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How do university exams and assessments work? A guide for parents

One of the challenges of transitioning from high school to university is the nature of assessments and exams. They can be quite different to what your child is used to, so it can take a while for them to get the hang of things. In their first year, lecturers will be quite understanding, but they will be expected to learn how to present their work in the right way.

Knowing how assessments and exams are structured and graded will also help you support your child in their studies. Here’s our guide to how they work.

University exams and assignments work differently to high school, so it pays to understand the differences.

Being aware of how university assignments and exams work will help your child succeed in their papers.

Key components of university assignments

Students receive information about the assignments they need to complete for each paper at the start of the semester from their lecturer, who will also make this information available online. Each assignment will be broken down into several components with important information, which may include:

  • An overview of what the assignment involves.
  • When the assignment is due.
  • How much the assignment will contribute to the final paper grade, for example 40% out of 100%.
  • The word limit to stick to (if applicable).
  • How to submit the assignment. This could be via Dropbox or a different platform.
  • Learning goals and outcomes explaining what the objectives of the assignment are and what will be achieved upon completing it successfully.

Writing at university

The type of assignments your child will be expected to complete at university will depend on the programme and papers they have chosen. However, no matter what their programme is, at some point or another they’ll be required to produce something in written form, and academic writing standards will apply. Students are expected to thoroughly research their subject matter and provide references to show they are giving credit where credit is due.

A key part of academic writing is referencing correctly. Whenever you use material that comes from another source, this needs to be acknowledged. Without proper referencing, a student runs the risk of being caught out for plagiarism. At AUT, we use the APA referencing style, and students can get more detail on how to use this properly at the library or by using the resources available online.

At university, students are expected to abide by academic writing standards when submitting exams and assignments.

Academic writing is an art that may take some time to perfect.

What is plagiarism?

Plagiarism is taking credit for someone else’s work by passing it off as your own. This could involve copying and pasting writing from an article you’ve read, or giving an argument someone has made but making it out to be your own opinion. Copying the work of others without giving them credit is illegal and taken very seriously. If your child is found to have plagiarised the work of someone else, it could result in them failing a paper or being removed from their programme entirely. Submission procedures for assignments and exams are set up to prevent it from happening. It's worth reading up on plagiarism and encouraging your child to do the same so they are fully informed.

“Plagiarism is taken very seriously and not tolerated at university.”

Time management for university work

You may notice that your child’s timetable appears quite empty compared to their high school one. That’s because class time (lectures and tutorials) only takes up a few hours for each paper. However, on top of this, students are expected to complete assignments and study for exams. All up, a student studying full-time (four papers a semester) is likely to need 40 hours a week for both classwork and study time – the equivalent of a full-time job. There is no time specifically allotted for this; they’ll need to manage their time well in order to ensure they complete everything by the required deadlines.

How university exams work

Just like at school, there are set periods during the year that are devoted to exams. Exams are designed to test a student’s knowledge and understanding of an entire semester’s worth of work, often requiring them to put theory into practice. During the exam period (you can check when this is by looking at your university’s important dates) there are no classes, and students are expected to study hard in preparation.

To prepare properly for their exams, students will need to stay on top of their workload throughout the semester. It’s easy to leave things until the last minute, but they’ll save themselves a lot of stress and improve their chances of success if they take notes during lectures, ask questions and are proactive in their approach to study during the semester. Sometimes copies of past exams will be made available to help students prepare.

Some papers don’t have exams and students will be required to complete major projects or assignments instead. Other papers have a mix of assignments and a final sit-down exam. This information should be provided to students at the beginning of the semester.

The best university exam preparation involves starting early and studying consistently.

Students should try to stay on top of their workload throughout the semester.

Assistance with assignments and exams

It’s completely normal for first-year university students to take some time to get used to the difference in the structure of their exams and assessments. However, if your child is really struggling, there is support available to help them get on top of their workload and produce work that gets them a passing grade.

Students should ask their lecturers about anything they find unclear in terms of assignment or exam instructions or components. If they need help with completing the actual work, it’s time to turn to the university’s academic support services. The AUT library provides assistance with writing essays, doing oral presentations and other forms of assignments your child may encounter. They have online resources students can check out and also offer face-to-face advice in the form of workshops on referencing and academic writing.

For assistance completing assignments, students should turn to the university’s support services.

Students should turn to their lecturers for any admin questions relating to assignments or exams.

Top tips to help your teen with assignments and exam preparation

  • Expect less communication: When your teen tells you it’s exam time, you know they’re going to be busy. Don’t worry if you don’t hear from them as regularly as usual – they've got lots of work to do and important things to remember so they can do well in their exams.
  • Start early: Encourage your child to be organised right from the beginning of the semester. Exam preparation starts as soon as the paper does, and if your child is on top of their study, they won’t be cramming at the last minute.
  • Don’t do the work for them: Your child is responsible for their own workload and the submission of their   assignments and exams. While you can lend an objective eye over their work, it’s up to them to create it and you shouldn’t do the actual work for them.
  • Seek advice: If you feel your teen is struggling with assessments or their study workload, encourage them to seek   help as soon as possible. Waiting until the end of the semester when exams are fast approaching might be too late, but if they get onto things early they can implement good habits.

Don’t worry if your child doesn’t adjust to everything  right away. Part of starting university is figuring out how everything works, including how to properly present and submit work. As long as they work hard from the beginning of the semester and seek help when they need it, your child shouldn’t have any problems with assignments or exams.


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