How to Make the Most of an Unconditional Offer

Unconditional offers of a university place are controversial. They seem like a good thing, but critics are concerned:

  • Pupils firmly accepting a place may not bother with their A-levels after that;
  • A change of heart can be hard to deal with once you’re committed to a place. You’ve locked in.

Get your head around those two issues and there’s not much to lose.

Unconditional Offers

In 2012, nearly 92% of predicted grades were accurate to within one grade. Half the predictions were not correct, but still not too far off. Given that, an unconditional offer based on predicted grades is still statistically worth a punt for universities.

When you’re lucky enough to get an unconditional offer, how do you make the best decision for you?

  1. Only make a firm acceptance if you truly want to go to that university – If you choose to lock in to a course and you end up getting the grades needed for a place you would have preferred, you may regret accepting an unconditional offer. Some universities may let you back out, but that would take time and you may end up missing out on what you wanted anyway. Only commit to an unconditional offer if your mind is completely made up.
  2. Don’t write off the A-levels – You may be tempted to relax if you know the place is guaranteed. That’s all the more reason to enjoy your A-levels and see where they take you. And a CV with very poor A-level grades will make you look less capable than you really are. Relax so you can do your best, not so you can stop bothering.
  3. Make sure you know what’s being asked of you – Unconditional offers often stipulate that the offer only stands if you make the university your firm choice. On rare occasions, you will be allowed to make your insurance choice an unconditional place. See what you can do and choose accordingly.
  4. Plan ahead with lots of time and ease – Once you accept an unconditional offer, your place is guaranteed. Set aside 15-30 minutes a week to find out more about the university, the area, the accommodation, the activities, the subject, the initial reading, and everything you can think of that you want to know. Read up, research and prepare now so you don’t have to do it later. When you hit campus, you’ll have more exciting things to enjoy.
  5. Remember the life-skills! – The more time you have to learn about laundry, cooking, cleaning and tidying, money-management, and organising your time, the better. They may be chores now, but that’s better than learning to do it all when you’ve got other stuff on your mind. As a bonus, your new uni mates will be amazed at your superhero abilities to do everything like a natural. Just so long as they don’t start asking you to do all their washing for them…

If you’re serious about preparing for your degree, make sure you check out the blog archives. And don’t forget to sign up to my TUBthump mailing list, starting soon!

Contact Hours Should Be About Quality As Well As Quantity

How much importance should contact hours be given? What do these hours mean to each student? Hours vary between subjects and also between institutions. Do we search for a sweet spot, try for as many hours as possible, or look beyond contact time completely?

Nicola Dandrige, CEO of Universities UK, says that contact hours have changed over time and, as a result, represent too narrow a focus in isolation:

“What we are hearing is the importance of teaching and learning and universities are responding to that in more imaginative ways than just contact hours.” [Source]

From this viewpoint, hours will vary considerably as institutions adopt different approaches to their teaching methods.

But students have become accustomed to viewing contact hours as a good way of working out value for money. A QAA report on student expectations found that contact time was considered the most important, if not the only, cost relating to tuition fees.

HEPI found that “those with least contact were least satisfied“, while NUS research found that some students look to contact hours as representing value for money. One student argued:

“If I am only in for three hours a week, why should I pay so much money? You want to tbe at uni and interacting with lecturers.”

Want to control time? (photo by MattysFlicks - CC BY 2.0)

Want to control time? (photo by MattysFlicks – CC BY 2.0)

Comparisons between students is easy. Even when there is good reason for a contrast in contact time between students, an imbalance does not make for a happy reaction. Take one such reply in the 2013 Student Academic Survey by Which? and HEPI:

“I’m a third year history student and only get three hours a week contact time. And yet I pay the same price as someone who has 12 hours per week.”

Nevertheless, the Which? report states that “contact hours have risen by just 20 minutes per week since 2006″. And while student expectations are understandably on the up, needs and expectations are two very different things.

The 2012 Sodexo University Lifestyle Survey found:

“…for those with fewer than 10 hours of lectures a week, 21% felt the debt was too high while the figure was just 10% for those who spent over 21 hours in lectures.”

