Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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Developing university study skills

Published By: The Independent - 15 Oct 2007

Let’s be honest. If you’re about to go to university, work will be only one of many things on your mind. You are probable more worried about making friends, finding your feet, managing your money and having a good time than the pedestrian matters of lectures and essays. But a little thought now could save you a lot of worry later – and leave far more time free for all those other things you plan to do.

How to approach your work

Remember from the start that uni work is different from school work. No-one will be handing it to you on a plate. You are there to learn to think for yourself. So take yourself in hand, and decide that – as soon as you can – you will draw up a sensible timetable for work and study, putting in lectures, assignment deadlines, and blocks of time for free study. Decide that you’re going to keep on top of your reading, that you’re going to keep your notes and files organised, and that once or twice a term you will stop and take stock of where you are. Also resolve that, whatever you are doing, you are going to try to do it with full concentration. A focussed hour in the library will be worth a day spent half-working while also e-mailing, chatting and staring around. One important step towards this is discovering exactly how you most like to waste your time. Is it listening to your iPod while you work? Having the TV on in the background? Or stopping at every opportunity to chat to friends? When you’ve nailed it, resolve to do something about it.

But remember, too, that everything works together. Jan Sellers, who set up the Student Learning Advisory Centre at Kent University, says that making friends will also help you study. “In fact it is one of the most important things you can do as a new student. It builds your confidence, and means you’re much less likely to drop out. So think ahead about what university has to offer you. Make sure you take some extra coffee mugs, and when you get there make an effort to reach out to people. Remember, your fellow students are just as nervous as you. Speak to people at lectures, and think about joining societies or volunteering. Not only will this all help to make you feel committed to university, but having friends on the same course can be really supportive and helpful.”

How to approach lectures, reading, essays and assignments

In lectures you have to do three things at once – listen, understand and write -- so make sure you develop good listening and note-taking skills, and try pairing up with a friend or two in order to meet up afterwards and go over your notes together. This will help to fix the material in your mind, consolidate your notes and unscramble things you haven’t fully grasped. When it comes to reading, prioritise what you need to know and don’t just download online material or copy out chunks of text. Instead try and encapsulate things as you take notes and read everything with questions in your mind. And learn which facilities help you to work best. One library might be a far better resource or working space for you than another. Essays can be a real bugbear, so learn the basic skills of formulating an argument, substantiating what you’re saying, and drawing a conclusion as soon as you can. There are masses of websites and good books to help you do this. One to look out for, and recommended by some universities, is Stella Cottrell’s The Study Skills Handbook. And always pay attention to what your tutors have to say about your first attempts, and learn from them how to do better. The same is true of assignments in general. Always spend time planning and prioritising, and then learn from any feedback given. Whether you’re giving a presentation or handing in a piece of coursework always remember that it’s fine to make mistakes – but dumb to make the same ones over and over.

Get help if you need it

Universities these days have stunning arrays of help on offer for anyone who walks through the door to ask for it, and increasingly smart students realise it makes sense to take up the offer. The University of Central Lancashire, for example, has a drop-in centre with three rooms and two tutors available to all students, every day. The centre started in 2002 and saw about 400 students in its first year and 1,500 this year. “And we’re not just seeing the struggling students,” says Nick Gregson, senior lecturer in study skills, “we’re now seeing students who are getting 2:1s and want to move up to a first.” So don’t be shy. Step up and ask. And preferably sooner rather than later.

Many students struggle with the formal language of academic assignments, and wonder how to phrase things, and what to put in and leave out. Should they use the word ‘I’, they wonder? Or give their own opinions, or just quote other people? And what about footnotes? What the heck are so those all about?

The University of East London runs a writing centre to help students with written assignments, as well as to encourage creative writing in all its forms, but as Andrew Calcutt, principal lecturer in journalism, says, students are encouraged to see the help offered as “aspirational, rather than remedial. In our department, for example, we always tell students, if you want to break the rules that’s fine, but first you must first know what they are.”

Barbara Janssen, a study skills adviser at Exeter University, says A level students rarely have to write essays now, so university work can be a shock to recent sixth-formers. “We will go through a couple of pages of work in detail with someone, showing them what their tutor might mean by saying they need to be more coherent or to use more signposting. Sometimes we encourage people to write essays by hand. Students these days are so used to the cut and paste culture, it can be a way of getting more engaged with it.” In this regard, one of the most important thing any student needs to learn – and fast -- is how to evaluate any sources found on the net, and then how to précis and paraphrase any material used, so that it does not get caught in the plagiarism-spotting software that essays are likely to be scanned through.

Also, Barbara Janssen points out, the bar always gets raised as you go through university. “I suspect that many first year students see us initially as a remedial service, while second and third year students are often more mature about their needs and seek help more readily Many are keen to develop their academic skills especially with critical writing, realising that criteria, and therefore the demands made on them, change. They also become more aware of what they need to do in order to gain a particular grade or mark, so they are often more motivated, more critical about their work, and more ready to seek help and advice.”

If you don’t need intensive one-to-one help, or feel too shy to ask for it, then watch out for general workshops on subjects like reading and listening to lectures, note-taking, oral presentations and essay writing. You might feel awkward abut going to one of those, but remember the last laugh will always be on you as you sail through your work without either crises or floundering, having learned how to listen carefully, make a good mind map, or write a brilliant essay opening.

Alternatively, keep an eye out for workshops put on by your own department. University study skills advisers are working more and more closely with specific departments to put on events tailored to meet your precise needs.