Chapter 1: You and Your University Experience

1.4 What Is University, Really?

Learning Objectives

  1. Describe differences between large and small university classes and discuss the implications for learning.
  2. Understand courses within your own university program: core courses, electives, and major courses.
  3. Describe different skills needed for online courses.
  4. Know how to learn your university’s policies and understand their importance.
  5. Know what resources your university makes available to students and how to access them.

Big Classes, Small Classes

While most high school classes are fairly small, many university classes are large—up to several hundred students in a large lecture class. Other classes you may take will be as small as high school classes. In large lecture classes you may feel totally anonymous—even invisible—in a very large class. This feeling can get some students in trouble, however. Here are some common mistaken assumptions and attitudes about large classes:

  • The instructor won’t notice me sitting there, so I can check e-mail or read for a different class if I get bored.
  • The instructor doesn’t know my name or recognize me, so I don’t even need to go to class as long as I can borrow someone’s notes to find out what happens.
  • I hate listening to lectures, so I might as well think about something else because I’m not going to learn anything this way anyway.

These comments all share the same flawed attitude about university: it’s up to the instructor to teach in an entertaining way if I am to learn at all—and it’s actually the university’s or instructor’s fault that I’m stuck in this large class, so they’re to blame if I think about or do other things. But remember, in university, you take responsibility for your own learning. Sure, a student is free to try to sleep in a lecture class, or not attend the class at all—the same way a student is “free” to fail any class he or she chooses!

Figure 1.8 – In a lecture class, avoid the temptation to cruise the Web or engage in other activities that will distract you from paying attention. – fall 2012 hackNY student hackathon – CC BY-SA 2.0.

If you dislike large lecture classes but can’t avoid them, the best solution is to learn how to learn in such a situation. Later chapters will give you tips for improving this experience. Just remember that it’s up to you to stay actively engaged in your own learning while in university—it’s not the instructor’s job to entertain you enough to “make” you learn.

There is one thing you need to know right away. Even in a lecture hall holding three hundred students, your instructors do know who you are. They may not know your name right away or even by the end of the term, but they see you sitting there, doing whatever you are doing, looking wherever you are looking—and will form a distinct impression of you. Instructors do have academic integrity and won’t lower your grade on an exam because you slept once in class, but the impression you make just might affect how far instructors go out of their way to offer a helping hand. Interacting with instructors is a crucial part of education—and the primary way students learn. Successful interaction begins with good communication and mutual respect. If you want your instructors to respect you, then you need to show respect for them and their classes as well.

Core Courses, Electives, Majors, and Credits

Every university has its own course requirements for different programs and degrees. This information is available in a printed course catalog or online. While academic advisors are generally assigned to students to help them plot their path through university and take the most appropriate courses, you should also take this responsibility yourself to ensure you are registering for courses that fit well into your plan for a program completion or degree. In general there are three types of courses:

  1. Core courses, which are required by all students who graduate with a specific degree. They may be specific courses or a selection from a larger list. As you advance, you have more opportunity to choose the classes you want to take.
  2. Required courses in your major are determined by individual academic departments. Whether you choose to major in accounting, marketing, math, engineering, history or any other field, your individual department sets specific required courses you must take and gives you options for a required additional number of credits in the department. You may not need to declare a major for a while, but this is something you can start thinking about now.
  3. Electives are courses you choose freely to complete the total number of university credits needed for your program or degree. How many electives you may take, how they “count” toward your total, and what kinds of courses are acceptable as electives all vary considerably among different schools and programs.

Most important is that you understand what courses you need and how each counts. Study the university catalog carefully and be sure to talk things over fully with your advisor. Don’t just sign up for courses that sound interesting—you might end up taking courses that don’t count toward your degree at all.

In addition, each term you may have to choose how many courses or hours to take. Universities have rules about the maximum number of hours allowed for full-time students, but this maximum may in fact be more than you are prepared to manage—especially if you work or have other responsibilities. Taking a light course load, while allowing more time for studying and other activities, could add up over time and result in an extra full year of university (or more!)—at significant additional expense. Part-time students often face decisions based more on time issues. Everyone’s situation is unique, however, and all students should talk this issue over with their advisor each year or term.

Online Courses

The University of Saskatchewan now offers some online courses that can be taken as electives.  You experience an online course via a computer rather than a classroom. Many different variations exist, but all online courses share certain characteristics, such as working independently and communicating with the instructor (and sometimes other students) primarily through written computer messages. If you have never taken an online course, carefully consider what’s involved to ensure you will succeed in the course.

  • You need to own or have frequent access to a recent model of computer with a high-speed Internet connection.
  • Without the set hours of a class, you need to be self-motivating to schedule your time to participate regularly.
  • Without an instructor or other students in the room, you need to be able to pay attention effectively to the computer screen. Learning on a computer is not as simple as passively watching television! Take notes.
  • Without reminders in class and peer pressure from other students, you’ll need to take responsibility to complete all assignments and papers on time.
  • Since your instructor will evaluate you primarily through your writing, you need good writing skills for an online course. If you believe you need to improve your writing skills, put off taking an online course until you feel better prepared.
  • You must take the initiative to ask questions if you don’t understand something.
  • You may need to be creative to find other ways to interact with other students in the course. You could form a study group and get together regularly in person with other students in the same course.
Figure 1.9 – Online courses are increasingly common at universities and require independent learning. Claire Thompson – Marking – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

If you feel you are ready to take on these responsibilities and are attracted to the flexibility of an online course and the freedom to schedule your time in it, see what your university has available.

Class Attendance and Promptness

In some classes at some universities, attendance is required and absences can affect one’s grade in the course. But even when attendance is not required, missing classes will inevitably affect your grade as well. You’re not learning if you’re not there. Reading another student’s notes is not the same.

