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for Undergraduates

UG CamGuides: What skills will I develop as an undergraduate?

Generic academic skills useful to all students


What is self-directed learning?

blackboard with planning grid and sticky notesThis is the process of taking control of your learning. It may take some time and you will gradually develop this skill over the course of your degree.

There are key elements associated with self-directed learning that you will find helpful as you manage more of your studies.

  • prioritising tasks and interests,
  • setting objectives,
  • being resourceful,
  • recognising when you need to take a break from learning
  • knowing when to find support

This last point is really important: ask for help if you are unsure about what you have been asked to do. Supervisions are a great opportunity to ask for more information about something you didn't understand when working on the set task.


With thanks to:

Dhruv (Human, Social, and Political Sciences)

Anna (Human, Social, and Political Sciences)

Managing your workload

A large part of self-directed learning is managing your workload, knowing what you need to do and learning efficient ways of managing all the tasks you have to complete. Academic staff know that it will be a process of trial and error as you get the balance right. Don't worry if it seems as though you have a lot to do in a short time; others will be experiencing the same sort of challenges.

Making choices

For many students, there will be an element of choice in the papers that you study at Cambridge. This may be in your first term or later in your course. Either way, this is the exciting part of studying at university as opposed to school or college: following your interests to develop expertise in a particular area. If you don't get the chance to specialise straight away, think about what really excites you in your subject area so that you can be strategic with your choices when the time comes.

For those with reading lists, you will have to choose what to read. Many academic staff do not expect you to read everything on the list. Some may prioritise items for you, breaking them down into essential, recommended and background reading. With other lists it may be up to you to identify general texts as opposed to those which are more specialist and relate to a specific topic.

You may be able choose an essay question or have the chance to formulate questions yourself. You will certainly have to make choices about what to revise and which questions to answer in exams.

Depending how much you have to do in a week, you may also have to make choices about how much effort you put into something and what will be the quality of the finished product, given the constraints on your time.


With thanks to:

Sean (Computer Science)

Jessica (Human, Social, and Political Sciences)

Virginia (Classics)

Getting started - click on the words to find out more

These skills will, over time, become second nature. However, to begin with it might be helpful to do a bit of planning before launching into a piece of work. Ultimately, it will save you time by giving a clear sense of direction. This is a three-stage process:

In order to direct your learning, you need to be clear what your goals and objectives are.
  • By thinking about what you want to get from learning, you will be in a better place to set in motion a plan that will help you achieve them.
  • Your objectives may be different for each piece of work you complete.
  • You may want to find out more about a topic, learn new software, establish a range of academic perspectives on a theory, or learn how to write a report.
  • They may be guided by your priorities or by the outcome for the paper/module you are taking.
  • You can set them yourself, or in collaboration with your supervisor or Director of Studies.
  • Giving you time to think about this will make you a more effective learner.
The next step is to begin compiling resources necessary to successfully achieve your learning objectives.
  • These might be books or articles, technology or other equipment, even advice from a member of academic staff.
  • Being surrounded by everything you need means that you'll make better progress than if you have to keep stopping and starting.
  • If you find that you need something else to help you get the job done, perhaps keep a list and then schedule in a break to collect them. It might take a few minutes to acquire them or a day or two, so plan it into your work flow.
What will be the product of your learning? Your end results may be a completed problem, essay, presentation, or notes for a supervision. But there may be many stages to complete before getting there. For example, before you can hand in an essay you may want to complete all the reading, produce a plan and then a draft before starting the process of writing.

You're likely to have a deadline for the finished product:

  • Work backwards from this to allot time accordingly to these other tasks.
  • Make a note of each task and decide how long to spend before moving onto the next one.
  • Over time you will intuitively know how long it will take for each of these stages, but to begin with base it on what you know from your previous experience of academic work.
  • Ultimately, you will need to develop good time management skills to help you achieve your learning objectives and produce the final product, and that is the focus of the next page in this section.

    lightbulb iconObjective setting

    Think of a goal; something you want to achieve in the near future. Write this across the top of a piece of paper. Then list tasks underneath, each one at the top of a column. Under each task, list the sub-tasks.

    There is a link to a template below if you wish to use this.

    For example, in preparation for starting university you may have several tasks: complete introductory exercises/readings, read information from your college, tidy up your desktop on your laptop, and pack your suitcase. Each of those can be subdivided. For example: 'pack suitcase' could include four further tasks: deciding on which clothes, books, posters and equipment to take. Allocate time and resource to this. For example, do you need to ask friends, buy something, email the college? 

    This process will give you a much better sense of the task that lies ahead. Read our section on time management to help you put this plan into action.


    With thanks to:

    Vamsi (Economics)

    Jesse (Medicine)

    Sitara (Classics)

    Image credits

    CC0 by Daniele Riggi via Unsplash

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