Degrees: More than just A-Level Up?


In March this year, it was announced that the overall level of students dropping out of university had increased by 13%: from 28,210 to 31,755. This alarming rate is estimated to represent around £95million in wasted tax payers’ money, which was lent to these students for tuition fees alone! One of the main reasons attributed to this high dropout rate is the vast difference between degrees and A-levels, with students being unable to cope with the academic transition.

These differences are discovered in the first year so most degree disciplines do not even include these results in the students’ final grade. This is meant to give them time to adjust to the alterations in both lifestyle and learning style, but what actually are these differences? We asked some current students for their opinions on what they found to be the biggest changes between studying for A-levels and for a degree.

According to Computer Science student Robin Johnson, the most significant shift he experienced was “the expectation [that]you have to keep up with course content independently and study it yourself to sufficient depth for one large module exam”. He is not alone in thinking this, many people comment on the movement away from the spoon-feeding of school, to an environment where they are left to their own devices; to find out if they will sink or swim. Robin also commented that this is made worse as students do not “always leave the lecture room fully understanding everything”.

Humanities student Laurie McGee commented that, for him, the biggest difference was “the idea that lectures are only an introduction to a topic”. Many lectures set large book lists, which students are expected to read in their own time, without any guidance or anyone keeping tabs on them. Furthermore, the language in these books can often be a technical step-up, leaving students feeling overwhelmed and resenting the reading.

For other students, such as Jon North who studies Population Geography, they find the biggest difference to be the independent study aspect of their courses. He comments that “you need to be able to self-motivate for your degree, otherwise the work can build up and overwhelm you”. This is shown through the expected hours of dedication per week for academic work. For A-levels, most students study towards three to four subjects, with four-five contact hours a week for each and the expectation they spend 3 hours outside of school reading or revising. This totals around 30 hours a week, with the majority of this time being spent in a classroom. In contrast, most university modules expect students to dedicate a total of 100 hours to each module, which amounts to a total of around 40 hours per week, with much of the time appointed to self-study.

“…at University the core module lectures tended to expect that we knew nothing about the subject or indeed how to read and write!”

That being said, History undergraduate Alex Rogers, comments on how he felt that his first year was actually a step down from A-level, requiring much less of his time. “At A-Level we spent two solid months drafting and re-drafting, reading and brainstorming ideas, but at University, the core module lectures tended to expect that we knew nothing about the subject or indeed how to read and write! So, we in turn put less effort in, as we felt a lot less was required from us”. However, Alex did then remark that it doesn’t stay that way: “second year is definitely a step up in terms of preparation and commitment to the subject and means lots of fun reading”.

Another difference is the teaching styles. A-levels are taught in classes, usually consisting of around 20-25 people, with a first name basis relationship with the teacher and the ability to ask questions. At university, for many subjects the main source of information comes from lectures, which are held in huge lecture theatres with upwards of 50 students in one room. They are then “lectured” at without the ability to ask in-depth questions. Although many subjects have seminars taught alongside these, there is much less scope to ask questions than classes and there is a greater pressure on the individual to discover the answers from books or peers, as opposed to from their lecturer.

James Prance, an engineering undergraduate, told us the biggest change he found was that “examination’s standards and styles differ completely”. Similarly, Sasha Watson, VP Academic Affairs, found that: “At University you really need to learn to take all the material at hand, to be creative with the different points of view and to manipulate them into a coherent argument, knowing that there isn’t necessarily a right answer, as opposed to correctly listing facts and regurgitating information at A-levels.”

“Examination’s standards and styles differ completely”

It seems that gone are the days where students are able to grab a copy of a past paper with a mark scheme and simply learn it. There is no set structure and a lot of it is down to the module leader; they set the exam and they set the style. Some students, such as music and film undergraduates move to university and find that they don’t even have any exams at all, and that their courses are 100% assignments.

There are, however, some similarities between A-level and degree. For example, most degrees and A-levels examine students at the same time of year (January and June) and most students find that the content of their courses, obviously, get harder as the progress through the stages. It’s not a complete change in structure, but many students still find themselves ‘unlearning’ some of their A-level habits.

Geography student, Alex Bees notes that when studying for both, you get what you give. “What you put in is what you get – at A-Level if you do more you get a better understanding, same at degree level”. This seems to be the truest statement for both. If you want to excel in anything academic, the only thing that follows through from GCSE, A-level, degree and even other disciplines, is that the students who perform best are more than likely the students who have put in the most amount of effort.

Although there are all of these vast differences, they are usually offset by the fact that students have chosen to study their degree because they have a keen interest in it, and the first year transition period allows them to adapt to these stark changes. As Bret Ware puts it, no matter how big the changes the “work balance is very important, especially when you’re meeting new people and forging a life of your own”. Don’t stress, and if you’re really struggling, be sure to contact First Support through Student Services for help.


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