How to Choose the Best University for You

Would you agree that finding the right university can be challenging? In the UK, there are approximately 130 universities offering academic courses, so many of us can feel overwhelmed by such an abundance of options. You will find some tried and tested techniques below to help you find the best university, whether in the UK or internationally.

Finding your preferred university options is a project in itself. It is a bit like planning a trip. The more you investigate the route, read about the sights in advance, and ask people who have already visited, the more successful your trip will be. So let’s get started…

Researching University is Key

Begin with a three-step approach: researching alumni, faculty and university rankings. If the university provides an opportunity to connect you with alumni members, take advantage of it. Talk to former students about their university experience. Ask them about what they enjoyed most and what they wish had been different. Do not forget to explore the list of faculty members who teach at the university. You can browse their profiles online and find out what academic projects they have been involved in. Being taught by remarkable academics is one of the things which will make your university experience most rewarding.

Meet Face-to-Face

Universities like to represent themselves at student recruitment fairs. It gives them an opportunity to meet face-to-face with aspiring candidates. Shortlist a number of your university choices based on your research. Keep in mind that first impressions are paramount. You really want to make sur all your interactions are positive, professional and polished. Take a business card of the admissions, marketing or student recruitment officer you have talked to and do stay in touch with them if you have further questions.

Explore the wider city or town you will be living in. Are there inspiring events taking place outside of the university you are considering? Oxford, Cambridge and London provide a lavish range of events like no other UK cities. There will be plenty of things to do in most major cities of course, as you’d expect. Conferences, festivals, science and academic events offer vibrant opportunities to be involved in and enhance your student experience. Whether you are interested in art, literature, dancing or science, there will be no shortage.

Finding your best university is also similar to planning a trip. The more you investigate, the more likely you are to make the right decisions. Ask lots of questions. Research online and face-to-face. And enjoy the journey.

Nearly 70% of adults and 90% of 16-24-year-olds in the UK own a smartphone according to Ofcom. The UK is fast becoming a smartphone society. People spend approximately 2 hours daily on their smartphones browsing, researching, responding and making purchases.

Many of us complain about not having enough time to do the things we really want to do.

What could you do with those hours you can lose to your Smartphone?

Smartphones mean interruptions. Texts, social media messages, posts and updates all crave just a bit of our precious attention. Frequently they win. We abandon our tasks to check, send, like, connect, comment and pop through a quick response.

Stanford University conducted an insightful research on the link between productivity and interruptions. Regularly checking electronic communications resulted in decreased productivity, as the researchers discovered. Switching back and forth means that people slow down. Their focus diminishes, their thinking gets fuzzy and they get tired quickly.

At times, smartphones offer delightful distractions from the mundane. However, the more you use your smartphone, the more distracted you could become, and the more likely your weird and wonderful brain could develop a sneaky dependence. The addiction to sugar is just as real a phenomena as addiction to smart phones. Soon enough, you could get addicted to the online world which your smartphone is enticing you into. Smartphones are like brain candy; deliciously distracting and guilt-evoking.

Smartphones can be useful in Education, though…

In education, teachers are able to practice more varied learning methods using smartphone technology. Some argue that phones actively encourage students to engage more in classroom activities. And with nearly 90% of secondary school children owning a phone, the opportunities are endless. Did you know, for instance, that the Japanese eBook market is expanding by 80% annually as young people delight in reading books on their mobile phones?

Smartphones enable us to get hold of others quickly and gain directions if we get lost. We are able to receive crucial information in a split second and inform others of news from anywhere at any time. However, none of us had a smartphone 20 years ago. We talked to each other face to face a lot more. We asked questions instead of instant googling. And we enjoyed a better work-life balance. We were less scattered and distracted and interrupted. The pace of life seemed to be slower.

Is your smartphone a friend or a foe, then? I shall let you decide. However, I am not yet convinced enough to switch from a good old-fashioned mobile to a smartphone. I enjoy belonging to the 30% smartphone-free adult population… for the time being at least.

The term STEM refers to a group of subjects; science, technology, engineering and mathematics. All have their own branch subjects as well, such as chemistry and physics for science, and these are considered to be STEM fields also. Obviously, then, it’s an important area of study – but does that mean STEM subjects are the best to pursue, definitively? Are they popular? Are they completely superior to all other subjects in every regard? Let’s do some further investigating and uncover the truth of the matter!

