Making the transition to university: Of lectures and empty timetables

The Fallacy of the Empty Timetable

Students progressing from high school to university are often shocked at how empty their timetables are when they first look at them.  A first year engineering timetable typically shows only 20 to 25 hours of lectures, workshops, tutorials, design classes and labs. And even more scary, non-engineering timetables are, by and large, even emptier. These timetabled hours are referred to as contact hours. They are the scheduled hours where a lecturer or tutor actually leads or interacts with you in a study session. Of course, you get to meet with lecturers and tutors significantly more than these timetabled hours suggest, but given the rather hefty fees that students are now paying at university, you may be left wondering: “Am I going to get my money’s worth of education?”

Attending Lectures the Wrong Way

Again, you may never have attended a lecture whilst in high school, and when you first show up at university you may be wondering what it really is, and why it is so much disliked, or feared, by so many students. Hopefully, your personal tutor, or programme director, may have attempted to explain to you during Freshers’ Week what a lecture is? However, whether or not they have done so, your first experience of a lecture is more likely to be one of shock.

The typical first lecture usually goes as follows: You show up to the lecture room, or more correctly, lecture hall, on the first day of teaching. You see a sea of students, may be fifty, one hundred, two hundred,  or even more,  seated in neat rows, all facing towards the front where someone is standing, fiddling with some PowerPoint slides. This is distinctly very different from your high school days when classes used to be no more than twenty or thirty students. The lecture usually starts with some introductory remarks about the material to be covered and why it is important to your studies. Pretty soon, you are flying through chunks of new material as the lecturer races against the clock. You soon realise that at the rate the lecture is going, in just one hour you will have gone through the equivalent of an entire week of high school teaching. The material flies at you fast, and as you are trying to grasp the last sentence, you look up and the lecturer has moved on to the next section. You switch on to the new section, and before you even settle down, the lecturer is off on to another topic. By this time your mind is spinning, and a cloud of self-doubt has enveloped you: “Is this the right course for me?”

Every now and then the lecturer pauses to ask a question, and to your surprise, you see a few hands raised, and someone provides the lecturer with the answer s/he is looking for. An answer? Where the hell did they learn that material, you wonder.  Someone even has the audacity to ask the lecturer a detailed question regarding the flurry of material on the lecturer’s slides. At this point you go into shock-mode – were the A level results a true reflection of your capabilities, you begin to wonder.  Helpfully, you look around you, and you see a sea of bewildered faces, and from the corner of your eyes, you begin to see the rows behind you emptying quietly, and fast. You realise you are not alone.  So this is the lecture, but is it value for money, particularly the hefty fees you are paying for this year, you wonder.

Taking charge of your own Study Timetable

Back in your room, after your first ever lecture, you begin to piece together your first day at university – empty timetable slots and breakneck lectures: this is university. Only then, do you realise, one: that the timetable is not so empty after all – it is a template that you must fill with your own study plans, and two: that the lecture is not meant for the lecturer to teach you, high-school style, whilst you recline in your seat – it is a tried-and-tested signposting method to enable you to direct your own studies of the topic. This is where university differs from high school. In high school, the teacher pretty much goes through all the material that you need to master if you are to pass your exams. All you need to do is to take in the material, and remember to reproduce it in the required form during the exams. At university it is a completely different ball-game – it is you, the student, who has to study the material, it is you, the student, who has to decide whether the lecture material suffices or you need to augment it, it is you the student who has to decide what sort of additional material you need to read in order to fully master the topic, and it is your responsibility to decide how much time and how much effort you ought to put into your studies. How then can you master lectures? Simple, like any established human activity, the lecture consists of three connected phases, namely the Before-, During- and After-Lecture phases.

