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Learning: The British Way

The British university system will likely be very different from the education system you are used to. At university level, learning and education in Britain is far less formal than teaching in a school. There is no structured, regimented style of learning in which students recount information taught to them with as much precision as possible in order to achieve the highest grade. Instead, you will be taught in a system which focuses on the development and curation of your own ideas, arguments and hypotheses.

What you are directly taught will be the foundation of your learning and knowledge base. Your ideas and opinions will then be challenged by other students, strengthened by those who disagree with you during seminars and backed up by what you are taught.


The Formalities

In the spirit of university education in Britain being less formal, lecturers and professors are usually called by their first names (unless they specifically ask you to do otherwise) and you will find that your relationship with them will be, perhaps, more relaxed than you are used to with your former school teachers.

You will be taught in the form of seminars and lectures. Lectures being large formal group sessions intended to cover a wide range of teaching points. Seminars are smaller sessions in which you will cover the material of the lecture and have the opportunity to discuss and elaborate, with the intention of solidifying your knowledge and developing your own opinions and ideas.

A noted difference may be the manner in which both the seminars and lectures are conducted. There is no material set that must be memorised or committed to memory. There will be set reading tasks or exercises to be done before sessions, but it is not expected that all of this material is perfectly understood and absorbed.

The intention of a seminar, particularly, is to build your understanding of a subject area and delve into and develop your own ideas and opinions about it. There is no need to go into any session (except for exams or tests) with a perfect understanding of the topic. This would be counterproductive so do not worry if you are still unclear about any of the material. This means that it is also an opportunity to discuss any particular area that you are struggling with or do not understand. There is a common adage in Britain that any question you ask will probably be on the minds of several others around you, and no question is a stupid question. So, if you are unsure, confused or simply want a point clarified in class, do speak up – many others will probably be glad you did!


Learning Culture

Depending on the particular staff member, teaching may also be an informal process. Most lecturers see university students as fellow adults and peers and treat them as such. Many use humour and sarcasm in their teaching with the intention of putting their students at ease. Do respect the nature of their teaching in this regard, it is not important to your seminar leader that you get everything right or answer every question perfectly, especially not if you are speaking over another student in the process.

Even sessions that have ‘participation marks’ (marks for how well you participate in group discussions) will not simply be looking for you to answer every question but also how well you interact with the other students and contribute to the wider discussion. There is no expectation that one student will answer every question. Be mindful not to speak over other students but listen to what they have to say – it is completely acceptable to disagree with a fellow student (encouraged even, as it can often strengthen both sides of an argument) but do so in a respectful and constructive way. Also, be sure to show that you can mindfully listen to the perspectives and opinions of others. Hearing and reflecting on another point of view is an important way to learn and is vital to any productive classroom environment.

There is also a wide variety of platforms available on which staff may teach. Lectures may be recorded for you to view later, presentations and teaching materials made available to students using an online platform or interactive sessions may be used which require students to participate in or conduct research.

If language is a barrier during any of your teachings, or cultural differences make it difficult for you to understand (for example, a particularly sarcastic professor or cultural reference) then speak up. English is well known for having many idioms and this can be even more prominent in certain regions and this can be difficult to understand. If you are not comfortable speaking to the staff member running the session then contact your personal tutor and explain your concerns or anything that confuses you. Also, do not be too intimidated to ask another student if you do not understand a particular expression – they will be happy to explain!


The degree classifications

British university degrees are all classified in the same way across the country. Upon completing an undergraduate degree you will receive a degree classification. The highest being a First Class Honours Degree (1st). Below this is an Upper Second Class Degree (2:1), or a Lower Second Class Degree (2:2) or a Third Class Degree. The latter three can either be with, or without, Honours.

At undergraduate level anything over:

  • 40% is a pass;
  • 50% is a 2:2;
  • 60% is a 2:1; and
  • 70% is a 1st.

It can be alarming to some international students to get their work back with a mark of 50%. Please remember that this is a good mark for an arts or social science degree. It is only science and maths courses (where there is only one correct answer) which see very high marks such as 80-90%. Do also look at the feedback and make an appointment to see the person who marked it for more focused feedback and advice on how to improve.


What is expected?

Although it is impossible to generalise and make a sweeping statement about exactly what is expected in every course at a British university, there is one constant: no university degree entails the perfect reiteration of what you were taught in lectures. To simply re-express the views, theory or work of another is not sufficient to achieve a high degree classification. Instead, universities look for their students to build on the material taught in their lectures and challenge the ideas presented to them.

In an essay set in a Philosophy course to explore the morality of the death penalty, for example, it is not sufficient to choose a handful of philosophers covered in lectures and explain their view. Instead, you must challenge their ideas, explore the strengths and weaknesses of each and come to your own conclusions – using material covered in your lectures to support your conclusions and your own views.

The penalties of simply reiterating to the word, the material covered in lectures or in further reading are more severe than simply attaining a lower degree classification. Most British universities use anti-plagiarism software (such as ‘Turnitin’) which requires each student to submit all assessed work to an online system which analyses the essay to establish how much of it is the students original work and how much, if any, has been lifted from the work of others. Should any piece of work be found to contain more than quotations, without proper referencing, this will result in severe consequence as it will violate the university anti-plagiarism policy. This can result in a lower mark, a disciplinary hearing or even expulsion from your programme. Be very mindful of using the correct referencing system for your university and referencing all work done by anyone other than yourself.

If you are unsure or have any problems with referencing, then either ask your personal tutor for guidance or look to student support or the library where there are often workshops or courses to assist with referencing and your universities house style.


If in doubt…

Ask! British Universities are full of systems to support and develop student skills. If there is anything you are unsure of or would like additional help with then there is probably a seminar, course or service available to help you. Do not struggle in silence, especially for first year students who are new to the university, there is a wealth of facilities at your disposal to improve your skills.


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