Level of Interest

We can start with the most obvious way to gauge if something really is living up to the hype: determining its popularity. No one is disputing that STEM fields are vital, and each year many talented and innovative minds gravitate towards these areas. Every breakthrough society that has been has, in one way or another, stemmed (pun not intended) from the STEM arena.

But how has that interest fluctuated as time’s gone on? Well, using data from 2013 in a 2017 study, the University of Cambridge discovered that the most popular country for STEM study was actually Germany, with 36% of their students studying in these fields. Only 19% of students in the United States followed suit. The UK didn’t fare much better, as interest waned significantly in Information and Communication technologies, with a mere 9% uptake – a sure surprise in today’s digitised and computer-centric world. Clearly, these aren’t ground-breaking figures.

It could be said that, to some degree, more creative subjects attract a higher intake of students. Lifelong passions become moneymaking opportunities, and there could be greater room for working on things that are perhaps more universally cherished (music, performance, literature, etc). In any event, STEM subjects need a popularity boost!

Discrimination and Behaviour

Needless to say, any career path or academic subject that discriminates on any basis is far from being considered ‘superior’ at all. The aforementioned study from Cambridge regarding STEM subjects simultaneously revealed that there’s a huge gender disparity at the heart of these fields. More men sign up and study these subjects than women in a heavily disproportionate number.

Through a blend of crippling stereotypes and outlandish misconceptions, STEM subjects still fail to involve many women and girls the world over. This isn’t just a minor quibble, but a major problem festering at the heart of these fields, and indeed in other professional circles too. Still, it’s worth mentioning that the arts are practically open to all and are spearheading the movement for representation and equality in all its forms.

A lot of snobbery and antagonistic behaviour can originate here too, so from an attitude and behavioural standpoint, things definitely need to improve. Some might see the unforgiving nature of the STEM field as a process of elimination in ‘weeding out the weak ones’, but frankly, that’s not an entirely helpful or welcoming culture to promote. It’s worth noting that not everyone in the STEM fields subscribes to these attitudes, but on a whole, some changes need to be made.

Job Availability

STEM subjects typically lead to better job prospects. There’s no way around this; the breadth of practical knowledge students acquire in these fields is astounding. The job market is always demanding graduates with these skills, offering great career enhancing opportunities for those who’ve gone down this route. Few STEM graduates will have a hard time finding work.
Should they fail to find a role that suits them, some of these graduates then strike out and launch their own start up tech businesses instead. In that sense, it’s far easier for them to create their own opportunities too, due to the plethora of knowledge they have at their disposal. Admittedly, some creative graduates could likely follow suit and start their own firm depending on their skills, but many of them unfortunately get stuck in a rut after graduation day and find themselves unemployed or being overqualified for the jobs they’re in.

Rate of Pay

Students who enrol on STEM courses will also have an easier time in securing a high rate of pay. The skills they learn are highly specialist, and the jobs themselves often involve enormous amounts of responsibility. While the arts are fulfilling in their own way and pay ludicrously well for the lucky or famous few, it’s the STEM fields that truly change the world with each passing day. Consequently, the pay in these areas skyrockets accordingly.

Unfortunately, it tends to be quite the reverse for those in the arts. Reportedly, arts graduates cost the taxpayer £35,000 each, simply because countless art graduates never earn enough money to pay back their student loan in full. Obviously, this is a rather concerning discovery, and means that many people enrolled on a creative degree won’t ever earn a truly impactful wage. In fact, numerous art graduates end up earning less than non-graduates, who spent those three years pursuing a career through alternative means.

Of course, pay isn’t everything. What’s more important; having a big house and a nice car or feeling a sense of enjoyment, happiness and pride in every piece of work you produce? It all comes down to perspective. Some STEM workers absolutely despise what they do but do it for the pay, whereas those in the arts sometimes earn very little but adore their passion. Still, it can’t be disputed that, on average, STEM workers do earn more.

Conclusion

It does seem to be the case that STEM fields offer more room for career progression and higher earnings. However, these perks are mostly available to men. Once some of the snobbery fizzles away and more equality arrives in the field, STEM will be deserving of the respect and admiration its enthusiasts already believe it has.

The English Language exam often involves a piece of creative writing.
As part of this, the AQA exam board specifically provides a picture for students to write about.

Thinking of ideas to write on, knowing where to start and finding ways to incorporate different techniques can be challenging.

Here are a few methods that can help…

Step 1: Think Of Words

Assuming you have an image to base your writing on, try dividing it into say, quarters. If you don’t have an image, you can still follow this method.
Now list words that spring to mind. They could be anything; based on what you can see, what you can’t see, the senses, what you feel, and so on. If you have an image that you have divided into sections, annotate each section with words to ensure you do not miss any important details.

