What do students struggle with at uni 01

Having been at school for sixteen years, it’s very hard to get out of the ways in which you were taught and you learn when coming to uni.  

However, the expectations of university students are different and often students struggle to understand how to perform well. This blog is adapted from UEA's online course on FutureLearn called Preparing for University, and it's a great way to get an introduction to some of the problems you might face and prepare for them in advance. The course gives you tasks to do so that you can start to learn and think like a university student, with snippets of university lectures and lots of tasks, and the ability to find out what sort of learner you are.

Overall, the course suggests that the key to success at university is the confidence to try things out and maybe fail in the process. You need to have a go, participate and put yourself out there; don't be scared of getting anything wrong and if you don't succeed you'll definitely learn from your mistakes. With this attitude, by the end of the first year, you will have learnt so much that you'll be heading for a more than promising second and third year. 

Here are some of the things that new university students find hard:

Independent learning

Working independently is a vital skill at university, and is crucial to your overall success as a student. But what is it? UEA staff see it as the ability to engage with the material you’ve been given, make your own notes, develop your own ideas and create your own revision material. This means that each week you need to have a clear purpose and focused reading, and revisit and build on your notes and material. The ability to then use what you’ve learnt to interpret the information you’ve read, evaluate it and synthesise it to create arguments and master your subject. 

At university, lectures and seminars are only a starting point, providing you with a framework to develop your own ideas and opinions. They are there to explain and explore concepts and to provide you with a context for the issues you are studying. 

As (in most cases) you are given the topics of your lectures beforehand, along with references about where to find additional information and lecture notes, lots of students choose to go over the topic before the lecture. You can also use your lecturer's notes as a basis for yours and then add to them in the lecture with anything additional the lecturer might say. 

This means that when you enter the lecture hall they have a good overview of the subject, and can challenge the lecturer’s views if you feel they are wrong. It’s good to challenge the lecturer’s views as long as you have the evidence to back them up. If you are wrong the lecturers will just explain why you are wrong and if you are right, you’ll feel great!


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Referencing is a difficult issue for lots of students to get their head around, however, the UEA MOOC explains the conundrum really well. They ask students how they would feel if they wrote a song and their friend (let’s call her Sally) played it at a gig, everyone loved it, and Sally told the audience that she wrote it herself. They all said that they would be angry that they weren’t mentioned as the songwriter by Sally and that she had essentially stolen her song. 

This concept is then related back to academia, and the fact that when you write an essay you are essentially taking people’s songs, and therefore you should tell your audience where these songs came from. As well as someone’s work, this also includes terms, words and ideas, as well as paraphrasing. In this way, you can make it clear to the reader which ideas are yours and which ideas are someone else’s. 

Students find referencing a hard nut to crack, however the more that you read the style of academic papers the more you understand how it works.


School and university are very different when writing essays. At school, an essay is there to show the reader how much you know, whereas at university it’s all about what you think. 

Essays at university need much more fluid writing, and as you’ve got access to far more sources you can go into a lot more depth and detail. However there’s often a fairly short word limit, so you have to learn how to be concise, and choose your information wisely. 

You are also required to form your own opinion on topics, developing clear arguments based on what you’ve read and learnt (your evidence), and you need to write in an engaging manner so that the reader has confidence in your argument. This means that you have to be able to structure your essays in a suitable way, with thoughts and ideas flowing from one to the other. However, there are lots of ways to approach essays and you might like to play around with this in your first year to see what suits you best. 

Science students also find it a bit odd that they are required to write essays when starting university. They are not used to it and generally have only written short-answer statements.

What do students struggle with at uni 2

Assessment & Performance

For lots of subjects at university, assessment isn’t only through exams at the end of a module. Other ways in which you might be assessed include team projects and peer marking, poster & oral presentations, real-life simulations (where you mimic real life, for example, three pharmacy students might role-play a patient, pharmacist and student, and work together to assess what happened and give instructions; or through law MOOTs; or giving forensic information to a public audience). 

Furthermore, beyond the understanding of the information presented, other skills are rewarded in your grades, for example, communication, persuasion or presentation skills. 

During your school life, everything was geared towards exams and there was no time for reading around subjects. However, at university, this isn’t the case and you will be rewarded for reading around your subjects if you can make a valid point towards your argument. 

At school, the mark schemes were indicative and told you where you would gain points, and lots of students struggle with university mark schemes. They are far more flexible and you can’t copy them to gain top marks. Instead, they value creativity and originality of thought, which can only be acquired through a substantial knowledge of your subject overall, gained through lots of reading and interacting with the material. 

Daily structure 

The absence of having a structure to one’s day and having a work-life balance is certainly something that worries people when they get to university. There’s no one telling you what to do, no one telling you where you have to be or checking up on you, and no one telling you when your essays need to be handed in. So why not stay in bed all day boxset binging? No one is stopping you. 

You also need to be able to plan for events, such as poster presentations (which may involve working with others) and big essay hand-ins alongside small problem sets or lab reports. This means that you’ll have to prioritise your time to get everything done - a great lesson for once you are in the workplace and there are a million things going on at once!

What do students struggle with at uni 3

Engaging with the material

If you are trying to do research by yourself it’s often hard to know where you start. How does the information in books and papers relate to what you're learning and how do you find out without reading the entire book? 

Once you have found something that piques your interest, compared to school you then have to think about the words in the text, how they are put together, what their significance is, what significance might be to you and individuals in the broader culture in which it is written, and how the material relates to what you already know. You then need to question whether you think this information is useful and valid and whether it supports your current knowledge base. 

At university, data is often used to support arguments, and you might also need to use data to support your arguments, and persuade your readers. Lots of students find data difficult to work with, as they are not used to using it at school, however, lots of subjects employ it (for example in history you might look at records and surveys). Furthermore, the science subjects, such as Biology, often use more data than students expect.

Final thoughts

What do you find hard at university or what are you looking forward to least when you start?


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