Home > Student life

The differences between high school and tertiary education

The prospect of finishing high school and starting tertiary education is a daunting one for many students. You’re forced to leave the friends, teachers and surroundings you have spent years with for a whole new environment. Although this can be a little overwhelming, it can also be an exciting and rewarding time — and, after the stress of Year 12, a welcome change for many. To give you an idea of what to expect in this transition, we’ve put together a list of differences between high school and tertiary education.

You will need to be more independent

With the move into post-compulsory education comes more freedom: uniforms are a thing of the past, you can come and go when you please and can choose subjects that interest you. But keep in mind that greater freedom brings about greater responsibility, which means that you are responsible for staying on top of assessments and turning up to classes — and no one will chase you up if you miss a class or forget to hand in an assignment. You might also need to manage competing priorities such as your part-time job and new social circle.

You will have to adjust to a new learning and teaching style

There are a number of different class structures at tertiary level, including lectures, tutorials, laboratories, practical workshops and field work. Lectures consist of the lecturer speaking to a room full of students (in some courses, as many as 300). Tutorials are much smaller and feature a more interactive and personal style of learning. Workshops, laboratories and field work allow students time to obtain certain practical skills and knowledge. Instead of studying the same subjects for a full year, subjects change each study period. You will also find that learning is more self-directed, which means that you will be expected to do a significant amount of independent study and research in addition to attending classes.

You may encounter different forms of assessment

The types of assessment you’ll complete will vary depending on your course, but they are likely to be different to what you experienced in high school. For many fields of study, such as business and science, the major focus of assessment will be mid-semester and end-of-semester exams, with an assignment or two along the way. Other courses, such as media or design, may rely heavily on group work, featuring projects or presentations. Some courses may require you to hand in a portfolio of work at the end of semester, which may include final designs or even pieces of writing for journalism students. The frequency of assessment can also take some getting used to, with some subjects prescribing weekly assessment tasks.

You will probably have a lot less contact hours

Unlike at school, where study is broken up across four terms, tertiary institutions may use a semester or trimester system. Each semester consists of approximately 12 weeks of classes plus exam periods. You may have studied five or six subjects at school; at tertiary level, you generally only study four subjects per semester if you are enrolled full time. The number of contact hours (hours you spend in classes each week) varies depending on the course you’re studying, but most students find they spend much less time at their tertiary institution then they did at school, often only two or three days a week. It is expected that students undertake further study at home — catching up on set readings, studying for exams or completing assignments. This extra time also gives students the chance to work part time or gain course-related work experience, such as an internship.

You will be surrounded by a wide range of different people

In school, your classmates were all roughly the same age and mostly from the same area. At tertiary level, students of all different ages and backgrounds will form your peer group. Some may come straight from high school while others will be mature age students returning to study. There may be some students who have transferred from a different institution or course, some who have completed a VET course or other pathway and some who may have already spent time working in the industry. The great thing about studying at tertiary level is that you will be surrounded by people who are equally passionate about your field as you are, and who may have similar hobbies and interests.

Useful links