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Understanding the difference between secondary school and university is a big step towards making a successful transition into university life.

In order to make a successful transition to university, consider the following:

  • Take control of your own education: think of yourself as a scholar.
  • Get to know your lecturers: they are your single greatest resource.
  • Be assertive: seek help when you realise you may need it.
  • Take control of your time: plan ahead to satisfy academic obligations and make room for everything else.
  • Make thoughtful decisions: don't take a course just to satisfy a requirement, and don't drop any course too quickly.
  • Think beyond the moment: set goals for the semester, the year, your university career.

The following table highlights some of the differences between secondary school and university.

Classes at high school Studying at university
Secondary school is mandatory and usually free. University is voluntary and comparatively expensive.
Your time is structured by others. You manage your own time.
You can count on parents and teachers to remind you of your responsibilities and to guide you in setting priorities. You must judge what your responsibilities are and set your own priorities. You might face moral and ethical decisions you have never faced before.
Each day you proceed from one class directly to another, spending 6 hours each day (30 hours a week) in class. You often have hours between classes; class times vary throughout the day and evening and you spend only 12 to 16 hours each week in class.
Guiding principle: You will usually be told what to do. Guiding principle: You are expected to take responsibility for what you do and don't do, as well as for the consequences of your decisions.
Classes generally have no more than 35 students. Class sizes vary, and they may number 100 students or more.
You may study outside class as little as 0 to 2 hours a week, and this may be mostly last-minute test preparation. For each paper, an 'expected' workload guide for a week is roughly 15 hours per week over a 12-week semester, but that includes contact time – lectures, labs etc as well as working on assignments.
You seldom need to read anything more than once, and sometimes listening in class is enough. You need to review class notes and text material regularly, and you may have to read some material several times to fully grasp it.
You are expected to read short assignments that are then discussed, and often re-taught in class. You are assigned substantial amounts of reading and writing which may not be directly addressed in class.
Guiding principle: You will usually be told in class what you need to learn from assigned readings. Guiding principle: It's up to you to read and understand the assigned material; lectures and assignments proceed from the assumption that you've already done so.
Secondary school teachers University lecturers
Teachers check your completed homework. It is unlikely lecturers will check completed homework.
Teachers remind you of your incomplete work. Lecturers may not remind you of incomplete work.
Teachers approach you if they believe you need assistance. Lecturers are usually open and helpful, but most expect you to take the initiative and make contact if you need assistance.
Teachers are often available for conversation before, during, or after class. Lecturers expect and want you to attend their scheduled office hours.
Teachers have been trained in teaching methods to assist in imparting knowledge to students. Lecturers have been trained as experts in their particular areas of research. Their workload model is 40:40:20 (40% of time teaching: 40% research: and 20% as service to the University).
Teachers provide you with information you missed when you were absent. Lecturers expect you to get notes from classmates if you missed a class.
Teachers provide information in order to help you understand the material in the textbook. Lecturers may not follow the textbook. Instead, to amplify the text, they may give illustrations, provide background information, or discuss research about the topic you are studying. Or they may expect you to relate the classes to the textbook readings.
Teachers often write information on the board to be copied in your notes. Lecturers may lecture non-stop, expecting you to identify the important points and write these in your notes. When lecturers write on the board, it may be to amplify the lecture, not to summarise it. Writing good notes is a must.
Teachers often take time to remind you of assignments and due dates. Lecturers expect you to read, save, and consult the course syllabus (outline); the syllabus spells out exactly what is expected of you, when assignments are due, and how you will be graded.
Assessment in secondary school Assessment in university
Teachers frequently rearrange test dates to avoid conflict with school events. Lecturers in different courses usually schedule tests without regard to the demands of other courses or outside activities.
Initial test grades, especially when they are low, may not have an adverse effect on your final grade. Tests may individually or cumulatively account for a substantial part of your course grade.
Guiding principle: Effort counts. Courses are usually structured to reward a 'good-faith effort'. Guiding principle: Results count. Though a 'good-faith effort' is important in regard to the lecturer's willingness to help you achieve good results, it will not substitute for results in the grading process.

(Adapted from the Southern Methodist University)

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