From Classroom into Lecture Hall

20 Years of Early Study in Germany

In 1999, one of the most exciting experiments in the modern promotion of gifted children launched in Germany: Pupils in the upper grades of high school were given the opportunity to attend beginner’s lectures in mathematics even before they had covered the basics in school lessons.

They would attend lectures during school hours together with regular students who would be at least three to five years older. They would be enrolled as early students and thus would have the chance to take part in real university exams. And they would be able to have these credited for later studies if they passed. The idea of early study was born: higher education studies before high school graduation.

A Success Story

What began as an experiment at some universities established itself soon after as a permanent program in the course catalog and its success inspired universities all over Germany to offer early study on their own. Nowadays, around 2,000 pupils take part in early study every semester — from grades 7–13 at over 60 different universities throughout Germany. The range of subjects on offer has also expanded significantly from STEM subjects to linguistics and humanities, as more and more departments began to open up their lectures to early students.

This way, early students get to know everyday life at university from an early stage. They can get insights into different courses of study, pursue their interests, exchange ideas with other students, gain experience and prepare for later studies. In addition, they can voluntarily take part in the examinations at the end of the semester and — if they pass — have them credited for later studies.

Early study also offers a whole range of advantages for schools and universities: Early students can contribute their acquired knowledge during lessons and help their fellow pupils with questions — teachers are thus relieved when it comes to promoting gifted students. Early study can also introduce students to university at an early stage, motivate them to study later on and, as a form of study orientation, reduce the dropout rate.

Studying Physics at Age 15

I had always listened in awe when other pupils told me about these legendary early students, who apparently managed to attend lectures at university in addition to all of their work for school. It was quite impressive and therefore I got really excited, when teachers approached me, at the end of the 9th grade, whether I would be interested in taking part in early study myself. Back then I had just turned 15 years old.

In the following, I had the privilege of participating in early study at TU Dresden in the field of physics for three years, from the beginning of the 10th grade in 2012 until the Abitur (German A-Levels) in 2015. It all began with attending the lecture ‘Experimental Physics I’ in the first semester, where I had also the good fortune to meet the lecturer, Professor Lukas Eng, who became my mentor on part of the university.

After I had passed the exam for his lecture ‘Experimental Physics I’, I continued with early study in the following semesters and was exempted from school each semester for taking exactly one course. However, I soon noticed that the other students were attending many more interesting lectures, so I started to follow up also on other lectures, learned the material myself, asked my fellow students to share their notes, solved the exercise sheets on my own, and finally took the exams — without ever having attended the corresponding lectures, seminars or tutorials.

This way I passed my Abitur in spring 2015, wrote my Bachelor thesis at the Institute of Applied Physics during summer, defended it in autumn 2015, and started with my Master’s studies in physics.

I definitely did not begin early study with the goal of completing my Bachelor’s degree in physics alongside school. Rather, it had turned out that way over time — through my interest in physics and through the great support of my high school, the TU Dresden, my classmates and fellow students, and last but not least my friends and family.

Above all, early study is a great program to get to know life at university and to get insights into different fields of study. Of course, it also offers the possibility to speed up your later studies, but first and foremost, it is a chance to get a glimpse into the world of knowledge beyond the school curriculum – already as a pupil.

This is why I would like to see more pupils being able to take advantage of this opportunity and more teachers and schools supporting them in their early study — without the pressure of having to take an exam; without the fear of ruining their high school degree; simply out of interest and curiosity. That is exactly why I wrote a book about early study, the program in general, and my personal experiences.

Sitting on a Magenta Sofa

During my research for this book project, I contacted the Deutsche Telekom Stiftung (German Telekom Foundation) in September 2017. The foundation had supported early study in Germany for ten years until 2014, commissioned a major study dedicated to it in 2007, and conducted a survey in 2012. So if anyone should have an overview of early study it was the Deutsche Telekom Stiftung.

My inquiry was met with positive resonance, and two months later I’m sitting on a magenta-colored sofa in the main building of the Deutsche Telekom Stiftung in Bonn, talking about the book project. In fact, the Deutsche Telekom Stiftung had largely withdrawn from the project in 2014 after the end of its financial commitment. However, it would be interesting to know how the program has developed since then.

In January 2018, I finally received green light: The Deutsche Telekom Stiftung had decided to conduct a third large-scale survey on early study and therewith also support my book project. That was simply amazing! While the Deutsche Telekom Stiftung did their survey in the summer of 2018, at the time I was interviewing more than 20 early students about their experiences. What came out is not only the first book on early study but also an up-to-date overview of early study in Germany. Therefore I would like to kindly thank the Deutsche Telekom Stiftung for their support.

Perspectives for Early Study

The survey shows that circumstances never were better for studying early. But while the number of universities participating in the program kept increasing even the last couple of years, the overall number of early students stagnated at around 2.000 per semester throughout Germany and the average number per university declined slightly. Even today, when I talk to people, many are not aware of this opportunity. Especially teachers, classmates, and parents are the most important multipliers when it comes to promoting early study, and of course, pupils themselves should know about this opportunity, to consider giving it a try.

Early study is a lean way involving low organizational effort to support pupils individually in their education. No additional courses need to be organized. It significantly reduces the dropout rate within first-degree studies. And it promotes pupil’s interest and personal development. By now, early study celebrates its 20th anniversary in Germany and by telling others about this program, we can continue this success story and help pupils make the most out of their education during the early stages.

Overview by the Deutsche Telekom Stiftung (German and English)

The first book about early study (German only)

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