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Studying at university: the Essential Guide

Studying at university: the Essential GuideStudying at university is a big change from school or college. Find out how it works and how to make the most of it.

How teaching works at university


Lectures are one of the main ways you'll be taught at university. The basic format of a lecture is simple: the lecturer stands at the front of the room and speaks, usually for an hour or so, about a particular topic. They might use handouts, projected slides or a whiteboard to help. However, the exact structure will vary, and you can expect very different styles from different lecturers.

It's normally down to you to make sure that you attend the lectures you need to, but on some courses lectures are compulsory and your attendance will be recorded.

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Seminars and tutorials

Seminars are smaller group discussions led by a tutor. They might involve individual students or groups giving a presentation followed by a discussion, or the tutor might propose questions for you to discuss.

Find out more about seminars and tutorials.

Labs and practicals

Depending on your subject, you may also have practical sessions. These are most common if you are studying science or engineering. These sessions will often be designed to complement your lectures, so you will learn about a concept, method or skill in a lecture and then put it to the test in a practical session.

As well subject-specific knowledge and skills, labs and practicals can help you to develop more general skills, such as resource management, teamwork and problem solving.

Independent study

Even in subjects with a lot of teaching time, there is a lot of focus on independent study at university. You'll need to be able to manage your time, motivate yourself and do thorough research.

Find out more about improving your study skills:

Study facilities


Most universities will have more than one library, with books for different subjects kept in different libraries. There may be a few large libraries covering broad subject areas, or a smaller library at each faculty or department. You'll normally be able to use any of the libraries, but you may not be able to borrow books from other departments' libraries.

Find out more about using a university library.

Online resources

Most universities will also give you access to lots of online resources, such as:

  • Online versions of academic journals
  • Recordings or notes from lectures
  • Online versions of some of the library's materials

You should be able to find out about these on the university's website.

Referencing and plagiarism

Plagiarism is passing off other people's work or ideas as your own. That could mean copying a paragraph from Wikipedia, using an argument from a book but pretending you thought of it, or copying ideas from a friend.

It's fine to quote or refer to other sources, but you'll be expected to include a clear reference showing exactly where the quote or idea came from.

Universities take plagiarism extremely seriously, so it's important to make sure you understand what is and isn't allowed and how to give accurate references. Find out more:

Types of course

Most people who go to university for the first time are studying for a bachelor's degree, which normally takes three years. At Scottish universities, or on some science and maths courses, you'll study for four years and get a master's degree.

Most bachelor's courses give you the degree BA (Bachelor of Arts) or BSc (Bachelor of Science), but there are many other types of degree available, reflecting different kinds of course and the traditions of different universities. You might also study a joint honours degree, in which you get a single degree covering two subjects. Find out more:

Some universities also offer foundation degrees, which offer university-level education alongside work experience, and foundation years, which prepare you for an undergraduate course if you don't quite have the right entry requirements. Find out more:

There are also different study structures, which may suit you better than the traditional three-year, full-time course:

If you're struggling

University is a big change from school or college, and many people find it more difficult than they expected. Your university wants you to succeed, and most offer lots of support if you're having trouble. You may be able to take a break from your course if you need to, or change your course if you decide you've made a mistake.

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If you face a serious problem, you may have to make an official complaint, or deal with the university’s disciplinary procedures. Find out more: