Differences between studying at high school and studying at tertiary

November 29, 2019

Differences between high school and tertiary study

Thinking of carrying on with study at university or a polytech or other training place straight out of secondary school? The transition from classroom to lecture theatre might not seem like such a big change, but universities and polytechs expect very different things from their students than high schools do.

The most important difference between the school environments you are in now and the tertiary sector is that the responsibility for your success or failure now belongs only to you. Sure there is some great support available at every institution, but none of this will work if you don’t.

Following the rules in high school Working responsibly at University

High school is mandatory and usually free.


University is voluntary and comparatively expensive.

Your time is structured by others. You manage your own time.

You need permission to participate in extracurricular activities


You must decide whether to participate in co-curricular activities.


You can count on parents and teachers to remind you of your responsibilities and to guide you in setting priorities.


You must balance your responsibilities and set priorities. You will face moral and ethical decisions you have never faced before.


Each day you proceed from one class directly to another, spending 6 hours each day (30 hours a week) in class.


You often have hours between classes; class times vary throughout the day and evening and you spend only 12 to 16 hours each week in class


Most of your classes are arranged for you.


You arrange your own schedule in consultation with your adviser. Schedules tend to look lighter than they really are.


You are not responsible for knowing what it takes to graduate.


Graduation requirements are complex, and differ from year to year. You are expected to know those that apply to you.


Guiding principle: You will usually be told what to do and corrected if your behaviour is out of line.


Guiding principle: You are expected to take responsibility for what you do and don’t do, as well as for the consequences of your decisions.

Going to high school classes Succeeding in university classes
The school year is 36 weeks long; some classes extend over both semesters and some don’t. The academic year is divided into two separate 12- or 13-week semesters, plus a week or two after each semester for exams.
Classes generally have no more than 35 students. Classes may number 100 students or more (more than 500 for some first-year classes!).
You may study outside class as little as 0 to 2 hours a week, and this may be mostly last-minute test preparation. You need to study at least 2 to 3 hours outside of class for each hour in class.
You seldom need to read anything more than once, and sometimes listening in class is enough. You need to review class notes and text material regularly.
You are expected to read short assignments that are then discussed, and often re-taught, in class. You are assigned substantial amounts of reading and writing which may not be directly addressed in class.
Guiding principle: You will usually be told in class what you need to learn from assigned readings. Guiding principle: It’s up to you to read and understand the assigned material; lectures and assignments proceed from the assumption that you’ve already done so.
High school teachers University lecturers
Teachers check your completed homework. Lecturers may not always check completed homework, but they will assume you can perform the same tasks on tests.
Teachers remind you of your incomplete work. Lecturers may not remind you of incomplete work.
Teachers approach you if they believe you need assistance. Lecturers are usually open and helpful, but most expect you to initiate contact if you need assistance.
Teachers are often available for conversation before, during, or after class. Lecturers expect and want you to attend their scheduled office hours.
Teachers have been trained in teaching methods to assist in imparting knowledge to students. Lecturers have been trained as experts in their particular areas of research.
Teachers provide you with information you missed when you were absent. Lecturers expect you to get from classmates any notes from classes you missed.
Teachers present material to help you understand the material in the textbook. Lecturers 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.
Teachers often write information on the board to be copied in your notes. Lecturers may lecture nonstop, expecting you to identify the important points in your notes. When lecturers write on the board, it may be to amplify the lecture, not to summarise it. Good notes are a must.
Teachers impart knowledge and facts, sometimes drawing direct connections and leading you through the thinking process. Lecturers expect you to think about and synthesise seemingly unrelated topics.
Teachers often take time to remind you of assignments and due dates. Lecturers 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.
Teachers carefully monitor class attendance. Lecturers may not formally take roll, but they are still likely to know whether or not you attended.
Guiding principle: High school is a teaching environment in which you acquire facts and skills. Guiding principle: University is a learning environment in which you take responsibility for thinking through and applying what you have learned.
Tests in high school Tests in university
Testing is frequent and covers small amounts of material. Testing is usually infrequent and may be cumulative, covering large amounts of material. You, not the lecturer, need to organise the material to prepare for the test. A particular course may have only 2 or 3 tests in a semester.
Resubmit  opportunities are available through the NCEA system There are no re-submissions at University.
Teachers frequently rearrange test dates to avoid conflict with school events. Lecturers in different courses usually schedule tests without regard to the demands of other courses or outside activities.
Teachers frequently conduct review sessions, pointing out the most important concepts. Lecturers rarely offer review sessions, and when they do, they expect you to be an active participant, one who comes prepared with questions.
Guiding principle: 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. Guiding principle: Mastery is often seen as the ability to apply what you’ve learned to new situations or to solve new kinds of problems.
Grades in high school Grades in university
Grades are given for most assigned work. Grades may not be provided for all assigned work.
Consistently good homework grades may raise your overall grade when test grades are low. Grades on tests and major papers usually provide most of the course grade.
Extra credit projects are often available to help you raise your grade. Extra credit projects cannot, generally speaking, be used to raise a grade in a university course.
Initial test grades, especially when they are low, may not have an adverse effect on your final grade. Watch out for your first tests. These are usually ‘wake-up calls’ to let you know what is expected – but they also may account for a substantial part of your course grade. You may be shocked when you get your grades.
Guiding principle: Effort counts. Courses are usually structured to reward a ‘good-faith effort’. Guiding principle: Results count. Though ‘good-faith effort’ is important in regard to the lecturer’s willingness to help you achieve good results, it will not substitute for results in the grading process.