School of English


Here are some tips and some advice on how to prepare for your university studies and how to get the most out of the different elements of teaching and learning throughout your degree

What can I expect from studying at university?  How is it different from school or college?

Students often discover there is quite a shift between school and university study. The first thing many confront is that you are expected to read far more and engage with a much greater volume and variety of texts than you do at school. You will develop your own reading strategies in the course of your degree, but do not underestimate the time you will need to devote to reading.  At school you will have often spent many class hours meticulously exploring a small number of books, but at university you may (almost) be  reading and discussing the same number of texts (plays, articles, essays, book chapters, reviews and performances)  in a week that you did over a term at school. Virtually every student finds this challenging at the start (this may be especially the case if you are studying Drama with another subject), especially when most of the things we expect you to read are demanding and deliberately ask us to reconsider the world in ways we are not familiar with.  University is about challenging your ideas, knowledge and perception of the world so don’t expect to agree with everything you read. Learning how to formulate an opinion and express it goes hand in hand with reading. At university you are encouraged to develop your own critical voice;  don’t feel this should happen immediately. It is an incremental process and the course is designed to help you achieve this over your years at Sussex.

Another big  shift  is the move to independent study: whilst you will be guided through lectures, seminars and workshops, you will take responsibility for your learning. Unlike school or college, where you have timetabled hours every day from morning until the afternoon (and sometimes beyond), you will find you have more untimetabled hours, and less ‘contact’ time with tutors, than you are used to. This doesn’t mean there is less to do! It means we expect you to organise yourself so you can make the best use of the teaching we offer.

Here are some tips to help you best engage with your study:

Approaches to studying

Get organised
When you receive your timetable, mark in study periods as well as plenty of time for other activities connected to the teaching. Look at your workload for each week and allocate time slots in which to complete it. Think about when you work best – are you a morning person or a night owl? Where will you work? In your room, in the library, somewhere else? Where are you least distracted? Try to establish good study habits early on – you’ll find it difficult to catch up if you leave this too late. Managing your time in relation to assessment deadlines is also important. Don’t leave things to the last minute – engaged reading and good essay writing both take longer than you think. 

Persevere (don’t give up!)
 If you find some reading or certain performances you are asked to watch particularly difficult to understand don’t give up but use the text’s difficulty as a way to start engaging with it: why does it seem hard? Try reading a section slowly – even out loud – to try and find the text’s own voice and rhythm.  With some texts, you and a seminar group (and even your tutor) may come to the view that sometimes the effort is not worth the rewards, but this view should be reached after you have given them fair consideration. And don’t be afraid of revisiting an initial view or opinion you have formed at some later point: reading and thinking is a continuous ongoing activity and revising your ideas is an important part of learning. But keep in mind that if you only focus on the texts, productions and artists that immediately interest you or that you have some familiarity with, you can’t really expect to broaden your ideas and knowledge within the field of Drama. 

Look at vacation readings lists and do what reading you can in advance of term. Reading Lists.

Make learning social
Talk to your friends and classmates about how they are finding things, and about their responses to the week’s reading or other tasks. Be supportive to others: learning is a collective enterprise. Don’t be afraid of not understanding everything, and also, be willing to share your ideas and thoughts about what you feel you don’t understand. Maybe you can help each other further by forming informal reading or study groups. Get in the habit of going for a coffee or getting together after seminars or workshops, and talk about your responses to these sessions. Go for study sessions in the library with a friend, take breaks together and compare notes on what you’ve been reading. One of the best ways to understand what you are learning is to talk about it. 

Pace yourself especially during your first term. Students may feel exhausted by week 6 – remember, we need to keep going for 12 weeks! Don’t expect to master everything straightway: it’s a learning journey.

Don’t let study get on top of you 
The first year is all about finding your feet, establishing new rhythms and study patterns, and getting used to all the different things that University life involves and demands of you. Give yourself some time to relax and enjoy everything else which being a student has to offer.

How will I be taught? 

Teaching in the School of English is delivered via lectures, seminars and workshops. You will become very familiar with the expectations around these within your first few weeks.

A seminar, typically two hours long, is a form of ‘small-group’ teaching. A group of approximately 15 students (sometimes less, sometimes a few more) will meet with a tutor to discuss and explore the reading and performance materials that have been assigned for that week. The seminar may consist of a number of activities which can include the following: whole-group discussion, led by the tutor; close-reading exercises (this can include watching performance materials); student presentations prepared in advance; work in small groups or pairs; individual short writing tasks. Usually you will have one seminar per week per module.

A workshop, either two or three hours. Workshops are a fundamental part of learning theatre as a subject, equivalent to the lab practice that would accompany learning chemistry, physics or biology. They are a place where you test out ideas and stretch yourself critically and creatively. Like seminars, this is another form of smaller group teaching only here you are working practically in a studio or theatre. Sometimes you are on your feet, which may mean working literally with your body, but workshops may also involve a much wider range of activities depending on what is being explored. The focus may be directly related to readings you have done, or it may connect to something else within the module (a particular artist, group or way of generating and/or exploring theatre). Usually you will have one workshop per week per module for those modules which are taught through seminar and workshop.

