Four differences between university and high school homework

Michael Lisinski


Many incoming students have fears about the workload in university, but I'm here to help!

To help crush those fears and prepare future students for the next step in their academic journeys, I've outlined four distinct differences between schoolwork in university and high school. If you're a high school student concerned about post-secondary homework, read on!

1. You choose your subject matter

High school gives you an all-around education during your coming-of-age years. The school system wants to make sure that almost everyone leaves with a basic grasp of language, science, math, the arts, and so on.

This is a good goal, but it does carry the added downside that many students will not excel at every single area they’re tested in. When I was in high school, I received good marks in all of my subjects except for math and as a result, my math marks brought my average down.

Gif of Sheldon from Big Bang Theory saying "I am a man of Science!"

In university, you can focus on what you’re interested in and what you’re good at.

If you take the Forensic Psychology program, it goes without saying that you won't deal with the same material as those taking Nuclear Engineering, and vice versa.

It's true that there's more overlap between different programs than there used to be, but it's still likely that you'll play to your strengths in the program you choose. And while you may also take electives that fall outside of your program, the choice of which classes to take will remain your own.

2. You’re more independent

Often in high school, especially in grades 9 to 10, your teachers will constantly remind you of upcoming due dates and make sure that everyone attends class every day.

They'll also monitor your personal progress according to set criteria, as evident by their feedback in those parent-teacher meetings everyone loves.

In university, this is almost completely inverted. You usually aren't directly punished if you skip class, your professors may not remind you of due dates and they certainly won't ask to meet with your parents to discuss your progress.

gif of Sheldon reading a comic hidden behind a book

Instead, these responsibilities are left to you. You'll quickly learn that it's in your best interest to attend class, that you should keep track of your projects' due dates and that your progress is your own to monitor.

But don't think this independence means that you can't ask for help. You're independent, but you're never abandoned!

Ontario Tech has faculty-specific academic advisors who are happy to answer any questions and concerns during your time here. Also, many of our programs have smaller class sizes, which means professors are more available to offer support, advice and extra resources when asked. 

3. You must do more in-depth research

High school provides an introduction to the world of research, but unfortunately, high school students don't enjoy the same access to academic resources that university students do.

The main avenues for research in high school are textbooks provided by teachers, the all-too-familiar Google search and whatever can be found in the high school or local library.

This is fine for high school work but in university, you'll often need something a little more academically rigorous.

gif of Sheldon asking "Do you have any books about making friends?"

You usually buy textbooks for your classes, but you must go beyond citing these if you want to create a well-researched project. You'll also need to let go of the idea that if something exists, Google will be able to supply it for you.

Your best sources for information will be academic books and articles, and you will be able to find these through the university's library, available on-campus and online.

The library website gives you access to an incredible amount of academic articles and databases, most of which will be blocked with a paywall if you try to find them through a search engine like Google Scholar.

4. You’re often asked questions that don't have answers yet

This was the greatest difference that I noticed between high school and university. My high school teachers would often assign work that asked questions with specific, right-or-wrong answers.

Teachers who didn't subscribe to this model seemed somehow rebellious, as though allowing learning to be fun and creative involved breaking some kind of rule!

gif of Sheldon looking scared saying "The horror!"

In university, this changed. In my Introduction to Communication class, our professor would ask us questions about how we can improve our society, the role of technology in the world, changes in global culture and many other things.

Our replies weren't supposed to conform to built-in answers, because no certain answers exist for these questions. The class was designed to get us thinking in new ways, not to test how many facts we had been able to memorize.

Perhaps most importantly, I felt as though participating in these conversations could be the first step in helping change the world. Because there are no definitive answers to many of the questions your professors will ask you, you will be taking steps into new intellectual territory.

These are just a few of the differences between high school and university schoolwork. I am sure you will encounter more than this, but hopefully, this gives you a little insight to help you feel less scared and more prepared. 

Be bold, future student, and go forward with enthusiasm!

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