Teaching and study methods
Every academic programme and every student’s individual work programme will be different. However, there are a number of aspects of postgraduate work that will almost certainly be part of your programme.
You will be familiar with the idea of lectures, with a single lecturer providing instruction on a specific theme. Lectures vary in the number of students present, from 10 to 200 or more. Individual participation by students is not always easy, but there will usually be an opportunity for questions, and some lecturers may ask students to undertake brief discussion activities with those around them, or may ask questions of the students present.
Seminars involve a small group of students and a tutor. Either the tutor or one or more of the students will talk about a topic, which will then be discussed by the seminar group. Every student in the seminar group will be expected to participate in the discussion and to take their turn in leading discussion or presenting a paper.
Workshops are essentially seminars focused on a practical activity. For example, engineering students may work as a group on a practical problem, drama students may work on a performance, or education students may work on a role play activity about teaching. As with seminars, all students will be expected to participate and to take their turn in leading.
Practical classes are an important part of many programmes, and focus on the development of skills – an MSc in Geographical Information Systems, for example, will include a considerable number of ‘hands on’ classes using GIS software.
This will be important within environmental or earth science programmes, but also as part of the data collection part of preparing for dissertations in many social science or business fields.
Tutorials are meetings with a tutor, either individually or in very small groups. In some programmes you may have an individual tutor (or personal tutor) who has responsibility for you for the whole of your programme, and may talk with you about both academic and personal or pastoral issues. You will also have tutorials as part of some taught courses, where the course tutor will meet with you to discuss assignments or practical work. You will also have a tutor to support you in your project or dissertation, and this will usually be a member of the academic staff who has specialist knowledge in the field which you are researching.
For most Masters programmes reading will be one of the most important parts of your learning. A Masters provides you with the opportunity to read widely and in depth around your specialist field to bring your own knowledge to the cutting edge of that field. You should expect, therefore, to spend considerable amounts of time in the library or reading materials borrowed from the library or available on-line, whatever your specialist discipline.
Unfortunately, all of these stimulating courses and units will be assessed in some way, and it is increasingly common for this to be through an assignment rather than an examination. Assignments vary greatly in size and scope, from research essays to small practical projects to seminar presentations, but all will require considerable individual preparation and work.
You will be very used to examinations, and many Masters programmes are still assessed using traditional two- or three-hour written examinations. These may occur at the end of the taught programme or spread throughout the course with some at the end of Semester 1 and some at the end of Semester 2.
The dissertation, or project, will be a major part of the Masters programme, worth one third of the assessment total. Typically it will be a project of between 15,000 and 25,000 words in length that you plan and undertake on your own. Although you will have a nominated supervisor, it will be expected that you show considerable independence in choosing, planning and writing up the project. Writing a thesis shows how to plan and manage a project.
Taught course units
Within ‘taught’ Doctorates much of the first one or two years will involve taught courses. These will include units on subject-based topics, units on professional subjects and units on research methods and skills. As with Masters programmes, these units will include a wide range of teaching methods varying from lectures to workshops to seminars and practical classes. All will be assessed, typically through an assignment.
Increasingly, PhD programmes include taught units as well. These are normally research methods and skills units, providing you with the practical and intellectual skills to plan and undertake a Doctoral research project. These may include ‘hard skills’ such as computing or statistics, as well as softer skills such as writing and presenting academic papers. PhD programmes recognised by the UK Research Councils and for which the councils will provide funding for some students are all required to include such taught units as part of the research training of Doctoral students.
You may be supported through tutorials during the taught part of a doctoral programme, but during the research project phase tutorials are a critical part of your study time. Student support looks at the nature and purpose of tutorials, but, as a full-time student you should expect to meet your supervisor for a tutorial on average every two or three weeks during your Doctoral programme.
Individual research is the key feature of a Doctoral programme. Whether your research is entirely of your own creation or whether you are part of a large research project team, it is your research that will be your main focus of work. The work will include planning the research, undertaking the research, analysing your data and writing your research project up as a final thesis. It will occupy you for between two and five years and will become the main focus of your life and study – you will live, eat and breathe your project.
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