Study-load: Understanding and managing your studies

Managing your study time at university is one of the biggest and most important challenges you will face. Knowing what is expected of you – and what will get you the best results – is often difficult, since only a certain amount of your study will be scheduled as taught sessions at particular times in particular places.

  • What are you supposed to be doing outside lectures, seminars, tutorials?
  • How much ‘extra’ time should you be spending in the workshop or studio or LRC (Learning Resources Centre)?
  • How many hours of study should you be doing each week?

How it all fits together: programmes, levels, modules and credits

In order to understand the structure of your studies at university you need to know certain key terms and ideas. Even your tutors sometimes have problems grasping all this, but it’s worth the effort:

  • What is your programme? This is the particular ‘course’ of study that you belong to, e.g. Digital Animation
  • What is your pathway (also known as your course instance)? This is the specialist route that you are taking through your programme and that will provide the ultimate name of your degree award, e.g. 2D Animation
  • What is your level? This is the year of study that you are on, i.e. in your first year you are at Level 4, in your second year you are at Level 5, in your final year you are Level 6
  • What is a module? A module is a self-contained unit of study within your programme. You will usually study 4 modules in each semester
  • What is a semester? A semester is a period of study time, usually 15 weeks long. At undergraduate level there are 2 semesters in each academic year, Semester A (September –January) and Semester B (January-June)
  • What is a term? A term is the period of time between vacations (holidays). There are 3 terms in each academic year (Winter term, Spring term, Summer term). Don’t confuse terms with semesters!
  • What are credits? Credits are numbers which determine (a) how much a particular module is ‘worth’ to you within your degree and (b) how much time you should spend studying for it

Getting credit: how much time should you spend studying?

Each module that you study during your time at university has a certain number of credit points attached to it, either 15, 30, 45 or 60. These are not just random numbers. They have a specific meaning in terms of how much time you should spend working on the module:

1 credit = 10 hours of study

So, a 15 credit module is expected to involve 150 hours of study, a 30 credit module is 300 hours, a 45 credit module is 450 hours, a 60 credit module is 600 hours. Most undergraduate modules are either 15 or 30 credits. A 15 credit module takes place in a single semester; a 30 credit module will either be spread across two semesters, or it will occupy the space of two 15 credit modules in a single semester.

As an undergraduate student you will find that each semester your credit points add up to a total of 60: in other words, 600 hours of study. This is the equivalent of 4 x 15 credit modules of study at any one time. Across the two semesters of the academic year, then, you are expected to undertake 120 credits: that is, 1200 hours of study.

Modules happen in semesters. A semester is usually 15 weeks long and it includes an induction, teaching and assessment. From here, the calculation of study time is straightforward:

2 x 15 week semesters = 30 weeks;
1200 study hours over 30 weeks = 1200/30 = 40 hours a week.

This means that you have around 10 hours a week of study time for each 15 credit module in each semester. For a 30 credit module that runs in a single semester it follows that you have 20 study hours a week.

At 40 hours of study time a week this means that your full-time undergraduate study is equivalent to a full-time 9-to-5 job – as it should be to be a full-time student. And when you are juggling study, part-time work, travel to and from the University, family life, social life, hobbies, sports, and other things – bear this in mind. Study time is your commitment to your degree. If you take an afternoon out, you owe yourself that time back. If you have a part-time job on Thursday morning, you need to find that time at some other point.

In the School of Creative Arts, your scheduled timetable will rarely require you to attend taught sessions Monday to Friday, 9-to-5. It is also extremely unlikely that there will be somebody ‘teaching’ you, or with you, telling you what to do, for all of those 40 hours. This is the same for all degree courses.

Usually you will be ‘timetabled’ with lectures, workshops, seminars, and tutorials of one kind or another for around 12-16 hours a week in the first year of study. In the second and third year, as the nature of your learning changes, this will change as you take more responsibility for your own study. So, if – on a typical programme of study – you are required to attend taught sessions for around 12–16 hours each week, where do the other 24–38 hours come from?

A balancing act: the different kinds of study

There are 3 types of study activity which, taken together, add up to the study time expected of you in a module:

  1. Taught study
    Scheduled lectures, seminars, tutorials, etc., these activities are organised and led by a tutor and published to you in programme and module timetables – and you are expected to attend these sessions 100% – absence means missing the ‘teaching’ and briefing sessions
  2. Self-managed directed study
    Activities completed outside class, defined by tutors, and intended as either follow up or preparatory learning. These lead to the completion of assignments for assessment, for some students this is expected to take place in a studio environment and you are expected to be present and working constructively in the studio if your programme works in that way, for other students it may take place in the LRC or other spaces
  3. Self-managed independent study
    Activities to support learning, defined by the student without guidance or direction from tutors. Think of this as ‘reading around the subject’, developing your personal knowledge of and enthusiasm for the subject you have chosen to study.