But is it all about spending longer in lectures?

I have previously argued that not all contact hours are equal and that the term ‘contact hours’ has no context in isolation. It might be easy to break down the number of hours you spend each week into a monetary value, but it counts for nothing if the contact isn’t helpful.

Thankfully, students do appear to seek quality contact far more than lengthier contact. The number of hours may or may not be enough, but the most important factor on the minds of students has little to do with time. Take this year’s HEPI-HEA Student Academic Experience Survey:

“…two thirds of contact experienced by students was in class sizes of 16 students or more. There is a striking decline in the proportion of students perceiving educational benefits as the size of class increases.”

The report goes on to say that while a third of students wished for more contact hours, “…the findings here suggest that increasing the quality of contact (which is more probable in smaller classes) is likely to be more effective in improving the student learning experience than simply increasing contact hours”.

QAA reported similar findings:

“…we found [students] wanted more ‘close support’, through contact time in small seminars and tutorials, and definitely not more lecture hours.”

The Student Room asked students how much 1 to 1 time they expected to have with a tutor each week. More than half of the prospective students surveyed expected between one and five hours. The reality is, on average, more like half an hour.

But it seems that the more personal time given to students, the better. Gibbs reported:

“What seems to matter is the nature of the class contact. ‘Close contact’ that involves at least some interaction between teachers and students on a personal basis is associated with greater educational gains (Pascarella, 1980) independently of the total number of class contact hours (Pascarella and Terenzini, 2005).”

So the number of hours given to contact are important, but only when also assessing the relative value to learning.

And as one HE friend put it to me this week, some students want to be taught via lectures and increased seminar allocation, while others prefer to be left in a room with wi-fi so they can research and learn for themselves. Needs are not all the same. A big increase in contact time for a student who identifies strongly with independent learning could work against them.

Rather than compare hours between institutions and courses, how about comparing the number of hours for the same course at the same institution over different years?

If there is a marked change in contact hours over those years, what other changes have been made as a consequence? Is there more 1 to 1 time given, for instance? If so, the reduced time may still provide equal or greater value. However, if little change has been made, the consequences of shorter contact time may be negative.

An hour of personal engagement with a tutor can be worth many hours of listening to the same lecture as the other hundred people in a room. Don’t just look at how many hours you get each week, but look at what’s happening within those hours. You’ll get much better peace of mind in the process.

Different Times, Different Uses, Different Meanings (photo by William Warby - CC BY 2.0)

Different Times, Different Uses, Different Meanings (photo by William Warby – CC BY 2.0)

What Does Revision Really Mean?

“Revision is considered as ‘revision’ by teachers and lecturers, when a lot of the time it is ‘learning for the first time and desperately trying to remember’ for students.” – Rebecca Pickavance [Source]

This is a great insight into what many students don’t understand about revision.

Revision isn’t cramming. Revision isn’t learning new stuff a night or two before a test. Revision isn’t picking up a few essentials so you can pass.

The main purpose of swotting up before exams is to remind yourself of what has gone before. You should already be familiar with the content. As you learn over time, links are made and learning takes place gradually. But some of your knowledge fades away as you spend time on other things.

Revision doesn't have to be stressful.

Revision doesn’t have to be stressful.

To get back to optimum understanding, you revise.

Revision is refreshment. You go over the learning you’ve already done and bring it back to the front of your thinking. You may not have mastered the subject back to front, but you have enough understanding to have clarity and confidence when you need to use what you have learned.

Think of it as switching on a set of lights. You don’t install the wiring and fit the bulbs every time. You’ve done the hard work once and you’re left with the simple task of switching the lights back on. You still have to get out of your seat and press the button, but that’s all. And with enough connections, you’ll only need one switch to turn all the lights on at once.

When you revise, how much is new to you? How much are you properly learning for the first time here? The less it is, the better.

Time to Back Up – Hard Drive Review

Good, you’ve pressed save.

But have you backed up?

