Skills Hub

Study skills for international students

If this is your first time studying in the UK it is likely that the teaching and learning methods will be different from what you are used to. This page provides some advice and links to resources to help you prepare for studying at Sussex.

As an international student at Sussex you will have already been contacted by The International Student Support Office, who can help you throughout your time at Sussex.   

If you are registered as a full-time international or European student you can get help with academic development and English language from Sussex Centre for Language Studies. To find out more about workshops, drop-in sessions and tutorials subscribe to our Academic Development site on Study Direct.

Student Perspectives

Listen to international students talking about their experiences of studying at Sussex:

Studying in the UK

The UK university education system is based on a ‘constructivist’ model of learning that places emphasis on you ‘constructing’ your own knowledge about a topic rather than being taught what you need to know. Instead of learning what is contained in textbooks and reproducing it in the exams you will be expected to take responsibility for your learning and form your own understanding of the subject.

Learning about new and different academic conventions in the UK is relevant even if you have always been a particularly good student. You will want to do just as well in your UK degree, so look out for these differences and make sure you understand them well before any deadlines when you need to present or submit your work.

What is expected of a university student in the UK?

In the UK you are expected to develop your own understanding of the subject and a good student is someone who is able to do this well and can demonstrate that they have done so.

At MSc / MA level you are expected to do similar things to those undertaken by academic staff, i.e. research debates and produce your own well–considered position.

How do I study independently?

Much of your assessment in the UK will evaluate the extent to which you have developed your own understanding of the subject rather than your ability to repeat the facts that you have been told. It is likely that you will spend more hours on private or independent study than you are used to, and fewer hours being taught in the classroom. Study, in that sense, is much more of an individual activity and you will need to manage your own time so that you do your own reading and research, are prepared for your classes and complete your assignments on time.

Get more help with time management and planning your work.

What is the role of the university teacher in the UK?

Universities in the UK have a dual role. They are places for teaching students but they are also places where the academics spend considerable time doing research. One benefit of this research–led environment is that you will often be taught about the cutting edge of ideas in the subject, but it might also mean that your professor has less time to spend with you than you spent with your previous teachers at school or university. You may spend more time interacting with Associate Tutors than with your professors.

The role of the university teacher is to help you to develop your own understanding. This means that your tutors will not tell you what to think or give you the answers but will ask you questions, start discussions and suggests relevant readings.

How should I address my tutor?

At Sussex it is customary to address academic staff by their first name. If you feel this is too informal you can find out their correct tittle and last name from the Sussex website e.g. Dr Smith, Mrs Smith or Professor Smith. (Note: In the UK 'professor' is not a general term for academic teaching staff).

Your tutors will usually have office hours when you can go and see them if you need to discuss your work or they may suggest that you email them to arrange a meeting. There are plenty of people to talk to at Sussex who can help you if you have questions or need advice. Don't be embarrassed to ask for help whenever you need it.

What is the teaching like in the UK?

There is a variety of teaching formats in the UK (e.g. lectures, seminars, tutorials, workshops and labs) and teaching methods will depend on the subject you are studying. However, you will probably have seminars or discussion-based classes, which tend to be smaller and are more interactive. In seminars and classes you will be expected to participate in discussions or present your own project work. You are also responsible for your own learning – so you need to make sure that you use the opportunities provided for you, for example in the library. Just because there are times when there are no lectures timetabled, this doesn’t mean you have time ‘off’.

Your teachers might check to see how well you are progressing by asking you questions in classes. They will normally welcome you asking questions of your own. 

How should I prepare for seminars?

Contributing to discussions and debates in seminars, workshops and tutorials is an important part of learning in the UK. If this is a new type of learning for you the links below will help you to prepare for your seminars:

How do I participate in seminars?

If you are worried about speaking in seminars you may be reassured to know that you are not alone. Students are often nervous about talking aloud in front of the class. Your confidence will improve with practice, for more advice see:


How do I develop my own understanding of the subject?

In order to develop your understanding of your subject you will need good research skills so that you can identify and locate suitable sources that go well beyond either the textbook or a quick internet search. The library offers specialist sessions on how to take advantage of the resources the university has to offer, and you will learn how to access and search databases and use the library collections. These research skills will prove invaluable for your degree and for your subsequent professional life.

Something that might be new to you is the use of academic journals, which most British academics believe to be the best source of up-to-date, reliable (peer-reviewed) information. Journal access is available only to registered students (you can’t buy these journals in a shop). A good library with extensive academic journal access is one of the key benefits of studying at a university.

How do I improve my research skills?

Whereas you may previously have got most of your information from one or two textbooks, the UK model presumes that you will read more widely on a subject and be able to use these different sources. A key role for the Librarians is to help you find suitable literature. If you are struggling, go and ask them – they will be delighted to show you around and explain things. Access to academic journals is often online, but you will need a password and you will need to familiarise yourself with how to search the relevant journal databases.

For more help with Library skills see our pages on Reading and research and the Library's information about Workshops and training.

How do I get a good grade in my essay?

The most common form of assessment for demonstrating your understanding of a subject is an essay, which might be a long piece of coursework (several thousand words) or essay type examination questions. Writing long essays is a skill that you may have to learn how to do. The best way to develop any skill is to do as much practice as possible, so that you can learn from mistakes along the way.

If you are not used to writing long essays in English, you should take advantage of the support services offered by the Sussex Centre for Language Studies.  The pre-sessional courses and academic development support will teach you about UK academic conventions and give you the opportunity to practice and develop your essay writing skills.

Get more help with Critical Essays, Reports and Dissertations.

What is referencing?

A central part of academic writing convention in the UK is about acknowledging other people’s words or ideas. This process is known as referencing. Referencing is important because it shows that you are not claiming other peoples’ ideas as your own but that you have read other sources and used these to develop your own understanding. As you are using many sources, you will need to clearly indicate in your written work where the ideas come from. If you do not properly acknowledge the sources you have used in your essay you may be accused of plagiarism. Plagiarism is a serious form of academic misconduct for which there are strict penalties.

Make sure you understand how to reference your work correctly and how to avoid academic misconduct (such as plagiarism).

What can I do if I am having problems?

As well as the tutors for your modules you will have an Academic Advisor who can provide you with advice and guidance. Academic staff have special times when you can see them without an appointment (known as office hours). You can always also make an appointment to see staff outside of their office hours.

Sussex provides a whole range of support services to help you do well while studying (see the list of services on the people to talk to page). All these resources are free and are there to help you but, in contrast to what you might be used to, it is up to you to contact the support services and ask for help.

It is OK to ask for help and your concerns will be kept confidential. Remember that many students will have struggled with similar problems to the ones you are facing.

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Review students' essays to see real examples of what is expected at a UK university.

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Try using the Turnitin - Originality Reports tool in Study Direct to check your draft assignments for any text matches.

Please note that documents which have been uploaded to this site will not count as a submission and will not be seen by your marker or tutor.

Here are some links and resources you might find useful

Getting ahead as an international student  - A study guide written by Dave Burnapp (2009) published by Open University Press.

Prepare for Success A website especially designed to help international students prepare for study in the UK.

Using English for Academic Purposes UEfAP A guide for international students with lots of language exercises and quizzes, developed by Andy Gillett of the University of Hertfordshire.

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