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The basics
Study abroad : Once you arrive

How to communicate at university

It's OK to feel uncertain about communication at university, especially as an international student. In the classroom and beyond, a lot will be new to you. Read our advice, and it may feel easier.

Graphic of three smiling students; two male and one female. All are wearing a backpack and carrying a book; the female student wears a headscarf.

Just as with any new environment, it is understandable if you are unsure about how to communicate at university. The way we interact is a huge part of the way we live our lives, so when the rules and expectations of that are unfamiliar, many of us can be cautious. In truth, there is rarely much need to worry. While customs and etiquette vary around the world, becoming comfortable with new ones is a valuable skill that you will soon develop. To help bring that about, here is our guide to communicating at university.


Why is communication important at university?


Communication covers everything from the way we speak to each other, to hand gestures and facial expressions. It is the way we make ourselves understood to other people, and how we understand them.


At university, you are likely to become more aware of the importance of good communication every day. You can expect to spend time with new people in new places and situations on a regular basis. This can sound scary, but it is also a way of learning new things, having new experiences and becoming more confident.


You will also find that communication is key to your academic success. Clear writing will help you with essays and emails to staff and other students. Skills in presentation will be important if you are ever graded on your delivery of one. Listening will also be vital, especially when information is being shared in classes.


How to communicate in the classroom


From lectures to seminars and demonstrations, classroom work is likely to be a core part of your university experience, whatever course you take.


For the majority of the time, this will involve listening. While that might sound simple, do remember that listening is not a passive act. When other people are speaking, do more than just hear them – think about what they are saying. Listening is about absorbing information, reflecting on it, and using it to develop your own thoughts. This is something you will definitely need to do, especially if you are about to be asked to join a discussion.


Taking notes is a great way to support this process. You may use pen and paper, or you may use a laptop. You may write a lot, or you may write a little. However you go about it, just try to get down what you think is most important in a way that you will be able to understand later. Even if you get too little or too much, research has suggested that the act of taking notes aids the memorisation of information.


When it is time to speak, try not to worry. Your participation is not only important to your learning, but that of everyone else, too. If no one spoke up, your classes would be hour-long silences, and that wouldn’t help anyone. Universities and professors generally want their classrooms and lecture theatres to be welcoming and open environments for the sharing of knowledge and thought. As long as you speak with consideration for others at appropriate moments, your contributions will be welcomed, whether they are questions, suggestions or personal perspectives.


How should I email my professor?


Whether you need to ask for a deadline extension on an assignment, or simply have a question about course content, contacting professors and lecturers via email is likely to be necessary from time to time. While this may be intimidating at first, it is not something to fear. Academic staff are there to help you, and would not want you to make things harder for yourself by refraining from contacting them.


Admittedly, expectations around how you should address your professors will vary across countries, cultures, universities and the professors themselves. Therefore, it may be wise to begin with a formal approach. If you start an email with 'Dear Professor', no one will be offended. When you receive a response, you may able to tell whether that was necessary from the way it is written.


In some cases, a particularly thoughtful professor or university might explain their expectations to students in advance. They will be well aware that some people avoid contacting them for fear of making a mistake, and therefore be keen to ease any uncertainty. If you are feeling more confident, you could even ask them directly – providing guidance on how to communicate at university is part of their job, and they may well be impressed by your considerateness.


Overall, though, the important thing is to be clear and concise. Your professors will be busy people, and although they should be keen to help you where they can, they will appreciate a straightforward approach. Nonetheless, don't be worried about saying too much. There is likely to be nothing they have not encountered before.


How do universities communicate with students?


Universities generally make every effort to keep their students informed and aware of everything they need to know.


Much of the communication you receive from your university will come via email. This will begin before you even set foot on campus. Universities typically send out information about their location, accommodation and courses in advance of your arrival, all with the intention of preparing you for when that day comes.


From then on, you can expect to receive regular updates from all areas of the university, covering everything from timetable changes to job opportunities, social events and ongoing construction work. When you have a question that this does not cover, there will often be an email address you can contact for help. These may be listed on the university website, or in internal directories that are accessible to staff and students.


You will also be able to find help from staff offline. Your university is likely to have readily accessible teams of people working in different departments, and you can expect them to be approachable. Whether this is in the library, accommodation services or your academic department, an informal but respectful request will likely lead to a helpful response.


Overcoming language barriers at university


As an international student, you may encounter linguistic or cultural barriers at university. Even if you already speak the same language as most of the people you meet, you may not speak it in the same way, or follow the same communicative customs. This can lead to uncertainty and hesitancy in interaction, and holds the potential for misunderstandings.


However, such problems can be addressed and overcome. Your university will have an international office that is likely to offer English language support, and will quite possibly have staff that speak your own language. Student unions, meanwhile, can provide similar services. Moreover, unions are where you can join a society based around your personal interests. There, you could meet all kinds of people who will be keen to enjoy your company.



Ultimately, if you can push yourself to interact with people even when you are unsure, you should speed up the process of becoming more comfortable in your new surroundings. Remember that it is OK to make mistakes. Most people will understand your situation, and many will be prepared to help you. Often, these are the people who could end up being your closest friends at university.


Hopefully, you now feel a bit more confident on the matter of how to communicate at university. In any case, things are likely to become easier as time goes on, and especially so if your course is still to begin. If you are yet to choose one, why not get searching today? Our simple Course Matcher tool will quickly identify the best options for you, wherever you would like to study.

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