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It is a daunting step up from high school to university, one that just under half of all students fail to master. However, through proper understanding and realistic expectations, aspiring undergraduates can learn how to successfully navigate the leap.

According to a study published by The Council of Higher Education (CHE) in 2013, which tracked students over a period of five years, only 35% of learners complete their degree within the standard time frame allocated. Of all the students that enter tertiary institutions, 41% of them drop out and of those who drop out 50-60% of them do so in their first year. This means that each year the South African job market only receives about 40% of the graduates that it should.

Ria van Zyl, head of Honours at the Design School of South Africa, an educational brand of The Independent Institute of Education (The IIE), says that parents should prepare their children for the challenging yet rewarding transition into university. “The biggest difference learners will discover is that their days of being ‘spoon fed’ in the school class room are over. They will have to start thinking and working independently, while motivating themselves to keep up with their work schedule.”

She offers some basic tips on how to smoothly make the transition to university:
Take control of your own education, you alone are responsible for your success
Get to know your lecturers, they are a great resource
Create a support structure, your peers will be the best people to bounce ideas off and understand academic pressures
Manage your time by planning ahead to meet your academic obligations
Stretch yourself intellectually
Do independent research in your chosen field as learning outside of the classroom will give you a leg up
Don’t be afraid to ask for help, your course leaders and institution councillors are there for a reason
Make use of extra classes and tutoring sessions if you feel like you didn’t understand a topic the first time round.
Set goals and decide what you want to achieve while you are studying.
Most importantly, don’t ever give up, if you set your mind to it you can do it.

“Because high school is mandatory and structured, scholars often don’t have the discipline required to succeed in university. For instance, their time is planned and controlled by others, they need permission to leave a class or skip a day of school and they can count on parents and teachers to remind them of their deadlines and responsibilities. Their academic careers and the structure thereof, have been arranged and enforced for them with little self-discipline needed,” continues van Zyl.

University on the other hand requires under-graduates to take responsibility and manage their own time. They must balance their academic requirements with other social and extra-curricular opportunities. There is no one there to remind them of deadlines and classes, university lecturers are not there to hunt down the students that don’t attend class, instead they are there to teach those who want to learn.

This requires setting priorities, and making moral and ethical decisions. Class times vary considerably in university and in some cases a student may only spend 12 to 16 hours in class each week. In addition, after having relatively small classes of no more than 35, your child may suddenly be in a lecture hall of more than a 100 students, with little personal interaction. Whereas school requires very little outside class work (apart from formal homework), university requires two to three hours of additional work for every hour spent in class, with substantial amounts of allocated reading and assignments.

“It’s up to undergraduates to read and understand the given material; lectures and assignments are given on the assumption that students have already done their topical research. Lecturers may not always follow the textbook. Instead, to amplify the lecture, they may give illustrations, provide background information, or discuss research about the topic being studied. Students are expected to follow and take down the important points,” continues van Zyl.

Unlike high school teachers, university lecturers will not check that a student’s “homework” has been completed and handed in, instead they will just allocate zero marks.

When it comes to testing, they tend to cover large amounts of material. It is a student’s responsibility to organise the material and prepare for the test. At this level, education is all about the ability to apply what is being learned and to solve new kinds of problems.

“Once your child takes that step up and takes ownership of their education and responsibilities, tertiary education can be a breeze.” concludes van Zyl.

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