Making the  most of seminars, lectures and workshops 

Seminars, lectures and workshops will need you to prepare in different ways in order to get the most out of these three different types of teaching. In Drama you will be taught mainly through seminars and workshops, though occasionally there might be lectures to attend. Most of the Drama curriculum is currently delivered without lectures though tutors will often expand upon material you have been studying (performances and readings) and introduce it in your seminar groups. Occasionally you will have lectures to attend, and if you are studying Drama as a Joint Honours (ie. with another subject) then you may also be taught through lectures in your other subject. Please consult the English Literature section link on lectures if you want further guidance on them.

Making the most of seminars 

Although they are led by a tutor, seminars are a form of group learning. The more you can do to prepare for and contribute to a seminar, the better. Here are some tips to help you make the most of – and give the most to – your seminars.

Try to be on top of as much of the reading as possible. You may have been able to do some reading in advance of term via the vacation reading lists. But in any case, doing the reading allocated for each particular week is necessary, otherwise its difficult to contribute or feel interested and engaged. Think about what you have been reading; maybe have some questions noted down, or contributions to the discussion ready. Don’t worry if you have not managed to complete the reading. It’s still better to attend the seminar and be part of a discussion than to miss it. Think about what you don’t understand. Consider what you find interesting, problematic, striking, strange? What aspects of the reading or topic would you find most helpful to address? What would most develop your understanding of the text (whether its a performance or a piece of writing)? What feels most important to discuss?

It’s an obvious one, but be sure to have your assigned text or other learning materials with you in the seminar. And be aware that some tutors may be frustrated if your copy of the text is on your mobile phone, a tablet or a laptop. Hard copy is always preferable because you can mark it up and move through it more easily for the purposes of discussion in class.

Seminars live or die by student participation. In seminars we learn through talking through issues, debating, questioning and listening to others. Think of group discussion as a conversation, guided by the tutor, but to which you can contribute however you want to. This is where your preparation comes in - perhaps you have a question or some thoughts to share with your group, and it doesn’t matter how well formulated it is. Seminars help you learning to articulate your ideas. But participation might also involve: listening to others, asking a question, commenting on another’s response, drawing attention to an aspect of the text, agreeing or adding to someone else’s idea, etc.

Seminar Dynamic
Do what you can to build a good seminar ‘dynamic’ – your group becomes what you make it. Little things make a big difference here. Show respect for your seminar peers. Arrive early to give yourself a chance to chat a little with others and get to know them – it’s easier to talk and learn with people you already know. During the seminar, remember that body language reveals a lot and can be disrespectful or off-putting for others. (Eye contact and nodding are good! Yawning and staring out of the window or being lost in your mobile are less good.)

Think about your seminar role or persona
If you find talking really easy, do you need to learn to give way to others at times? Do you need to learn to listen? What can you do to invite others in? (e.g. ‘One of the things I think is x, but others might not agree’. ‘I have a question I’ve been thinking about, what does the group think about x?’ ‘I’m interested in this bit of the text, what do the rest of you think?’). If you find it harder to contribute, show that you are following and participating through your body language. Make eye contact with the tutor or raise your hand when you’ve got something to say if there are several of you wanting to contribute. Initially, you might find it easier to ask a question than to offer your own opinion.

If you use a laptop or tablet, do not spend the seminar isolated behind the screen, tapping away at notes, without engaging in seminar discussion. Students are often totally distracted by social media and this is bad for seminar concentration and for contribution. This is a big no-no which could well irritate your fellow students and tutor. Some tutors prefer students not to use laptops at all; they will communicate this to groups individually and you should be respectful of this. The same goes for making notes by hand: yes, make the occasional note to remind yourself of what is being said, but seminars are not for passive note-taking: they are for discussing, contributing, participating. 

Build seminar confidence
Some students struggle to find their feet with seminars. There are some things you can do to help yourself here. Firstly, don’t skip seminars – you’ll soon find you feel even less at home in the group having missed sessions, and you can quickly feel left behind. Remember: attendance builds confidence, so that’s the first step. Show up! If you find speaking to a big group hard, start by making use of opportunities to speak in small-group situations (often in seminars you are broken down into smaller groups). Try your ideas out there before offering them to the group. Volunteer to be the person who feeds ideas back from the small group to the whole group. Again, if you aren’t ready yet to offer a point, show that you are listening to others – body language goes a long way in communicating so be aware of how you are behaving or what you are projecting in the room. Nod your agreement, make eye contact when others are talking. Don’t be afraid to ask a question, of another student or the tutor. Remember, saying ‘I don’t understand that point’ is always allowed – if you didn’t understand something, chances are someone else didn’t either! Often saying so is useful for the whole group. It also helps a tutor know if something is still unclear. Try to find yourself a seminar-buddy: someone to chat to before or after the seminar. Finally, you can always have a word with the tutor after the seminar or in their office hour or drop them an email. They will be sympathetic and you can discuss ways in which they might help if you are struggling.

