Terms every Student Should Know Before Starting University

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One of the most confusing things about university or college is that there seems to be a whole new set of vocabulary used. Tests aren’t tests, they’re “midterms”. Instructors are not the same as Professors while TA’s are definitely not lecturers. So what is what? Here is a list of words every incoming student should know before they start university. Terms in each group is ranked in the order of importance (although no group is more important than the others). Memorize this list – it will make your life much easier.

List of Terms Every Student Should Know Before Starting University:

Group A: People
Group B: Courses
Group C: First Year Specific Terms
Group D: Miscellaneous

Group A:

Professors – Professors are not exactly the university equivalent of teachers. Most professors are P.I.’s (Principle Investigators) who have their own labs and do their own research. Typically, professors are paid to do 3 things: research, teach, and sit on committees. Although most professors are adequate teachers, some really dislike teaching (as they would rather do research) and others are not great at it despite their best efforts (because they have very little training). Professors can be further divided into several other subcategories: associate professors, assistant professors, and emeritus professors. However, different subcategories rarely affect undergraduate students.

Instructors – An instructor’s role in university is like that of a high school teacher. Unlike professors, they are paid to teach and not do research (though some instructors do do some research). Instructors typically have at least a ph.D and many years of teaching experience. Therefore, their classes are usually excellent.

Lecturers (otherwise known as sessional lecturers) – Lecturers are people hired specificially to teach certain courses. Their positions are usually not permanent and they don’t really do research. Their qualifications are about the same as Instructors.

Teaching Assistants (TA’s) – TA’s are upper year undergraduate students or graduate students. They can teach classes or discussion groups, run or help out with labs, mark your assignments and exams, hold office hours, and run demonstrations and experiments. Students become TA’s to help pay for their education. Some TA’s are absolutely great and others could care less about what you do (both of which have their advantages and disadvantages). As well, which TA you get is up to chance, so cross your fingers (or switch classes)!

Principle Investigators (P.I.’s) – Researchers who run their own labs. They usually have at least one graduate student working for them along with Post Doc’s, research associates, and undergraduate students. Each P.I. has a specific area of interest. The main objective of a P.I. is to find something new and amazing and publish that finding in a paper.

Lab Directors – Lab Directors… direct labs. If you are taking a class with a lab component, these people are the ones who work out the logistics of fitting several thousand undergrad into their respective labs. They won’t be the ones teaching and you’ll probably never see them after lab check-in days. Nonetheless, they play an important role.

Deans – A dean is the head of a faculty (or department) at university. They oversee the entire faculty and make some executive decisions. If, for example, you are failing multiple classes, you may get hauled up to the dean’s office.

Advisors – There are faculty advisors (people who tell you what you need to do to graduate with a B.A. or B.Sc, or a B.F.A. etc.) and program advisors who tell you what you need to do to graduate with certain specializations (e.g. Major in Psychology, Honors Geology, Minor in English). There are all sorts of other adivisors, but they vary by school.

Group B: Courses

Midterm – Akin to a test in high school. Any exam (or test) that is not the final exam is a midterm, regardless of when during the academic term they actually happen. Midterms can be worth anywhere between 20 to 50% of the course mark.

Finals – Final are final exams in any course. Depending on the length of the course (e.g. 1 semester of 1 year), they can happen in December or April. They are weighed heavily and can be worth up to 100% of the course mark.

Quizzes – Are exactly the same as the ones in high school. Some quizzes are computer based. Quizzes in total rarely exceed more than 20% of the grade for any course.

Assignments/Homework/Exercises – Questions and readings that may or may not need to be turned in. Most of the time, they do not have to be, but check with your professor/instructor/TA.

Labs/Tutorials – For science courses, labs are where students perform experiments. Tutorials are where TA’s guide students through difficult topics, do some exam prep, or answer questions. Some tutorials are optional and their usefulness largely depends on the TA.

Office Hours – Just about every professor, instructor, lecturer, and TA has office hours. This time, usually 1 or 2 hours per week, is reserved for students to ask questions, discuss issues, look over exams, and beg for extra marks (or perhaps not). This is a good time to get to know your professor better and hopefully get some hints for exams!

Review Sessions – Before a midterm or final, professors will have review sessions in which they go over materials they have covered and take questions from students. Sometimes they give out extra questions people can try. If you can make these sessions, ALWAYS GO. Even if you don’t have any questions. That’s because professors give away a LOT of hints in these sessions. For example, a professor may have just finished writing the exam and he will give out questions which are similar to those on the exam. Other times, students will ask her a question she like so much that that question make it onto the exam. Even if those 2 things don’t happen, review sessions are a good way to consolidate your and help you figure out what topics you need to focus on more.

Semester – Usually 4 months in length. Depending on the school, it can be one term or a fraction of a term (or session).

Session – Can be synonymous to a semester. However, at some schools, the winter session is 8 months long and runs September to April (with the summer session running from May to August). In these schools, 1 semester would be half a session. The terms semester, session, and term are used interchangeably in some schools and their exact length can be very school-specific.

Credit – A unit of exchange indicating how much a certain course is “worth”. For many schools, a course which runs for one semester is worth 3 credits, and a full “year” (2 semester) course is worth 6. Labs can be worth 1 or 2 However, this also varies by school. To graduate, students generally have to obtain a certain number of credits. Tuition is also often calculated on a per-credit basis.

Faculty – A group of departments which focuses on one major topic. It is like an umbrella which encompasses a whole bunch of loosely connected topics. For example, the Faculty of Science, the Faculty of Arts, the Faculty of Law, and the Faculty of Music.

Department – A division of a faculty. They are far more specific and is concerned with a narrower field. For example, the Department of Earth and Ocean Science, the Department of Economics, and the Department and Mechanical Engineering.

Group C: First Year Specific Terms

Orientation – An event, lasting anywhere between a few hours to a full week depending on the school, to welcome freshman students. Usually involving campus tours, meeting the professors/deans, pep rallies, and mini-competitions.

Frosh or Frosh Week – Frosh is another word for a freshman student. However, when someone asks “are you going to frosh”, the word “frosh” actually means an event specifically for first year students. Frosh Week is a week-long event and can involve all sorts of crazy stunts probably not sanctioned by the university (i.e. dying each other purple, chucking paint balls, throwing rubber chickens, and stealing mascots). Frosh can be synonymous to orientation, be a part of orientation, or be completely separate from it. Not every school or faculty has frosh.

Group D: Miscellaneous

Clubs – Exactly the same as the ones in high school, except probably involving a lot more people.

Fraternities/Sororities – A group of people sharing some common interest. Fraternities are male-only while sororities are female-only. Having never been in either, I can’t say I know too much about them. They do have a reputation for hosting drinking parties, but that is complete hearsay and I don’t actually know what they do.


Did I miss any terms? Heard something somewhere and you’re not sure what it means? Leave a note in the comments 🙂


One thought on “Terms every Student Should Know Before Starting University

  1. Pingback: Happy First Birthday SotN! « Scratches on the Notepad

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