Arriving to class promptly is also important. Walking into a class that has already begun is rude to the instructor (remember what we said earlier about the impression you may be making) and to other students. A mature student respects the instructor and other students and in turn receives respect back.

University Policies

A university campus is almost like a small town—or country—unto itself. The campus has its own police force, its own government, its own stores, its own ID cards, its own parking rules, and so on. Universities also have their own policies regarding many types of activities and behaviors. Students who do not understand the rules can sometimes find themselves in trouble.

The most important academic policy is academic honesty. Cheating is taken very seriously. Some high school students may have only received a slap on the wrist if caught looking at another student’s paper during a test or turning in a paper containing sentences or paragraphs found online or purchased from a “term-paper mill.” In many universities, academic dishonesty like this may result in automatic failure of the course—or even expulsion from university. The principle of academic honesty is simple: every student must do his or her own work. If you have any doubt of what this means for a paper you are writing, a project you are doing with other students, or anything else, check the university Web site for its policy statements or talk with your instructor.

Universities also have policies about alcohol and drug use, sexual harassment, hazing, hate crimes, and other potential problems. Residence halls have policies about noise limits, visitors, hours, structural and cosmetic alterations of university property, and so on. The university registrar has policies about course add and drop dates, payment schedules and refunds, and the like. Such policies are designed to ensure that all students have the same right to a quality education—one not unfairly interrupted by the actions of others. You can find these policies on the university website or in the catalog.

University Resources

To be successful in university, you need to be fully informed and make wise decisions about the courses you register for, university policies, and additional resources. Always remember that your university wants you to succeed. That means that if you are having any difficulties or have any questions whose answers you are unsure about, there are university resources available to help you get assistance or find answers. This is true of both academic and personal issues that could potentially disrupt your university experience. Never hesitate to go looking for help or information—but realize that usually you have to take the first step.

The university catalog has already been mentioned as a great source of many kinds of information. You should have an updated catalog every year or know where to find it online.

The university’s website is the second place to look for help. Students are often surprised to see how much information is available online, including information about university programs, offices, special assistance programs, and so on, as well as helpful information such as studying tips, personal health, financial help, and other resources. Take some time to explore your university’s website and learn what is available—this could save you a lot of time in the future if you experience any difficulty.

In addition, many universities have offices or individuals that can help in a variety of ways. Following are some of the resources your university may have. Learn more about your university’s resources online or by visiting the office of student services or the dean of students.

  • Academic advising office. This office helps you choose courses and plan your program or degree. You should have a personal meeting at least once every term.
  • Counseling office. This office helps with personal problems, including health, stress management, interpersonal issues, and so on.
  • Tutoring or skill centers. The title of this resource varies among universities, but most have special places where students can go for additional help for their courses. There may be a separate math center, writing center, or general study skills center.
  • Computer lab. Before almost all students became skilled in computer use and had their own computers, universities built labs where students could use campus computers and receive training or help resolving technical problems. Many campuses still maintain computer centers to assist students with technical issues.
  • Student health clinic. In addition to providing some basic medical care and making referrals, most university student health centers also help with issues such as diet and exercise counseling, birth control services, and preventive health care.
  • Career guidance or placement office. This center can help you find a student job or internship, plan for your career after graduation, and receive career counseling.
Figure 1.10 – Your university has many resources and many professionals available to help you with any issue that may affect your success as a student. Tulane Public Relations – Orientation – CC BY 2.0.

  • Office for students with disabilities. This office may provide various services to help students with disabilities adapt within the university environment.
  • Residence office. This office not only controls campus residential housing but often assists students to find off-campus private accommodations.
  • Diversity office. This office promotes cultural awareness on campus, runs special programs, and assists diverse students with adjusting to campus culture.
  • Office of student affairs or student organizations. Participating in a group of like-minded students often supports academic success.
  • Athletic center. Most universities have exercise equipment, pools, courts and tracks, and other resources open to all students. Take advantage of this to improve or maintain your personal health, which promotes academic success.
  • Other specialized offices for student populations. These may include an office supporting students who speak English as a second language, adult students returning to university, international students, religious students, students with children (possibly a child-care center), veterans of the armed services, students preparing for certain types of careers, and so on.
  • Your instructors. It never hurts to ask a friendly instructor if he or she knows of any additional university resources you haven’t yet discovered. There may be a brand new program on campus, or a certain department may offer a service not widely promoted through the university Web site.

Everyone needs help at some time—you should never feel embarrassed or ashamed to seek help. Remember that a part of your tuition and fees are going to these offices, and you have every right to take advantage of them.

Key Takeaways

  • Even in large lecture classes, attendance is important, along with forming a good impression and paying attention.
  • Study the university catalog and talk with your advisor to ensure you understand the role of core classes, electives, and major courses in your program or degree requirements.
  • Online courses offer another option in many universities but require a certain preparedness and a heightened sense of responsibility.
  • To avoid inadvertently finding yourself in trouble, know your university’s policies for academic issues and campus behavior.
  • Taking advantage of the many resources your university offers to help you with a wide range of academic and personal matters is essential for success in university.

Checkpoint Exercises

  1. For each of the following statements, circle T for true or F for false:

    T F If your instructor in a large lecture class is boring, there’s nothing you can do except to try to stay awake and hope you never have him or her for another class.
    T F In a large lecture hall, if you sit near the back and pretend to listen, you can write e-mails or send text messages without your instructor noticing.
  2. List three things a university student should be good at in order to succeed in an online course.




  3. Use your imagination and describe three different actions that would violate of your university’s academic honesty policy.




  4. Where on campus would you first go for help choosing your courses for next term?


    For help with your math class?


    For a problem coping with a lot of stress?


    To learn about your options for student loans?


    To find a better apartment?



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