At Level 4, a typical pattern of study on a single semester module (15 credits) might look like this:

  • taught study: 30 hours (roughly 2–3 hours a week)
  • self-managed directed study: 70 hours, including around 40 hours working on assessment tasks (roughly 4–5 hours a week)
  • self-managed independent study: 50 hours (roughly 3–4 hours a week)

This means, of course, that the bulk of your learning experience on this module (120 out of 150 hours) is self-managed. Although 70 hours is concerned with completing tasks set by tutors, it will be your responsibility to manage and complete these. An even greater challenge, of course, is the 50 hours which are designated as self-managed independent study.

From start to finish: changing patterns of study

As an undergraduate student you should notice a distinct shift in the pattern of learning across the three years of your study. Specifically, the expectation of growing independence means that the balance between taught study and self-managed study will change. As you progress, the proportion and nature of taught study time gradually diminishes, while the proportion and nature of self-managed independent study time increases.

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Figure 1.2: the changing pattern of study (indicative)

In fact, your tutors are around nearly as much as before, but the way you are working with them, and they with you, has changed. Now they tend see you in small groups and individually instead of in large groups, and they will generally see you for shorter periods of time. The important thing is to always remember that your tutors are there for when (and if, of course!) things start to go wrong. Part of independence is being able to ask for help when it is needed… And remember, one of the key transferable skills of someone with a degree is that idea of ‘independence’ – being able to work reliably and effectively, trusted to complete tasks and to deliver the outcomes as required.

Going SMISsing: what is self-managed independent study?

Self-managed independent study (sometimes known as SMIS) is the time you spend ‘reading around’ a subject, gaining general or specialist knowledge relevant to your work, or developing practical skills outside of scheduled studio, workshop or lab time.

At university level, there is no specific academic monitoring of self-managed independent study, but tutors might ask you about it from time to time and you should be aware of the strong link between its effective use and the quality of assessment outcomes (and therefore of grades). Self-managed independent study might include (but is certainly not restricted to):

  • visiting art galleries, museums, exhibitions, cinema, theatre, etc.
  • reading newspapers, magazines, specialist journals, etc.
  • developing new technical and/or practical skills (software, workshop machinery, etc.)
  • watching relevant television programmes
  • analytical and creative sketching, writing, and model making that develops critical and reflective thinking
  • engaging in reflective discussion (‘real world’ or online) about the contemporary world in general or your subject area in particular

The kinds of SMIS activity will vary, of course, depending on the nature of your programme of study, but the more varied your activities are, the more effective your learning is likely to be. It is strongly recommended, too, that you make a conscious effort to step outside your ‘comfort zone’ as part of self-managed independent study: do things you wouldn’t normally do, visit places you wouldn’t normally visit, read things you wouldn’t normally read, and so on. Make notes and use sketchbook, take photographs, speak into your smartphone and other strategies to collect, evaluate and reflect on the experience – be a sponge! Soak up knowledge, ideas, opinions, debates.

Both Semester A and Semester B include an Independent Study Week – sometimes referred to as a ‘reading week’ – when there is a break in all taught sessions and students are expected to focus independently on work for on-going projects and also to extend their study beyond directed tasks. The Independent Study Week is, in other words, a great opportunity to undertake self-managed independent study!

Credits and progression: why is it important to know all of this?

Whenever you pass a module you add its credit points to your running total. At the end of the first two academic years, this total will determine whether or not you are able to progress to the next level of study (e.g. from Level 4 to Level 5).

To progress you need to have passed at least 90 credits for the year. You are able to ‘carry’ up to 30 credits into the next level of study, but these will need to be recovered by retaking the failed modules alongside your new modules. Clearly, this is far from ideal and can lead to a very congested timetable, so it is much better to complete the 120 credits successfully within the year.

If you fail more than 30 credits in a year, you will not be able to progress: the failed year will need to be repeated. This is because, by law, you are not allowed to study for more than 150 hours a semester.

Gaps which remain in your credits at the end of your studies will mean that you are unable to graduate with an honours degree.

Some guides to effective study

  • Burns,T & Sinfield, S. (2008) Essential Study Skills: The Complete Guide to Success at
    University, London: Sage.
  • Cottrell, S. (2008) The Study Skills Handbook, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Doreen du Boulay, D. (2009) Study Skills for Dummies, London: John Wiley & Sons.
  • Mann, S. (2011) Study Skills for Art, Design and Media Students, Harlow: Longman.
  • Northedge, A. (2005) The Good Study Guide, Milton Keynes: The Open University.
  • i-Spy – bite-size tutorials on research and planning skills. Find these in the ‘Online Library’ on the top right-hand of the tool-bar on your StudyNet homepage, or follow this link (you will need to log in): http://www.StudyNet1.herts.ac.uk/ptl/common/LIS.nsf/0/2A4BFF0E73A38B9D802573FD003E3136?opendocument
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