Step 2: Make Sure You Have Covered All Bases

There are a few elements that make a good piece of creative writing. Now that you have a list of various words (and perhaps phrases too), highlight, in different colours the ones that relate to the following:

• Setting – have you got some words that indicate the time and place?
• Register – what words describe the look and feel of the overall setting?
• Starting point – highlight words that give you a start for your creative piece.
• Where to next? After you have started your writing, what will you write about next?
• Linguistic devices – do you have words that enable you to demonstrate techniques like personification, metaphors, similes, alliteration and so on?
• Sensory descriptions – have you used all five senses (sight, smell, hearing, taste, touch)?

This will help you decide quickly whether any sections need more words.

Step 3: Get Writing!

Now that you have a plan (that should take you no more than 10 minutes), you can start writing. You should know where to start, and what should follow. By this point you will have gained enough momentum to keep your writing flowing.

The 360 Degree View

What makes a good story? Here are some ideas:
• Believable and interesting characters
• Vivid descriptions
• Tension
• Different types of sentence (for a varied pace)
• Interesting language

What Do All Of These Have In Common?

They are all designed to interest the reader. Writing with a 360 degree view means that your reader should not simply have a sense of what is in front of them, be it a picture or an imaginary scene. They should know what is happening all around. They should have more information than just what they can see – they should feel something.

At present, GCSE English Literature exams does not allow students to take their textbooks in with them. The AQA exam board requires them to have learned the following:
• A Shakespearean play
• A 19th century novel
• A modern text
• 15 poems belonging to the anthology of Power & Conflict or Love & Relationships

That’s 18 texts – and other examination boards have similar requirements. Students are expected to have an in-depth understanding of each, be able to analyse them and remember quotations. This raises the question, is the exam a test of skills or memory (or both)? And which should it be?

Granted, being able to memorise can be a skill-for-life. For instance, doctors need to be able to think on their feet and recall information, often with no time to check a textbook. Surely, though, this skill doesn’t need to fall on subjects like English. It leads me back to my original question – is the English Literature exam a test of memory or skills?

In my view, it is both. As a teacher, however, I often see how the pressure to remember everything overshadows the time invested in understanding texts and practising analysis skills.

I’m sure that the thinking behind the decision for the exam to be closed book stems from the idea that it makes it easier for students. Or perhaps there is the idea that they could cheat. But would making the exam easier be a bad thing? After all, it would be making it easier for good reason – the pressure to remember would be alleviated, without compromising on the application of skills and understanding of texts. And, if there is the belief that it could lead to cheating in exams, I ask – how?

Even if students brings an annotated book into an exam, they can’t cheat. They won’t know what the question is, for a start. And they still need to know the book, cover to cover, to know where to look and what to reference. Yes, they may have notes about the writer’s methods but they will still need to analyse this in the context of the question.

In addition, there are questions on unseen poetry and on set texts, that dictate which extract students must place their initial focus on. My opinion is that the exam should allow students to bring their texts in with them. What’s yours?

On the 15th April 1755, Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was published for the first time. His book, which he complied with the help of six assistants, took eight years to compile. Listing 40,000 words, each of which was defined in detail, it was the most comprehensive to date.

Johnson was accused of being something of a snob. He frequently chose to use words in his book which the majority of the British population would never use and could never understand (such as ‘deosculation’). He also famously managed to offend the population of Scotland when he defined the word Oats as ‘A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.’

Despite his ability to offend and annoy, Samuel Johnson was widely respected for his academic achievement, and his dictionary was extremely popular. But what of the dictionary today? In a world of digital downloads, online dictionaries and spelling and grammar checkers, as well as language learning packages on our computers, tablets and phones, is the future of the paperback dictionary in danger of extinction?

Speaking on the subject, Stephen Bullon, Macmillan Education’s Publisher for Dictionaries, said, “Our research tells us that most people today get their reference information via their computer, tablet, or phone, and the message is clear and unambiguous: the future of the dictionary is digital.” This opinion would certainly reflect the modern drive towards the majority of reading matter. Newspapers, magazines, journals and novels are increasingly being read on digital devices rather than via their traditional paper constructions.

It was in the mid nineteenth century, with the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, that the consumer market for dictionaries saw its first major expansion with paper and books becoming more generally affordable and the number of people who could read and write slowly increasing.
However, there have never been many producers of the paperback dictionary in the UK. The most well known being those coming from Oxford and Cambridge Universities and those produced by Collins. Of these, however, there are hundreds of varieties, from children’s illustrated dictionaries to short pocket dictionaries, to the full catalogue of the Oxford English Dictionary which runs into dozens of volumes.

Despite this, sales of paperback dictionaries are currently in steep decline. When talking to The Irish Times, Dr Chris Mulhall, a language lecturer at Waterford Institute of Technology explained, “The depleting value of the paper dictionary goes hand-in-hand with a declining use of the printed word and our growing interaction with technology… But the view of technology as a potential distraction in the classroom offers a lifeline to the future of the pocket-sized paper dictionary so perennially loved and loathed by students in language classes…. They (paper dictionaries) should be viewed as complementary, symbiotic objects in the educational space: one diligently providing a structured picture of language within a networked lexical, semantic and syntactic system, the other hurriedly rushing to offer multiple translations or definitions for our information gaps. Paper dictionaries narrate the value and changes of our past and present. Electronic dictionaries, on the other hand, will define how we see the future. There is a value to both functions.”

Whether Dr Mulhall is correct or not, only time can tell. In a world where knowledge is acquired via an instant trip to Google (as we usually learn on a need-to-know basis rather than via a trip to the library to pick up a book on the subject), where spelling can be checked during the writing process itself, and where our foreign pronunciation can be spoken to us via our computer’s speakers, the continued existence of the physical copy dictionary must be in some doubt. Personally, I really hope not. Dr Samuel Johnson would certainly not approve.

When you think of a hologram, what immediately springs to mind? Sci-fi programmes such as Star Trek? What about a teacher? Maybe not. Think again, because this technology could be the future life of online study, Jim, and it’s not quite as you know it…

Imagine a world where full-size, 360-degree images of teachers or lecturers are projected on-screen and can be viewed without the need for any expensive, special gadgets. It would be a world in which holograms animatedly engaged with students in locations across the globe. Sounds a little far-fetched, doesn’t it? In fact, it’s becoming a reality.

In November 2018 it was announced that University students at Imperial College Business School in London will be the first in the world to have live lectures delivered to them via augmented reality holograms. Could holograms become a firm fixture in the technological armour that is the future of online learning? Or is this nothing more than a passing technology fad?

Augmented reality holograms allow remote students to engage with their tutor in a unique way. The hologram is realised by projecting a live image of a lecturer onto a screen in front of the audience. The lecturer then presents live from another location elsewhere in the country or even the world.

However, using holograms is not a new concept. Music concerts have been delivered using holograms to physically represent artists. In April 2012, a virtual Tupac Shakur took the stage with Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre. It was the first time a hologram had appeared at a live performance in front of a large American crowd.

But does the use of holograms in teaching provide the same authentic feel of having a lecturer or teacher physically present in the lecture hall or classroom? It would certainly seem so. Holograms can engage with students as a present human being would; using gestures such as pointing and making eye contact with their audience.

And what about robots? At America’s Michigan State University, some online students embody robots to enable them to have a ‘presence’ in face-to-face classrooms. This helps draw their learning experience closer to that of their on-campus counterparts. To use the robots, remote (online) learners download free software onto their desktop, laptop or smart device and log in. It enables them to control their movements and zoom level using the arrow keys.

So how did the online students find the experience of being a robot? Quite positive, it seems. They reported feeling more engaged and less prone to distraction compared to using the less developed forms of synchronous online learning. Surprisingly, the result of using the robots showed the on-campus students felt a greater sense of connection to their remote peers.

Online study continues to increase in popularity. Embracing the use of technologies, including holograms and robots, will help play a part in bridging the physical gap between classroom and remote learners. Time to beam you up, teacher!

Hopefully you have not left all of your revision to the last minute!  But even if you have, these tips should help you.

First things first – relax.  You cannot study well or absorb information if you are stressed. It may be last minute, but you are not out of time. And you’d be surprised at how much you can pack into your short-term memory.

Also make sure you take breaks. A common response to last-minute revision is to try and study for as long as possible. But you will remember more if you take regular short breaks and get enough uninterrupted sleep.

1.      Clock Revision

This is a tip that I first saw on TES and although it is described as a teacher activity, it is adaptable.

How it works: split topics into 5 minute chunks and make notes. That way you will only focus on the key areas and, get through  a lot of information in just 60 minutes.

This leads me to an important tip – don’t sweat the small stuff

When you are revising close to the exams, you need to prioritise on the major topics or key areas of each topic. 

2.      Identify Gaps

Instead of revising material you already know, try and identify your knowledge gaps and focus on filling them. It makes last minute revision both efficient and effective.

A good way of identifying gaps, is by using a checklist or the contents page of a textbook and ticking everything you feel confident on. That way, you can easily see areas that need more attention.

3.      Write your own Exam Paper and Mark Scheme

I love this one. The best way to know any topic is to teach it. And whilst you may not have the time or opportunity to actually teach others a topic, you do have time to write your own exam paper. 

In writing an exam paper, you will be forced to think about the topic in-line with the style of questions you will face in the real thing. The most useful part here is writing the mark scheme.

Look at sample material from your exam board and write in their style.  This will help you revise topics and improve your exam technique.

4.      Keep it Visual

A quick, and more importantly an effective way to revise, is by using visual aids like mind maps. 

Think about memory tricks and visual aids to avoid trying to remember large chunks of text or lots of terminology.

Recently in TES news, exam board AQA shared some feedback to teachers about what to avoid. What does this mean for students?

Here is what they said.

  1. Give adequate weight to all assessment objectives

One of the most useful skills you can develop as a GCSE student, of any subject, is to learn how to mark exam answers.

It is the single-most powerful method to understand what the examiner wants from you.

Most exam boards provide past papers and mark schemes for free, through their websites.  Use them.

A great way to learn what the assessment objectives mean, is to do some research. There are many useful YouTube videos that discuss these. You may even find some exemplar work to view – mark it yourself and see if your final grade matches theirs.

  • Practice the more ‘general’ questions

Many GCSE exam questions provide guidance on what to include in answers. Despite this, AQA found students struggled with the less structured questions.

Here is an example of a guided question (English Literature):

How does Priestley explore responsibility in ‘An Inspector Calls’?

Write about:

  • The ideas about responsibility
  • How Priestley presents these ideas by the way he writes

Here is an example of a less structured question:

Compare the ways poets present ideas about power on ‘Ozymandias’ and one other poem from ‘Power and Conflict’.

Neither of these questions are easy. The first does at least tell us what to write about, though. The second is a lot more open-ended and therefore harder. Approaching them needs to be practiced.

  • Make the most of mock-exam support

I am going to tweak this one slightly and translate it to: ‘practice past papers’.

Learning the topics is one thing. But understanding an exam question, recalling your learning in its context and writing full-answers in timed conditions, is no mean feat.

The more you practice, the better you will become. If you are starting to time yourself, try and assign yourself 1 minute per mark. So, if a question is worth 20 marks, it should take you no more than 20 minutes to answer.  You won’t be able to achieve this a first but, if you  practice, you will be surprised at how quickly you improve.

If you are dyslexic, it does not need to be a barrier to education. After all, it doesn’t stop you from learning, you simply have a different way of learning.

Of course, you can deploy independent strategies to help you learn. But it is also important to communicate with your educators about what you need. 

Here are some simple study tips for you to use independently and to share with your teachers.

Take your time

Don’t rush to answer a question. If needed, ask your teacher for some extra time. At first you may not understand a question or text but don’t worry, you won’t be alone. Many students who don’t have dyslexia will be in the same position.

You specifically need time to read and re-read the text in front of you.

When you read it for the first time, underline any words that you are struggling to understand. Spend time annotating the text with what those words may mean.

Now you will be ready to read for the second time. This time, try and use your notes to understand the text.

Finally, try reading one or two more times. Use these readings to remember what you have read and its meaning.

You also need to give yourself enough time to write your answer. As with everyone else, you may need to re-write certain parts but, it may take you slightly longer.

Convert text to pictures

You won’t be the only one who understands visuals more than text. We all do.

When studying, revising or say, planning an essay, use visual tools like mind maps.  Fill your mind map with images, not text.  Make it colourful and playful. All of these things will help you understand and remember.

If you are struggling to follow the slideshow being presented in lessons, ask your teachers for a printed copy. That way, while the teacher is talking, you can follow the content at your own pace and even make notes wherever needed.

Stay organised

You may be in the position of needing to track various study materials and assignment deadlines. To help you do this, make sure that you stay organised. Do whatever works for you, but here are some ideas:

  • Study timetable
  • Calendar on the wall
  • Calendar or diary on your phone (apps like TeamUp are great)

When planning, make sure that you also factor in study time.  That way, you will be able to see exactly what you need to do (and when you need to do it), to meet your deadlines.

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