Chances are you have some involvement with computers at some point in your uni experience. Even when you limit access to writing up coursework and doing detailed research, you probably have a desktop or laptop that gets some use.

If your computer’s hard drive failed one day and you had loads of important files on there that weren’t anywhere else, it’s game over. Everything gone.

That’s why stuff needs backing up.

Now, you can keep some of your data online through services like Dropbox. I use it for some files and it suits me well for certain tasks and backups. If you’re still not using Dropbox, sign up here and we’ll both get some extra space. Result!

I’ve only got 7 gig of space to use at the moment, so it’s limited to relatively small backups. Also, some people prefer a physical backup in their own hands for both safety and privacy reasons.

Enter the external hard drive. Lots of space, in your own hands, and as private as you wish to make it.

The people at Tesco Compare home insurance asked if I would like to review an external hard drive. Under the circumstances, I was happy to say yes to a review.

A black box. Nothing exciting to look at, but it's all about the treasures you keep backed up inside it.

A black box. Nothing exciting to look at, but it’s all about the treasures you keep backed up inside it.

The Seagate Expansion 1TB they sent is quiet and uncomplicated. It came with no software for making regular backups, so be aware if you want extra software as part of the package. For regular and automated backup sessions, you’ll have to provide your own methods. A good place to start is the consistently useful TechSupportAlert.

Shapes and Sizes

External drives come in portable and desktop flavours. Portable is smaller and doesn’t require a power socket as it runs off power from the USB cable. Desktop versions are larger and need plugging in to the wall. The desktop versions usually have a fan inside and are suited more to backing up your files, as they are less likely to overheat. The Seagate drive here is a desktop one, so let’s do a backup!

The device works in a simple plug and play job that takes no more than a couple of seconds to recognise and be ready to take on whatever files you want to throw at it. The drive wouldn’t provide an icon when I installed it, but that didn’t make a difference to the operation of the drive.

The Seagate I’m testing is a 1TB, but they come in capacities up to 4TB in size, in case you keep an insane number of large files.

Luckily, I don’t have a lot to store, so the 1TB is fine for me. And then some!

No frills doesn’t mean no value. What it means is easy use and easy access. I have used drives with software for security and one-touch backup and they come in useful for some situations. But when you just want to make sure your files are in more than one place and aren’t going to change all the time, a large amount of storage like this is great, especially as it’s USB 3.0, giving better speeds than previous USB 2.0 devices could. If you don’t have a USB 3.0 port, you won’t get the faster speed, but you can still use it in older USB ports.

Use and Never Use

I can’t comment on the life of this drive, but I’m not about to put it through a huge amount of use. Think of it as a drive you hope you’ll never need to seriously use. And if the worst does happen and your PC or laptop fails or gets destroyed in an unfortunate accident, you’ll be pleased you didn’t keep your head in the sand.

If you never need to use the drive, be thankful for that!

As a test, I transferred 327GB of data over to the drive, comprising mostly of photos in RAW and JPG formats. I also tested read and write speeds in CrystalDiskMark.

The 327GB transferred in 1 hour 6 minutes and 5 seconds. From comparative reviews of speeds when running at USB 3.0, this was pretty good. Given that this was a collection of photographs going back to around 2004, an hour of time is nothing for some extra peace of mind.

The benchmark testing was generally respectable. The CrystalDiskMark results (for those who like the numbers) are as follows:
CrystalDiskMark Test

Summing Up

Here are my general thoughts on the hard drive:

PROS

  • Plug and play, ready in seconds
  • Fast (especially if you have a USB 3.0 port available)
  • Quiet, no loud fan noises or clunky operation

CONS

  • No backup software with the device (although you may prefer to use your own choice of software or use nothing at all)

While I can’t vouch for its longevity, my oldest external hard drive is from Seagate too. A portable that I used to take around with me when travelling. It’s been going strong for years, with regular use. I’ve upgraded in the meantime, but I still use it for some older files and photos and it’s still whirring away like a champ.

All in all, if you’re looking for simplicity and pretty good speed for an external hard drive, the Seagate Expansion 1TB ticks those boxes.

Be safe. Press save AND back up.