How to adapt to a third-level study regime

A student’s first year in college largely determines their academic success

First year at college: “The biggest mistake students make is to manage their time badly and not realise that they have to keep on top of things from the very beginning.” Photograph: iStockophoto/Getty Images

First year at college: “The biggest mistake students make is to manage their time badly and not realise that they have to keep on top of things from the very beginning.” Photograph: iStockophoto/Getty Images


Your first few weeks as a third-level student are likely to be a lot of fun and naturally you should make the most of it. But the shock of how different a learning environment college is to your old school will probably hit you during the first part of the semester too.

At school you followed a highly structured regime that required you to be in a certain classroom at a certain time, be taught in a prescriptive, spoon-fed way, and more than likely you also had to wear a uniform. And, of course, there were immediate and tangible consequences for being late, not completing homework on time or wearing the wrong shoes.

At college, things are very different. It’s a place where you are expected to take full control and responsibility for yourself – and fast. This includes your academic work as much as your personal finances or your social life.

Needless to say, some adapt to this new life like ducks to water while others will flail about, with everyone else caught somewhere in between.

Dr Dan Collins, academic administration and student affairs manager at Cork Institute of Technology (CIT), says that, for most students, the experience of their first year largely determines their academic success in higher education.

“They need to demonstrate that they truly understand what they are learning and not just restating what they are hearing at lectures. We stress that in college they will be asked to analyse, argue a point or organise what they’ve learned in a new way . . . not just repeat what they have memorised.”

‘Last-minute cramming’

His colleague, Mary McCarthy, who works as an academic coach at CIT’s Student Engagement Office (AnSEO), adds that another change is the complete shift to self-directed learning.

“Students, who in school worked just enough to stay ‘out of trouble’ and who developed a last-minute cramming approach to exams, tend to encounter challenges in third-level learning environments. The task of directing themselves is something they are thrown into. Semesters move fast while new topics, assignments and deadlines appear with rapidity.”

Dr Claire Bohan, director of student support and development at DCU, says that the biggest mistake students make is to manage their time badly and not realise that they have to keep on top of things from the very beginning.

“The semester moves on very quickly, as does the course material – and if they leave it too late, they will find that they have fallen behind too much to catch up. The tendency in second level is to ‘revise’ what has been done the following day or week – this would not be done in great detail at third level.”

The whole business of attending lectures probably provides the greatest single contrast in learning environments between second level and third level.

Feargal Murphy, a lecturer at the school of Irish, Celtic, folklore and linguistics in UCD, has been delivering a study skills module specifically for arts and humanities students at the college since 2004.

“At school there was a timetable and [you] had to be in a certain room at a certain time. At university, you might have lecture at 10am and then one at 2pm and so you have to do academic work in between.”

He adds that it’s useful to understand the purpose of a lecture. “It’s a way for the lecturer to give a lot of people in one place different pieces of information in one go rather than teaching them this information in groups of 10.” Accordingly, it is useful to know that a tutorial with smaller groups is an opportunity for the lecturer to help you apply the theories you have learned in a range of practical situations and scenarios.

Attention span

Murphy acknowledges that, particularly in this era of smartphones, simply learning to pay attention in a lecture is a key skill, particularly if you might not be hugely interested in the subject. “It’s not natural to sit for 50 minutes listening to someone talk, it’s very hard to do.”

You also need to learn how to make the most of lectures, but most colleges will encourage you to talk to the lecturer if you’re having problems in this regard. “In that case we might suggest then we have to look not at the lecture itself but what you’re doing in the lecture if you’re not getting the most out of it. Maybe there is something we can change.”

However, it may be as simple as getting the student to sit at the front of the lecture hall rather than the very back, where it’s much easier to distract yourself. Indeed, taking responsibility for your own learning extends to learning how to deal with distractions, he said, so it’s a good idea to learn how to get back on track when you realise you are being distracted.

Murphy also has words of wisdom with regard to learning to use the library effectively. “You don’t go in and magically something will happen just because you take a book off the shelf – you have to go in and interrogate the book. So what you should be doing is thinking about what you want from the book in the library, getting the book and thinking about – before you even open the book – what it is you want to get out of it.”

Social media

In the 10 years she has been advising CIT students, Mary McCarthy has also noticed how smartphones, social media and gaming devices have created huge issues. “They present significant obstacles to focus, concentration and effective use of time. They are a constant and ever-present distraction.”

But regardless of what struggles you might end up having on the academic side at third level, McCarthy says that students don’t ask enough questions and don’t ask for help from each other, their tutors and lecturers. “They often wait until they find themselves seriously struggling or failing before they seek help.”

Among the many supports CIT provides first year students is Pals – Peer-Assisted Learning and Support – which is based on training more experienced students to provide peer assistance, including facilitating study sessions for small groups of students during the academic year.

Another is “academic success coaches” like McCarthy, who work with staff to identify and support students who may be unsure or struggling with course choices or experiencing academic problems.

At DCU, Bohan notes that the current generation of students seem “more worldly wise, having experienced much more much younger, but at the same time their levels of resilience seem to have dropped”.

“Supports have increased and become more sophisticated in order to keep up with the trends – we are constantly changing, tweaking, revising and renewing what we do to support our students.”

As well as a standard orientation programme, DCU supports include a year-long online orientation through which students get information about key dates for events like academic skills workshops and personal development seminars. The academic skills workshops, which are often “frontloaded” over the first five weeks of the semester, cover things like note-taking, presentation skills, group work and writing academic essays. “This helps them come to terms with these skills early so that they feel more confident when the first assignments arrive around the sixth week,” said Bohan.

Writing skills

Murphy adds that the idea behind any study skills course is getting across the notion that “what makes a successful student are skills that can be learned”. “Obviously, academic writing in university is different to writing at second level; it’s a skill that has to be learned.”

But it also covers more basic skills like getting the most out of lectures and using the library effectively. “A university is a research institute and not a teaching one, so students have to be encouraged to develop the skills required for research.”

However, no amount of staff or peer support is likely to compensate if you struggle academically as a result of making the wrong course choice.

For instance, if you manage to get into a Stem degree course but had struggled at school with subjects that are traditionally regarded as challenging, such as maths, applied maths, physics, chemistry and programming, you could be setting yourself up for a fall.

“When students undertake study at higher level in these areas without a relevant and successful second-level background, they struggle and experience high levels of failure,” said McCarthy. “The cost is high, both personally in terms of eroded levels of confidence and self-efficacy and financially, in terms of lost grants and the cost of entirely funding a new first-year course.”

Bohan says many students may have been poorly advised about course choices. “Students need to research well before starting college so that they know what the programmes entail and ensure that they are embarking on a programme of study which will interest them and which they are prepared to work hard in.”