Making the most of workshops

At least half of the curriculum in Drama is taught through workshops and seminars as this is an intrinsic, foundational and dynamic way that theatre and performance can be taught/learnt as a subject. Many of you will already know this from your experience at school: in Drama, practice and theory go together. Workshops are a place to explore and try out ideas, some of them related to theories, concepts and ideas you have studied for seminars (connected to certain readings, theories of theatre, artists, directors, etc.) and some of them may be distinctive and separate.

Workshops are led by tutors as well as visiting artists who make theatre/performance and whose work you may see or be studying. You may be asked to prepare texts for workshops just as for seminars, or to watch something, or to create practical material (or written material) to bring into the session. This might be in groups or pairs, rarely on your own. As with seminars, preparation is key to the success of your experience of a workshop. Do the necessary preparation you have been asked to do, so that you can fully benefit from the workshop. If you know that you will be working with your body in a physical way (not all workshops require this, as some involve writing for theatre, etc.) then you must come wearing appropriate clothing. This means clothing that is loose and flexible and not restrictive, not overly revealing (that can be embarrassing for you or for others working with you so respect that) and with appropriate shoes (trainers or other shoes with a soft sole).

Workshops expect you to be both critically and creatively engaged. Most of the time you will be broken down into small groups or pairs and expected to work on an idea, a prompt, a text, idea or a task practically, and to then share what you make with the rest of the group after a period of time working in small groups. Participation is therefore also key. If you are shy and lacking in confidence, the best way to improve this is by participating with other members of the group in order to improve your confidence. Practical work requires training and commitment, much like developing your academic critical and analytical skills. When you are performing and sharing practical material with each other, the emphasis is not on virtuosity or acting skills but on exploring ideas in collaboration with others. Learn how to be generous and supportive and how to work well in a group. One of the key skills you can learn through workshops is how to be a good collaborator and a team player. This doesn’t always mean leading; neither does it mean holding back while others do all the leg work! Try to work on improving both listening and speaking up, both leading and hanging back in order to allow others to come forward. The important thing is to contribute to practical exploration and to engage mentally and physically with what you are being asked to do.

Workshop Dynamic. As with seminars, your group becomes what you (each) make it. As well as creating practical material, you will often be asked to respond or feed back on what you see. Learning how to respond productively and constructively is an important part of learning experientially and in response to and in dialogue with others’ ideas (this doesn’t simply mean saying that everything you see is good or that you ‘like it’.) As in seminars, discussion is where you will learn to articulate ideas and respond to material, either that you have (collectively) read, watched or made, or that professional groups and artists have created. Try to develop critical and creative ways to respond – instead of always beginning ‘I like x’ or ‘I didn’t like y’ take a moment to reflect beyond that. If you ‘like’ something, think about why or how something works beyond that initial response: what makes something pleasing or satisfying to watch? Why does something challenge you or feel difficult (i.e., you don’t like it)? If it is challenging, is that necessarily a bad thing, or does it lead you to understand something in a new or entirely different way? Developing a critical vocabulary around making, watching and responding to practical performance material is as important as developing critical and analytical skills in response to written texts.

As with lectures and seminars, remember that attendance builds confidence and a healthy group dynamic. Show up! Try not to miss any of your timetabled classes. If you miss workshops, there really is no way of catching up as the learning is experiential – you can’t simply go back and read up on it, or ‘catch up’ by looking at someone’s notes or the materials online. Attending all of the workshops you have timetabled (as well as the extra ones with visiting artists) is a critical and vital, dynamic part of your learning experience. As your modules will often be partially assessed through practical work you will be assigned to create in small groups, attendance is key in order not to compromise your own and others’ success, and so is putting in rehearsal and preparation time outside of scheduled workshop hours. You will be given plenty of instruction about how to do this (how and when you can book spaces, etc.). Rehearsal is a great way to build confidence, create work independently and get to know your peers. 

Making the most of lectures 

Your job in a lecture is to be an active listener, to make notes on what is helpful, and absorb what you can. Do not try to write everything down, but try not to slip into a passive mode where the lecture just washes over you. Think about what is being said, and whether or not you agree. Can you make connections with the lecture and your own reading? Make notes as an aid to following the talk, and as an aid to remembering key points, or thoughts which occur to you during the lecture. What questions do you have at the end of the lecture? Some lecturers may invite questions, or you may be able to reformulate a question or response to the lecture as part of a contribution to a seminar on the same topic.

After a lecture, you could talk through your response with a friend. Look through your notes, add in anything else you can remember that you didn’t write down at the time, or any other thoughts.  You may wish to get in the habit of looking back at lecture notes before the seminar on that topic.

RECORDINGS of lectures   
Lectures are often but not always recorded; if they are, they will be available on the module Study Direct site a week or so after being delivered, for revision purposes. Listening to a recorded lecture is not a substitute for attending. Please note: We do not allow the recording of seminars or other teaching sessions by students for a number of reasons, not least that discussion would likely be inhibited if recordings were being made.