Learning the hard way: one student’s academic journey

One of the more challenging aspects of my transition between school and university was learning to manage higher academic expectations. It became clear during the initial weeks of my first year at ANU that tertiary education was going to be a very different experience than secondary school. However, what wasn’t so clear to me was how I would cope with these new academic pressures and demands.

When you’re at school almost everything is mapped out for you. You have an organised study plan with teachers regularly monitoring your progress. More importantly, you know what it takes to do well and you become used to getting good grades. But when you get to university, the academic transition can often be quite challenging, as you suddenly realise that you are on your own. After all, tertiary education demands a different kind of learning than secondary school, as the emphasis shifts from rote learning to more independent thinking. In my own experience, I didn’t achieve very good grades in my first year, which in hindsight I can link to my struggle to cope with the higher academic expectations. I realised after the end of my first year that I wanted to do better and get as much out of my education at ANU. I also realised that I wasn’t going to be spoon-fed as I had been in secondary school, which is a key reason why I hadn’t done particularly well – as I didn’t know what I needed to do to achieve high grades. Unlike school, there was no study plan provided or any follow-up about my progress. As ANU students, we have all done well at school to be studying in Canberra. So to suddenly not do well can be a shock to the system. I soon learned that to succeed at university, I had to be a self-starter.

If you are a people person like me, this can often be quite challenging as it means spending a lot of time alone, whether it be reflecting on the aims of coursework or figuring out what each professor is looking for in assignments. I had to figure out my own method of success at university. In particular, I had to accept that my study habits needed to be different whether that meant learning to be more independent or devising my own study timetable in the lead-up to exams. Of course, some of my peers could breeze through each assignment without working as hard, as they didn’t seem to find the transition to tertiary study as challenging as me.

It was difficult not to compare my grades with my peers’ academic success. I had to accept that I was not the kind of student who could write an essay the night before it was due, which meant I had to adjust my study habits to suit my own style of learning. I think it’s so important to not be disheartened by others’ success, as everybody learns at their own pace. I also learnt that there are different types of learners and the best thing to do is to be aware of which type you are and adjust accordingly (this is well documented in educational research!). This wasn’t so apparent in secondary school because of all the support we would receive on a daily basis.

While tutorials were the best opportunities to test my understanding of course material and ask questions, that meant speaking up in a group situation where you typically don’t know anyone, which can be a daunting experience. It is important to accept that everyone there is probably feeling just as nervous as you.

I also learnt that in order to be self-motivated about study, you had to like what you are studying. In my own experience, this is why I ended up changing my major, as I realised that the courses I enjoyed studying the most were not for my major, which was a light bulb moment for me.

My top five tips for coping with the academic demands of university life:

  1. Try not to compare yourself to others – everyone is on their own academic journey
  2. Figure out which study habits work best for you
  3. Choose a major you genuinely enjoy studying
  4. Don’t be shy about seeking help from your professors and tutors
  5. Try not to lose sight of the bigger picture – any early failures are not representative of your overall university experience

In my experience, getting over these barriers was, quite honestly, one of the hardest aspects of my time at ANU. Once I figured out the study habits that worked best for me, I began to get better grades. And so who would have thought, that after achieving average grades for my first year, I’ve actually ended up achieving results that have enabled me to become an honours student.

For me, things didn’t change overnight, but I’ve learnt that dedication and perseverance often trumps all else. And so, I encourage you to never give up – just because you don’t perform well at first doesn’t mean you won’t succeed.