New Students: Teaching & Learning at the University of Edinburgh

UK academic culture might be very different to what you are used to, but help is at hand! Academic Transitions Adviser Abby Shovlin looks the challenges of transitioning from one teaching and learning style to another. 

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I work in the University of Edinburgh’s Institute for Academic Development (IAD) and I’ve recently been doing some workshops with  international students who have already arrived on campus. These workshops are designed to help support students in their transition into their new university learning and teaching environment, a bit like this blog post.

As a former student of English Literature, I’m going to unashamedly resort to the familiar territory of ‘the metaphor’ to begin this post. Picture if you will, Edinburgh . . .

Some of you, will be able to conjure up pretty accurate representations of the city as you may have already visited Edinburgh, whilst others may be still to arrive for the very first time. The images of the city that you picture in your mind’s eye could vary from the old cobbled streets around the city’s famous Royal Mile with its accompanying closes and wynds, to the Parthenon inspired Calton Hill that earned us the title of ‘The Athens of the North’. Or maybe you’re thinking about Edinburgh’s as a ‘city by the sea’ with images of Portobello beach or the harbours at Leith and Granton. Picturing Edinburgh, for many, like myself, wouldn’t be complete without including Arthur’s Seat, the long extinct volcano that presides over our city and offers unforgettable panoramas to those who make the climb to the top.


Edinburgh here, in this metaphor, is in so many ways akin to your degree and your new studies. Let’s think about this. You and your fellow students coming to study their chosen subject, let’s say for example, Psychology, will, like in the above paragraph, all have different images of what Psychology is or will be like. Like international students who may have been to Edinburgh already, some new students will have studied Psychology before at school or college and have some direct experience of the subject. Others, like those who have still to arrive in Edinburgh for the very first time, may only have read about Psychology and aren’t quite sure what it’s ‘all about’, but think that it sounds to be the type of subject they’d like. Of course, the Edinburgh you visited before or the Psychology you remember from school may be quite different from the Edinburgh or the Psychology of your first semester as a new student at the University.

This simple comparison here shows us two key things (i) everyone’s student experience and academic journey is different- and that’s a thing to be celebrated and (ii) our expectations about our how our new studies will be, may be different to our actual experience when our first semester starts- and that’s ok!

So, as the University’s Academic Transitions Advisor, I’m going to use the example of an International student who has never visited Edinburgh before to give you some advice on how to succeed at university, both on an academic and personal level. Let’s get started:

Edinburgh, for the new international student, arriving for the first time, is unmapped terrain. Ok, so of course there are maps of the city of Edinburgh! In fact, there are ever growing numbers of maps and mapping technology nowadays. However, Edinburgh for you, personally, as a new student when you first arrive in the city is unmapped. Within your first couple of weeks of being here, it’s likely that you haven’t yet found the shortest way to the supermarket, or the quietest most traffic free walk home or, more importantly, your favourite coffee shop (still to be discovered). These things all take time, but when you do find them you slowly begin to feel ‘at home’ in the city, Edinburgh starts to feels like ‘your city’ and you can even eventually act as a tour guide for visiting friends and family. It’s the same with the unmapped terrain of your new subject, you’re not expected to know everything at the beginning….


In fact, the people that get to know and ‘personally map’ a new city best are those that don’t mind taking the wrong route sometimes and even, getting lost. It’s these ‘wrong turns’ that can take us off the beaten track and allow us to find that hidden gem of a place where you get the best espresso or view of the city or peace and quiet (or even all three together!). Those that know a city well make connections that other people perhaps don’t- they can get from one end of the city to the other using ‘the road less travelled’, they know where to go on every occasion and after having been lost so many times now never get lost! They have expertly mapped their terrain for themselves.

How exactly does all this expert mapping relate to your new studies?

If we think about it, when we begin with a new subject we all start with looking at the existing maps i.e. lecture notes, textbooks- the ‘main things’ that you need to know. These maps have been written by other people, experts in their own areas, and they do a great job of orienting you into your new field. Without them, as in the case of arriving in a new city, you’d be lost. However, what we’re looking for as students progress through their degrees is that they use these existing maps of others to go on and build their own personal maps of their subjects. Usually, for undergraduate students this particular journey culminates in their final year dissertation- a piece of work that is entirely mapped by the students themselves- from research to analysis to evaluation. If you then choose to go on and study at a postgraduate level, then this mapping ability becomes even more crucial.


So, thinking about this lived experience of new students arriving in Edinburgh for the first time, we can really begin to better understand the academic journey of all students.

Everyone, no matter whether they are an international or a home student, goes through the ‘new arrival’ stage in their subject. In these beginning stages it is impossible to know or understand everything and it’s ok to get lost and take wrong turns in your own, personal map making journey.

At the IAD, our job is to help all students become better map makers through our workshops and resources on a range of essential skills such as:

  • Critical thinking
  • Dissertation planning
  • Academic writing
  • Time management

Have a look on our website and see where we could help take you!

Abby will be hosting two workshops on academic transitions in September – you can book your ticket here.




Categories: New Students

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