10 things I’ve learned about studying at a Flemish university.

Posted on Jun 28, 2013 | 10 comments

10 things I’ve learned about studying at a Flemish university.

On Tuesday I finished my last exam of the semester and it already feels like I’ve been done for weeks even though it’s only Friday. It’s a wonderful feeling now to choose whatever I want to do with my time instead of racing against the clock to try and remember one last piece of information that could prove crucial but then rarely ever does. This week is one comprised of two very contrasting extremes. Sunday night I was awake late, reading and rereading the syllabus for the exam that was to take place on Monday morning. I rushed home after that exam to study for the Spanish literature exam that was to take place on Tuesday. From Tuesday evening on I’ve been carefree and finally can do what I want without any feelings of guilt. I’ve been reading some of the books that have been staring down at me from the bookshelf for months and Christophe and I will be heading off on a little vacation this weekend where all thoughts of university will be postponed until I return to Belgium. Before we leave though, I wanted to write a little reflection about my experience at university so far.

This is the 3rd exam session I’ve finished at UGent and I’ve learned a few things along the way. Okay, I’ve learned a lot of things, after all, that is the point of studying at university… What I mean is I’ve learned a few things about studying, and more specifically about studying the Flemish way. A lot of the expats I met when I first moved here were also contemplating the idea of continuing to study at a Flemish university. This is my post to them, an attest of what it is really like. It is also a post to my future self to help me keep these things in perspective and to guide me to success in the upcoming semesters.

1. The first and most fatal mistake I continue to make is not realizing that I need to know everything. For the Americans reading this, let me explain a little about how the system works here. Your entire grade rests on the results of one exam and that exam can include any piece of information covered during the entire duration of the course. The professor rarely gives you any indication of what will be covered in the exam. Often the exam is comprised of just a few short essay questions. Therefore, if you do not know the answer to one of the questions, it significantly affects your grade. My folly has occurred when the semester begins. I often have an optimistic attitude and a false sense of freedom. I think I have a lot of time to learn, a lot of time to read the endless materials, and I don’t need to really worry at the beginning, I just think I need to attend class and pay attention. Wrong. I’m dealing with a disadvantage in some courses and I further disadvantage myself by thinking I have enough time. There’s never enough time and it’s important to begin really attempting to start learning things from the very first moment until the very last.

2. The second truth for the non-native student: although the Dutch courses you’ve taken as preparation for university study were difficult, you’ll be desperately wishing you could go back in time and only  be studying Dutch again. However difficult the Dutch language course exams are, however impossible the ITNA seems, you will still probably feel vastly unprepared when listening to university  lectures instructed in Dutch. When reading you will constantly come across words you don’t know, you will feel overwhelmed and you will feel like it’s impossible. Consider this – many native speakers fail the exams. I was disillusioned by the difficulty level. Be prepared to be entirely overwhelmed. I’ve accepted it and I’m now trying to deal with it (with mixed success rate ;)).

studyaids3. The biggest favor you can do for yourself in trying to overcome the obstacle mentioned above is to read the material before you attend the lecture. Read as much as you can and make a thorough effort to understand the material. Write down a translation of the words you don’t know (there will be words you don’t know – always) and try to understand the big picture. It will make understanding the lecture so much easier. Try to put it into perspective for yourself beforehand.

4. The second biggest favor you can do for yourself is to reread the material as soon as possible after the lecture. Go over it again and make sense of your notes. If you wait two months to look at whatever you’ve written it will likely seem like complete nonsense at that time. Hit your brain once more with that information and you’re one step closer to conquering the course. Pick out the most important points of the lecture and make a note of them – highlight them in a specific color, stick a page marker in your book, or just write them on a separate paper. Make yourself a little map of what has been discussed so far and make directions on how to get back to it. Keep these things in mind when the course continues because many of these courses build on information that is learned in the beginning.

5. I’ve started to realize that many of my courses are covering the same topics. The same names are mentioned, the same theories are studied. Help yourself out and recognize this. Use it to your advantage. What you learn once in Dutch you might learn again in English or in Spanish (or another language) down the road. Try to really learn these fundamentals well because if you can remember them again later it will help you. Use the resources you have in another language that you can understand easily to help you learn what is being said in a more difficult language.

