New Academic Expectations

Back to Academics 101

What’s new and different for you?How are courses taught?What do efficient learners do at university?How can YOU learn well?Why is it helpful to separate your learning from your studying?In what ways are you expected to think at university?

1.  What’s new and different for you?

It’s all about active learning.

Active learning means being intellectually engaged with the content, not just “doing learning activities.” Some classes will involve critical discussion, some will involve small group participation in labs, some will involve listening to lectures but your job is to participate in the class and learn intentionally. Reading and memorizing will be important, but that is not enough – you need to think!

There isn’t “one right answer” in most cases.

Learning the “nuts and bolts” of a course includes developing the vocabulary, knowing what the symbols mean in a particular formula, the important facts of the topic, etc. As content becomes more difficult or abstract, you will need to become more comfortable with ambiguity and conflict among ideas or theorists. There may be several “right” answers, but some will be “better” than others.

University students are responsible for their own experience.

Many students say the biggest change is that they are freer than in high school. You will be free to set your own routine, make new friends, choose your courses, attend class or not. You are free to think and act for yourself. At university, you are also free to accept the consequences of your choices.

2.  How are courses taught?

Courses are delivered using various teaching methods, but roughly speaking, students should estimate about 120 hours of work per course per term, which equals about 10 hours per 3 unit course per week, with studying for exams on top (an additional 10-20 hours per course, roughly).

There is a range of teaching contact hours (i.e., how much face-to-face time students have with their professors) and a range of independence required in learning course content (e.g., students in traditional lecture courses have professors teach and reinforce key concepts while students in on-line courses are primarily responsible for their own learning). Many courses use a mix of teaching methods.


Type of instruction Traditional
lecture course
Blended online +
in-class course
Online course
Lecture (in person) ~ 3 hours / week 1 hour/week x
Lecture (video) x Optional x
(paper or online)
Yes, may supplement lecture, or be main source of content Yes, completed before class; main source of content (estimate 6-8 hours/week) Yes, main source of content
Group work,
learning lab
Optional, Yes for Commerce, APSC 1 hour/week Optional group work online
Tutorial or
science lab
optional optional no
Assignments, homework yes yes yes
Quizzes, tests
(in class or online)
yes Yes, usually online Yes, online

3.  What do efficient learners do at university?

  • Prepare for class.
    • In a fully lecture based class or lab (estimate 15 minutes to several hours)
    • In a blended on-line + in-class course (estimate up to 6-8 hours)
  • Go to the scheduled classes, or plan regular on-line learning time in your week.
  • Learn to take notes or modify printed Powerpoint slides: Information is delivered mainly through lecture or readings, but labs and group work should be recorded also.
  • Review notes after class (a skim read is better than nothing!).
  • Write a brief synopsis of the lecture, lab or tutorial in your own words, to capture the big picture: “What was this class about?”

Efficient learners also:

  • Do homework: the content is complex, and there is a lot of material to be learned.
  • Keep up: The pace is fast and constant.
  • Engage and think: ask for help if you don’t understand.
  • Manage their attention: control e-distractions by unplugging or using site blocking software.

How can YOU learn well?

Separate your learning from your studying

Learning is a process by which we acquire, understand and apply information. The key activity in learning is thinking. In contrast, studying improves retention and retrieval from memory, and involves the key activities of repeating or practicing, and self-testing.

Students sometimes overlap their learning and their studying, usually right before an exam. While they might pass the exam, they will probably have neither good understanding nor good recall of the course for later use.

Ideally, you should spread your learning over the term so that associations and connections between ideas or theories or applications can be made, and then focus on studying and drilling before a test or exam. Think of learning in small steps, and studying as drilling, or practicing the material and skills.

Why is it helpful to separate your learning from your studying?

  • When you sit down to do homework, you will be more focused and have a clearer understanding the purpose of you
    r homework. Ask yourself: What am I trying to do? “Am I trying to understand this new material?” or “Am I trying to practice this or drill this into my memory?”
  • Learning as you go along means you will understand better and more easily as the content becomes more complex. Some courses are taught by building on previous lessons (e.g., in math, accounting and physics) so learning in gradual steps is required.
  • When you are studying for exams, you can avoid cramming the learning and the drilling into a short period of time. If you learned the material throughout the term (i.e., memorized new terms or formula, found connections between ideas and organized ideas into concepts or meaningful patterns), then you can focus on studying to improve your speed and accuracy.

In what ways are you expected to think at university?

Generally speaking, in high school, you earned high grades primarily through participation, memorizing facts and some integration of more complex material. At university, the assumption is that you can memorize, and the professor wants to know if you can apply or analyze data or ideas, and eventually if you can make judgments or evaluations of complex or conflicting evidence or needs or data. A useful model of thinking is described in Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning (2002) as shown below.

Levels of thinking

Bloom's Taxonomy: Levels of Thinking

Some 1st year courses are very fact and memory based, like Biology or Psychology, but even in those courses you are expected to see relationships among ideas and be able to compare and contrast key theories or systems. Conceptual thinking is the goal.

Math, accounting and physics are not just a series of endless problems. Rather, problems are multiple examples or applications of a very limited number of elegant concepts, and your task is to recognize the core concept, understand the general problem-solving approach for that concept, and know how to solve the specific example.

In courses like Sociology, Music History or Politics you may be asked to memorize details about specific theories or systems, understand how ideas connect, and be able to analyze an argument, apply a theory to a new situation, or compare and contrast different approaches.

VIDEO: How to think smart at university
Levels of Thinking: How to Think Smart at University.

At university, performance on exams requires mastery beyond memorization, such as comprehension, analysis, application, and evaluation. Different types of exams may assess different levels of thinking, so it is important to match your study techniques to the level of thinking required.

How can you shift between different levels of thinking?

The chart below describes some ways to think more deeply, although thinking is not “linear” with each level building directly from the previous one. As we learn, we flip among levels or depths of understanding until a rich web of interconnections is formed in our minds. The study methods you choose will reflect the type of material to be learned (e.g. memorize the procedures to analyze a blood sample; describe the social impact of various political movements; compare and contrast theories of personality) and may involve methods from several different thinking levels.

From thinking level: To thinking level: How? Possible study methods
Memorizing Repeat, recite, do practice questions Cue cards, multiple readings, self-testing of facts or calculations
Memorizing Understanding Paraphrase, look for relationships or connections among ideas. Add own definition to cue cards, write short lecture summaries. Self-test requiring “explain or describe”.
Understanding Conceptual Thinking (analyzing, applying) Summarize by creating an organizing structure for material based on general topics, principles, concepts. Make mind maps, charts, math problem concept summaries. Self-test requiring “solve, apply, analyze, compare/contrast, prove, justify”
Conceptual Thinking Evaluative Thinking Assess the assumptions, the logic of an argument and data and research implications, to form judgments about conflicting data or theories. Study groups, practice cases

An example might help to understand what is meant by “conceptual thinking.” Memorizing facts for each theory of personality you learned is less useful than organizing a structure to see any connections between theories: make a chart of the theories of personality and then memorize information for each according to major topics (age group, key ideas, social context of theory, applications, limitations, etc.).

You can check whether you are doing homework and studying that helps you learn deeply. Memorizing is necessary, but deeper conceptual thinking is the goal. Stop and think:

  • What does this material mean?
  • Does it connect to other things we’ve been learning?
  • How can I use this information?
  • What’s the SO WHAT, or significance, of this chapter/unit/concept?
  • How might this be applied?
  • How could I organize and condense it?

When you pay attention to the level of thinking you are practicing, and always trying to go deeper, you will be preparing yourself for the type of questions your professor may ask you on exams.