The Before-Lecture phase

Before you even set foot in the lecture hall, you ought to prepare for it. As a general rule, lecture materials are posted on the virtual learning environment (VLE) well before the lectures. In addition, most lecturers even provide quizzes and guides to help you in your preparation. I would suggest that you put in 1 ½ hours of preparation for each hour of the lecture. First, scheme through the lecture material for the first half hour, then try to read and understand the concepts in the next hour, noting down areas that appear to be confusing, and identifying any background material that you need to be conversant with if you are to understand the question. Engineering lecture materials almost always have worked examples that illustrate key concepts:  go through these examples, and, again, note areas of concern. Work through any of the pre-lecture supplementary material supplied by the lecturer, and then at the end of the Before-Lecture phase, prepare a tentative list of questions that you wish the lecturer to clarify during the actual lecture.

The During-Lecture phase

During the lecture, pay attention to what the lecturer is saying. Usually the slides are just pointers to additional material, and the lecturer usually adds in more detail to explain and clarify issues. Importantly, the lecturer usually attempts to link the lecture material to the pre-lecture supplementary material. Usually you may be given opportunities to try out further examples in class, or to go over the examples in the pre-lecture material. Attempt these using the lecture material, and compare your answers with the suggested solution. If you have fully prepared during the Before-Lecture phase, working through the given examples should be relatively easy. As in all learning processes, there may be concepts that remain difficult to understand. Do not be afraid to raise your hands and ask questions, and make note of all the answers. During this time those students who are yet to grasp the wisdom of pre-lecture preparation may be looking at you incredulously. Just ignore them. It’s not about them, it’s about you and your learning.

The After-Lecture phase

After the lecture, allocate a further two to three hours to go over the lecture material. This is the After-Lecture phase, and, in general, you may not complete this phase in one block. Go carefully through the lecture, and through the notes that you made before and during the lecture, creating a fresh set of notes as you go along. Nowadays, universities routinely record lectures. Go through the lecture recording to review any areas that were unclear in the lecture. It can be very tempting to skip lectures and rely on the lecture recordings alone. However, if you have ever attempted to go through a two-hour lecture recording in its entirety, you will immediately see the futility of trying to do so. As a guideline, always remember that lecture recording should only be used as a supporting resource to the actual lecture.

It’s impossible to master all the material in one go, unless you are an exceptional genius. Typically you need to go over the material several times, and to work through a lot of examples to ensure that you fully master the topic. Set aside time to go over the material in the coming days and weeks, and meet up with other students to discuss the material. Often you may find that one of your colleagues is able to explain some of the concepts that you are struggling with in a much clearer way than the lecturer.  Learning is a collaborative process, and you learn better by inter-working with other students. Learning at university is not for the one-man or one-woman hero. It is a collective effort that takes place within a community of learners.

Integrating Lectures, Worksheets and Workshops

Most of the material covered in engineering lectures often needs to be applied to practical engineering problem-solving. Gone are the days of learning theory for the sake of theory. Usually each lecture is accompanied by a worksheet which starts off with introductory questions aimed at assessing and helping you to reinforce your understanding of the key lecture concepts. These are then usually followed by progressively more challenging and more authentic engineering-oriented problems.

Usually each lecture is accompanied by a workshop session a few days after the lecture. The aim of this workshop is to assist you in applying the lecture material to problem-solving. Usually the workshop is based around the lecture worksheet.  You typically work consecutively through the worksheet problems, with the lecturer and/or workshop tutors moving around to see how well you are doing. As with the lecture, it helps to prepare for the workshop by going through some of the problems. If you have done so, bring these solutions to the workshop sessions. Discuss problem areas with the workshop tutors as they move around the class room. Usually you are expected to work collaboratively with other students to solve the problems. Make an effort to contribute and share your learning with others. As so often said, the best way to learn a new topic is to teach others. By so doing, you will be able to reinforce your understanding.

At the end of the workshop, go back and update your notes, paying particular attention to the various approaches that you have learnt to solve the worksheet problems. As before, in your timetable, in the following weeks set aside some time to go over the material as well as to attempt any of the problems that you did not find time to do during the workshop session. Additionally, look up the coursework accompanying the material and start thinking about it.


So, in conclusion, if the university timetable still looks so empty, and the lectures still appear to be such a waste of time, then you must be doing something wrong, or you are too good for the course. Either way, you need to speak to your personal tutor or programme director urgently. After all, university does not come cheap.

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