6. Get organized! Buy pens in the colors of the whole rainbow, turn your textbook into a veritable Jackson Pollock masterpiece, stick notes wherever you need to. Figure out what works for you and do it. Do whatever you need to do to see the big picture. Think about the time frame. See how all the information fits together. Use whatever resources you need to use to do this.

7. Be nice to yourself. As mentioned in # 2, many native speakers fail these courses. It is great to have high hopes and expectations and if you do succeed on the first try then it’s something to be really proud of. If you don’t, then go easy on yourself, you’ll get it eventually.


8. Some people are unhappy people and unfortunately a lot of them work in administrative positions. There will be people that make you feel utterly insignificant and like you are the biggest waste of their time. Get what you need from them, make them do their job, then walk out of their office and forget about them because they will certainly forget about you.

9. Remember that everyone has strengths and weaknesses. What you lack in one area you probably excel at in another. Do not allow your weaknesses to bring you down but rather let your strengths give you the confidence you need to overcome your weaknesses.

10. In the end, what matters is passing. Passing on the second, third, fourth time… whatever. Passing matters; not how, not when. When you get your degree no one asks you how long it took you to obtain it and no one asks you how old you were when you got it.

Thoughts on this post or extra tips on what works for you? Share them, please! :)


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  • http://bijgebrekaanbeter.blogspot.com/ Bij Gebrek Aan Beter

    Those are some really helpful tips, even for someone whose mother tongue is Dutch :-)

    • http://www.oppositeocean.com/ Leah@OppositeOcean

      Thanks, Elisse. :) I’m glad you think the tips are helpful. I hope others think so, too. I know it will help me to look back on this when I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed in the upcoming semesters.

  • http://www.therandomwritings.com/ Rachel G

    I love studying different languages–but learning a different language to such a detailed extent that you can actually learn from a university lecture given in that language?? That’s a whole new level of commitment, right there. You’ve really tackled a huge challenge–good job!

    • http://www.oppositeocean.com/ Leah@OppositeOcean

      That’s a very nice comment, Rachel. :) Thank you! I have to be honest and say that it is difficult and I’m still struggling with it every day, but I’m giving it my best shot. 😉

  • D.C. Blommaert

    Can I comfort you with the idea that many Belgian students don’t appear to know all this when they start either?
    And mind you, the general consensus is that university studies in Belgium have become ‘easier’ in the last 10 or 20 years (so it could even have been worse, lol 😉
    You have my respect for taking up the challenge!

    • http://www.oppositeocean.com/ Leah@OppositeOcean

      Thanks, Charles. If it’s true that university studies have become easier then I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to be trying this 10 or 20 years ago. It is indeed a challenge and I hope it turns out to be one that I can conquer. 😉

  • Ariane

    According to my husband, the university studies are alot easier nowadays than compared to 20-25 years ago, so that would concur with D.C. Blommaert’s comment.
    Leah, you are a brave soul and you must love challenges. Difficult as it may be, I have confidence you can do this.
    Dutch classes can’t compare to what you are doing now.

  • Lindsay

    I can relate to all of these points after studying at an Italian university. Seems the systems are quite similar. (We mainly had oral exams though, not written.) Luckily for me, I only spent two semesters there as an exchange student. I don’t think I could have kept up that intense system combined with learning in a second language for a full degree program. Good on you for doing it!

  • http://betweenthreeworlds.quora.com/ Elisabeth Khan

    This post reminded me of my student days in Ghent in the ’70s. The horrific “examenkoorts” (exam fever) many of my peers experienced, the nerve-racking wait in the hallway to be called in for the oral exam (we had both an oral and a written exam for each course). After becoming adjunct faculty in the US I could not believe how easy the students had it, with tests and assignments throughout the term and a multiple-choice exam at the end. And what to say about the colleague who advised me to give them a take-home exam!

    • http://www.oppositeocean.com/ Leah@OppositeOcean

      Elizabeth, thanks very much for your comments! :) Exam period is definitely a high-stress time in my life now. The higher education environments differ drastically in Flanders and the US. Having experienced both of them, I can see now that there are advantages and disadvantages to each system. That being said, studying in my native language will always be considered a luxury from this point on in my life. :) Thanks for sharing a bit of your experience here with my readers and me.