I’m aware that I’ve not mentioned my course, Software Engineering (the same as Computer Science in first year), much so far in my posts, so I should probably pass on a couple of the more academic anecdotes I’ve picked up since October. However, in keeping with how I sometimes approached coursework this year... well... I’ll get on to it later!
I write this at the end of a long but worthwhile week with my theatre company (who’re just a group of friends) in Chester. The ‘Sozinho Occasional Theatre Company’ (nope, I can’t explain the name!) comes together once a year to rehearse and perform a show, usually a musical number, all within the space of one hectic week. 2012’s annual offering, Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Pacific Overtures’, proved the most challenging yet, as the complexity of its Eastern-styled music began to wreak havoc in rehearsals towards the end of Tuesday when we tried putting scripts down! However, after a concerted effort on Wednesday to learn lines, rhythms and melodies, and following some serious costume scouring as we attempted to recreate the world of 19th century Japan, the show’s performances on Saturday and Sunday went swimmingly, with a great time had by all.
It’s always a surreal experience making the transition between life in Chester and life at Southampton as, due to the considerable distance between them, they’re completely different entities. But I felt that still being able to take part in an event which has become something of a routine was reassuring proof that, although the world keeps turning when you’re away, your friendships remain constant, and you can easily slot back in at any time. Plus, people often have a few good stories to tell upon their return!
Belting out something resembling a song – whether or not it was the correct lyrics or tune, at the correct time, I couldn’t tell you!
... Right... well... in keeping with how I sometimes approached my course over the last year, I’ve procrastinated enough, I guess!
Time to talk about everyone’s favourite topic: studying!
I jest about putting things off, but this year I have found it a very easy trap to fall into. As a serial procrastinator at school (who fortunately works best when under pressure), I suspected that managing my course’s workload, in particular its numerous deadlines, would be one of my bigger personal challenges upon starting university. This largely proved the case, as the practical elements of Software Engineering, in particular programming, led to one coursework assignment being set after another. To earn the grades necessary to get a place at Southampton in the first place requires deep self-motivation, but when the distractions are as numerous as those on offer when you actually get here, a great deal of drive indeed is required to resist temptation, put away the free bus pass, sit down with a pen and paper, and fulfil all the demands made of you in time!
In that regard, I can only say that, over the course of the year, I found the earlier I started the work, the less stressful it would prove in the long-term and, ultimately, the more polished the end product would be. For example, out of the two major programming assignments I received last semester, I gained a higher mark in the one which I started three weeks (instead of one) before its deadline. This was because the extra time allowed me to play around with, and compare, different solutions to aspects of the assignment, whereas when I only had seven days (due to other deadlines piling up), I had to concentrate purely on fulfilling the coursework’s specification to as high a standard as possible – the bare minimum. Indeed, when my interactive crossword application decided to stop working at midnight, ahead of a 4pm deadline, I certainly wished I’d had more time for testing (luckily I fixed it in time)!
It’s easy enough to say that, of course, but sometimes it can be difficult to make enough time to do all of the work justice. Nonetheless, the marks I received for my coursework assignments over the year were generally reflective of the amount I had prepared for, and read around, them, something which wasn’t always the case with high school coursework (which, for example, might be a more bespoke or specific task with less potential for demonstrating creativity or independent flair). Oh, and yes, the flexibility of university lifestyle does let you work through the night (especially if you utilise the power of napping as frequently as I did!), but if you can avoid feeling like a zombie the day after, it’s probably worth sticking to daylight hours!
If you’re coming into your first year, you’ll hear the magic phrase '40%' banded around a lot, as this is the mark you have to attain to pass modules. The University is aware it’s most people’s first taste of almost completely independent learning, so the 40% threshold allows Freshers to get to grips with it, discovering and forming their own academic routines and systems; it’s a unique opportunity, reducing the pressure slightly on students, which I’d encourage everyone to make the most of. On the flip side, although it encouraged me to take a few liberties here and there over the year and experiment with different learning techniques (including one “cram for a day” revision session which I luckily got away with), I’d advise being wary of sailing too close to the wind with it; after all, August resits (or “referrals”) are not conducive to a relaxing holiday! Furthermore, some subjects offer scholarships to higher achievers, and the modules studied do form the core of your course, so it’s worth your while learning the basic material at the very least. Any further aspirations beyond that are up to you.
I was fortunate enough to come away from my first year with a First average overall, whilst still balancing work with play and learning the pros and cons of various note taking and revision methods. I move forward into second year, which does count towards my final degree classification, now aware of the importance of keeping on top of course notes so they don’t mount up before the exam period, just by doing an hour or two’s lecture reviewing every day (as the student specimen who understands concepts in lectures at first sight is a rare one indeed!), and the need to start assignments as early as possible, particularly at times when the sea of deadlines is calm – they can rapidly pile up as well!
I think that it’s also worth mentioning the change in subject matter density and, to an extent, difficulty I experienced moving from A Levels to Higher Education. I was fortunate enough to get quite high grades on results day and thus, when I arrived at Southampton, I was still hoping to achieve 90%+ in as much as possible. What I didn’t bear in mind, of course, was the fact that, having achieved similar results, so would everybody else! You’ll find that everyone on your course will have their various strengths and weaknesses in different modules – there’s no ‘big fish, small pond’ mentality so to speak like they’re might be in some smaller A Level classes. Furthermore, by getting to know your course mates as early as possible, you can complement one another’s strengths when it comes to getting the work done by helping someone else; this was the case for me when, in exchange for some help with the more complex mathematical material from a friend who’d taken Further Maths A Level, I explained some architectural principles I’d picked up during the course of my Computing A Level.
So what, and how much, are you actually expected to learn? Well, before I’d arrived I’d had the joys of three graduated siblings harping on to me about just how much work I had in store, especially reading – and this concern was further compounded by a letter during Freshers’ Week asking me to pick up the following:
A little light reading!
However, throughout the year many of these proved to be there for reference and background purposes only, rather than comprehensive guides as to what you should know. Nevertheless, if you have a moment spare it’s great to pick one up and read a random chapter, just to learn something new.
The depth of the course books also has the added advantage that, if you’re struggling with a particular module’s content or revision notes, ‘swallowing the textbook’ means it’s unlikely you’ll encounter a topic for the first time in an exam – be warned, however, it’s time-consuming! Just as with any qualification, you’ll find areas of the syllabus which perk your interests, and others you’ll firmly place in the ‘learn for the exam’ category; in Software Engineering, however, much of the content was skill-based, which potentially could form the foundation for future modules, so I’m planning to practise it later this summer.
So, just as it’s your university experience, affording you as many opportunities and as much independence as you desire, it’s also your degree, in your chosen subject area - so learn from it what you want!
Phew, that’s the serious stuff done with! My next post should be my final reflection on my first year, as I reminisce about some of the marvellous, intriguing and exciting things I experienced over the course of the year, and then I’m off to the Olympic Games for a week! Expect a bombardment of photographs...