What's Studying English Like?

What's Studying English Like

Studying English at the degree level is very different from studying for your English A-levels. Some of the biggest differences are:

  • Only 6 – 10 hours of class time each week. This time is usually about half lectures and half class discussions. Most of your time is spent doing independent reading and research, and preparing to make the most of your class discussions.
  • More, faster reading. You’ll be taking three or four modules at a time, and often studying a major piece each week in all of them.  Most courses expect you to spend 21 to 30 hours per week in individual study.
  • More choice. As well as choosing your modules, you get to choose which texts you want to study for major assignments – and what it is about them that interests you.
  • More thinking. Your lecturers won’t dictate to you what or how you should think about a text or topic. You have to consider their ideas and approaches and then come up with your own, and be ready to share and discuss your ideas in essays and discussions.

At first, these new approaches can be overwhelming. However, your lecturers and tutors will provide lots of help with making the most of independent study time and getting started on your research.

Over the three years of your degree, you’ll get better and better at managing your own time, reading texts quickly whilst picking out what’s important, and applying your own critical approaches to the material in your course.

The University of Sussex’s English department produces an excellent handbook for undergraduate English students

that lays out these expectations and how to deal with them. Much of the material in the handbook is only relevant to students at Sussex, but it also includes a lot of tips and advice that any undergraduate English student can use.

Teaching Time

Within your course, each module is usually a combination of lectures and class discussions often called 'seminars'. But new teaching methods are increasingly common: you may participate in online discussions, group projects or do some real research with digitized manuscripts.

  • Lectures are talks given by an academic on a topic, which may be a particular work or a more general overview of a period or critical problem.
  • In seminar discussions, you and the other students talk – and argue! – about what you’re currently reading, with the help of your lecturer or another tutor.

To get the most out of a lecture or a seminar you have to read and think about the subject works beforehand. The value that you get out of your class time depends directly on the amount of time you spend reading and thinking independently.

Major essays and examinations are typically the most important methods for evaluating your work. However, oral presentations, practice essays, and your seminar contributions are sometimes marked too – and anyway, they’re important for developing your ideas and showing your tutors that you’re engaging with the material.

Differences in course structure

When picking a uni, be sure to visit their departmental website to see how their English course is structured. Different departments have different approaches to teaching English literature, and you might prefer one over the other.

For example, many courses take a period-based approach in which first-year students read older works, like Beowulf, Chaucer, and Shakespeare, and then progress upward through the centuries in later years.

Other courses allow first-year students more flexibility in how and when they develop their knowledge of English, although you will always be expected to choose your modules with an eye to developing a well-rounded knowledge of literature.

Different courses may also have different methods of evaluation. Many give you the option of doing an independent research project or a creative assignment.

Finally, remember that Scottish Universities usually offer 4-year undergraduate degrees with a broadly-based humanities programme in the first year.

See the ‘Choosing a Uni’ page for advice on reading departmental webpages.