Learning at university and TAFE

Learning at university and TAFE is different from learning at high school. If you become aware of these differences, this will help you prepare for the learning environment at your university or TAFE.

Main differences

Differences between learning at high school and tertiary institutions

The table below summarises some of the main differences between secondary and tertiary study.

Secondary schoolUniversity and TAFE
Guided homework tasks to assist learning.
  • Self-directed revision throughout semester.
  • Need to set your own homework.
Study time is often structured by the teacher.Need to manage your own time [Retrieved 21 April 2016]. (This is a Deakin University website with some tips and suggestions for all students. Other resources are only for students enrolled at Deakin University.)
Study tasks are fairly evenly spread throughout the year.May have many assessments (such as assignments and exams) due at the same time.
Concepts are often simpler.Concepts are often more challenging to understand.
Writing tasks may not require in-text references and reference lists.
  • In-text references and reference lists required for most writing.
  • Check your university's/TAFE's website for the specific rules for referencing.
Smaller amounts of directed reading.
  • Extensive reading of text books and journal articles required.
  • Need to critically evaluate what you read.
Less emphasis on online materials.Online systems used to communicate important information, for example, lecture notes, assessment information.
Easy to ask for help from teachers.Help is available, but you need to know who to ask or where to look online.

Learning about learning

Learning is not simply remembering and memorising what is taught by your teachers and lecturers. At university and TAFE, you will need to develop higher order thinking skills.

Many assessment tasks will require you to go beyond simply remembering and repeating information. You may be asked to apply what you have learnt to new situations or to analyse and evaluate information. This could mean analysing a writer's arguments and evidence and making judgements about them (evaluating). The highest level thinking skill is creating. This refers to the creation of new knowledge that has never been known before. This is a skill that is normally developed at postgraduate level.

Need help to develop studying and learning skills?  The Academic and learning skills unit at your university or TAFE should be able to assist you.

More resources

The websites below provide some tips and suggestions for all students (other resources are only for students enrolled in these universities):

Suggestions for studying

Some general tips for studying:

  • Plan ahead for all your studies. Remember the 5 Ps: Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance!
  • Go to ALL classes, lectures, tutorials, or laboratory/practical classes.
  • Making a start early can make all the difference, including readings, assignments, and essays.
  • Don't be afraid to ask for help. It is important to get the help you need. You can get help from the teachers/lecturers and other support units. 
  • If you have questions about the class material, make an appointment with your teacher/lecturer. If you have questions about the tutorial or laboratory material, ask the tutors and teachers during class.
  • Treat your studies like a full-time job

Organise your studies

Tips for organising your studies:

  • Check out the teaching/lecture and study rooms before the semester begins. This will allow you to see where they are located and you can also choose the best position to sit in the classrooms (for comfort or in order to reduce the level of distraction).
  • Make sure you understand the subject (course) outline. The subject outline is usually provided to you before or during the first lecture.
  • Make a list of what assessments or assignments have to be done in order of the date they are due. 
  • You can also add the percentage value the assessments are worth. For assessments worth smaller percentage values, you may want to spend less time working on them. For assessments worth larger percentage values, you may want to spend more time. For example, you would want to spend more time on an assignment that is worth 50 per cent compared to an assignment that is worth 5 per cent.
  • Set out a weekly study timetable.
  • You should prepare for classes/lectures by downloading the class notes and readings and completing them before class.
  • Do any further study such as revisions immediately after the class/lecture. For example, if you had class during the day, you can revise the class notes in the evening of the same day.
  • Confirm with teachers/lecturers the concepts that you are trying to learn by setting up a time to speak to them or email them your questions.
  • Get assessments in on time, even if you are worried about them not being perfect.

Making a study plan

A study plan is not something to be left until exam time. To be successful at university or TAFE, you need to study consistently throughout the semester, right from the first week. This study time is additional to the time you spend on assessment tasks.

It is strongly recommended that you spend at least one hour studying and completing assessment tasks for every one hour contact time at university or TAFE. For example, if you have eight hours of classes per week, you should spend at least eight hours a week on additional study and assessment tasks.

Organising your time

A semester planner is a good way to start. It's a good idea to make a big one to put up on your wall. Here's an example of a semester planner to help you start:

Subject (course)Week 1Week 2Week 3Week 4Week 5
History 101   Essay due by Monday (30%) 
Science 101  Lab report due by Wednesday (5%) Assignment due by Friday (50%)

You can also put this information in your diary or calendar if you use one for university or TAFE.

A timetable can be useful to organise when to study. Here's an example of a weekly timetable:

9 amLectureFree timeLab classFree timeStudyFree timeWork
10 amLectureStudyLab classStudyStudyFree timeWork
11amTutorialTravel to universityLectureStudyTravel to universityFree timeWork
12 pmLunch timeLunch timeGymLunch timeLunch timeLunch timeWork
1 pmTravel homeLectureLunch timeFree timeLectureTennisWork
2 pmFree timeTutorialLectureFree timeTutorialTennisFree time
3 pmFree timeStudyTravel homeFree timeLectureStudyFree time
4 pmStudyLectureFree timeStudyStudyStudyFree time
5 pmStudyTravel homeStudyStudyLectureStudyFree time

You will also need to make time to study in the evenings. Don't forget to plan some recreation time too!

'To do' lists

A 'to do' list can be useful to organise what to study. Below is an example of a Week 3 to do list.

Week 3 'to do' list


  • Read lecture 5 readings (text book) before the lecture and write summaries (2 hours)
  • Revise lecture 5 notes and write summaries (1 hour)


  • Read chapter 7 of text book and write summaries (2 hours)
  • Write the results section for lab report (2 hours)

Be realistic!

It is important to be realistic. Don't set impossible goals for yourself. Here are a few things to consider:

Allow for the limitations of your attention span. Avoid scheduling large slabs of time for one subject (course). Alternating subjects for study will help you to sustain your concentration and interest.

For example, study history for two hours and then study science for another two hours, instead of studying history for four hours straight.

Remember to take occasional breaks between your studies.

Work in terms of tasks, not time. Rather than having a vague aim to 'study biology for two hours', set a particular section of work for each study period. A sense of achievement comes from successfully completing small tasks, and breaking the work up into smaller sections makes the whole process of study seem less daunting.

For example, if you plan to study a subject (course) for two hours, identify the tasks you want to do during those two hours.

  • For lecture study, it could be: read lecture 5, write summary of lecture, and complete the text book readings for lecture 6.
  • For essay writing, it could be: do research for essay and write the structure for the essay.

Review your approach. If your study plan is not working effectively, review your strategies and consider making changes.

For example, you may have attempted to fit too much into your timetable, or your timetable may not be flexible enough to accommodate unexpected events. Some minor adjustments may be all you need to stay on track.

Make sure you include some recreation time. Having fun and relaxing is important! If you allocate time for recreational activity, you will be less tempted to throw it all in and waste time avoiding study.

Suggestions for studying

Things you can do to make studying easier.

Making a study plan

Plan ahead and stress less.