students begin to consider differing ideas and viewpoints. Students are expected to take a more critical and questioning attitude to the knowledge they acquire throughout the course of their university studies. Students become better at this as they become more familiar with the main principles and debates in their discipline
Teachers set smaller and more frequent assignments. There may be fewer assignments but these are longer and carry more marks.


Secondary school University
There is a less rigorous requirement for referencing. Students are expected to refer to the set texts but do not need to acknowledge every source for each particular piece of information in their written work. Accurate and thorough referencing is an essential feature of academic writing. Plagiarism is the failure to acknowledge sources and is regarded as a very serious matter at university.


Secondary school University
Teachers correct and comment upon students' work frequently. There may be less opportunity for regular feedback from lecturers/tutors.
Marking criteria are explicit for public examinations used for university entrance. Marking criteria may be less specific.

The learner

Secondary school University
Schools take some responsibility for students' learning in various ways. Teachers regularly monitor student progress. They remind students about assignment deadlines and try to make sure students understand requirements. Also, teachers report to parents. Students are regarded as adults and fully responsible for their own academic success or failure.

The learning environment

Secondary school University
The 'lesson' is the usual teaching mode. Time spent in class takes up most of students' learning time. Lectures, tutorials, seminars and lab sessions are features of university teaching. These are conducted face-to-face and, increasingly, online.
Students are given more direction about what to do at home and in the library. Face-to-face and online teaching may take up a smaller proportion of the time that students are expected to spend in self-directed study.
Timing of assignments can sometimes be negotiated by subject teachers so that students do not have to submit assignments for different subjects at the same time in the term. Students have to learn to manage their unstructured time outside contact hours. Students undertaking several units of study will most probably have assignments due at around the same time in the trimester.
Page custodian: Division of Student Life
Last updated: