Done with school? Here’s what you need to know about tertiary education

If you’ve just finished school, you’ve got big and exciting changes ahead of you—especially if you’re planning on going to TAFE or university. The way things work in tertiary education is totally different to high school. 

It could seem daunting at first, but starting uni or TAFE is much easier once you know how tertiary learning compares with what you’re used to. Here are the four key changes you should know about so you can start your first year with confidence.

1. Assessment 

You might be used to class assignments and exams from high school, but there’s a broader range of assessments in tertiary learning. Assessment requirements vary from course to course, but they may include presentations, creating a portfolio or group work as well as exams or assignments.

As a business and arts student at Swinburne, Dylan Schneeweiss says he’s found that assignments and assessments are typically completed outside class hours. “This is a noticeable difference to the in-class assessments that you get used to in secondary school,” he says.

To get your work done, treat your assessments like a work commitment by blocking out time in your diary. If you’ve got gaps between your classes, check out the library or study spaces on campus to make the best use of your time so there’s less to do once you get home.

Referencing your assignments will also be a noticeable change from high school. “University assessments require you to refer to academic journals, books and peer reviewed articles as evidence to support what you argue,” Schneeweiss says. “It sounds complex, but you’ll get the hang of it and the research you do will help strengthen your arguments and expose you to alternative views.” 

Most universities and TAFEs will have referencing guidelines available on their website and many of the libraries will offer free information sessions for new students to help you get the hang of how to reference your assignments correctly.  

2. Contact hours

Your school schedule probably revolved around 9am to 3.30pm, Monday to Friday for years. But unlike high school, tertiary learning typically has a much more flexible schedule. Your contact hours at uni or TAFE—the time you actually have to attend each week—will vary depending on the course or subjects you choose. You might only have a few hours of face-to-face sessions in a day.

But the rest of your schedule is up to you—it’s expected that you’ll do preparation and study outside of those direct contact hours. Your lecturer or tutor will often give you a guide as to how many hours of study you should be putting in each week for a particular course or subject.

The length of the education year also varies. TAFE tends to run from February to December much like high school, but university usually has semesters running from March to November.

3. Class styles

Your high school learning probably had a pretty standard format—class with your classmates and teacher. But tertiary learning styles vary depending on what course and qualification you’re completing, says Tara Peck, a recruitment team leader at Swinburne. “In a bachelor’s degree course, you will generally be learning through lectures and tutorials,” she says. 

A lecture could be in a large hall with a hundred other students. Your tutorials might be more similar to high school class but could have fewer students and more informal discussion. Some courses will even involve laboratory work. “For students in certificates, diplomas and advanced diplomas it will be more classroom-based study, and there can be workshops dependent on the discipline area,” Peck says. “You will also generally have more contact hours learning on campus in these courses.”

4. Independence

Going to TAFE or uni lets you grow and become more independent. Depending on your course, your attendance at every lecture, tutorial or lab session may not be compulsory.  So, in many ways, your learning is up to you. “This can be a great motivator to push yourself and take control of your studies,” Schneeweiss says. “You are accountable for your actions and you get out what you put in. My parents don’t get notified if I miss a class and if I do, then it’s up to me to catch up.”

You have lots of freedom at uni or TAFE, so take charge of your schedule by deciding how you are going balance your time between attending classes, studying, work and leisure time. It can help to remember why you’re studying what you are and where you want it to take you. 

Success after high school

Before you choose a tertiary institution, there are a number of factors you need to consider. These include your skills and interests, available courses, campus locations, cost, support services, reputation of the institution and even study abroad opportunities. 

Peck says it’s worth going to open days and making times to speak with staff members who work at the university of TAFE you’re interested in going to. “This is a great way to research and ensure that you are making an informed decision about the one that is right for you,” she says. It’s also a good chance to ask them ways you can make the most of your uni or TAFE experience.

 Schneeweiss recommends getting involved in the social life of your university or TAFE as soon as you begin. “In secondary school it’s easy to go through the motions because classes are mandatory, you are around the same people most of the time and you have teachers pressing you to complete tasks,” he says. 

Now is also a great time to branch out and make new friends and connections. Universities and TAFEs offer all kinds of social events and support, from orientation week activities to different clubs and societies. These are great ways to find people with similar interests to you. Schneeweiss says it’s worth embracing each opportunity that comes your way. “University and TAFE are what you make of them,” he says. “If you put in the effort and take opportunities when they come, it’ll be an amazing experience. It’s up to you. You have the chance to make it the best time of your life. Don’t miss out.”