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Differences between university & high school

Coming directly from high school? You are probably wondering what the differences are when studying in university. Let's look at four of the key differences between learning at university vs. high school.

Note: While the generalizations stated on this may not be characteristic of your high school, they are true of high schools in general.



You are expected to take responsibility for what you do and do not do, as well as for the consequences of your decisions.

  • You manage your own time, balance your responsibilities, and set your own priorities. You may face moral and ethical decisions you have never faced before.
High School

You will usually be told what to do, when to do it, and corrected if your behaviour is out of line.

  • Your time and responsibilities are structured by others. You can count on your teachers and parents to guide you in setting priorities.

  Classes and studying


It is up to you to read and understand the assigned material; lectures and assignments proceed from the assumption that you have already done so.

  • You are assigned substantial amounts of reading and writing which may not be directly addressed in class.
  • You need to review class notes and text material regularly in order to develop a coherent view of the big themes in a course.
  • You may need to study at least two to three hours outside of class for each hour in class.
High school

You will usually be told in class what you need to learn from assigned readings.

  • You are expected to read short assignments that are then discussed, and often re-taught, in class.
  • You may cover one unit at a time, with a strong emphasis on facts and basic ideas.
  • You may study outside of class as little as one to two hours a week, plus last-minute test preparation.

  Tests and exams


Mastery is often seen as the ability to apply what you’ve learned to new situations or to solve new kinds of problems.

  • Testing is usually infrequent and may be cumulative, covering large amounts of material. You—not the professor—need to organize the material to prepare for the test. A course may have only two or three tests in a semester.
  • Professors rarely offer review sessions, and when they do, they expect you to be an active participant, one who comes prepared with questions.
  • Grades on tests and major papers usually provide most of the course grade.
High school

Mastery is usually seen as the ability to reproduce what you were taught in the form in which it was presented to you, or to solve the kinds of problems you were shown how to solve.

  • Testing is frequent and covers smaller amounts of material.
  • Make-up tests are often available.
  • Consistently good homework grades may raise your overall grade when test grades are low.

  Teachers and professors


"Results count." Though "good-faith effort" is important in regard to the professor’s willingness to help you achieve good results, it will not substitute for results in the grading process.

  • Professors 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.
  • Professors expect you to read, save, and consult the course syllabus (outline); the syllabus spells out exactly what is expected of you, when it is due, and how you will be graded.
High School

"Effort counts." Courses may be structured to reward a "good-faith effort."

  • Teachers present exercises to help you understand material in the textbook.
  • Teachers impart knowledge and facts, sometimes drawing direct connections and leading you through the thinking process.

Source: What Will I Learn in College: What You Need to Know to Get Ready for College Success by Robert Shoenberg.

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