Seminar Participation: Managing Unhelpful Behaviours

‘Wow, they’ve been talking for a long time, I wish they’d give someone else a chance to speak…but I don’t want to seem rude.’ 

‘Hey, they just interrupted that person. And I really wanted to know what she had to say!’ 

‘I mean they’ve got a good point, but they that was a really rude way of saying it’ 

Working with others isn’t always easy and sometimes it’s just straight up difficult. And if you regularly take part in seminars or tutorials, chances are that you’ll eventually encounter some behaviours that make it difficult to get the most out of the situation, or that just seem plain rude. But it can be hard to know how to respond when there are people dominating the conversation, or not giving enough space for others to speak or interacting in a confrontational way. You might feel like you want to address the behaviour but don’t know how to do so without creating an uncomfortable atmosphere. Or you might notice yourself doing some of these things every now and then – we’re all human and we all pick up bad habits every now and then. 

The key thing to remember, is that it’s everyone’s responsibility to ensure that seminars are spaces where people feel comfortable contributing and participating. You can’t control anyone else’s behaviour, but you can take active steps to identify and address unhelpful behaviour. 

If you want to find out more, follow this link to hear Academic Skills tutor Nicky talk through some strategies for managing unhelpful behaviours in seminars and tutorials. 

You can also book a 1-1 appointment with the Academic Skills Team if you’d like some more tailored guidance on seminar participation or other academic skills. 

Podcasts and video resources

Over the summer the Academic Skills team worked with two students to co-create some new academic skills resources thanks to the Philip Robinson Bequest scheme. After auditing the Academic Skills Kit and speaking to other students to find out what they needed, the bequest students discovered some timely topics to support students throughout their time here at Newcastle. 

Nagham El Elani, a PhD student in the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape created an aminated video around managing information and mapping ideas to help with the process of essay writing. Based on real life examples from an assignment, Nagham’s video shows students how to manage that overwhelming ‘blank page’ feeling that you get at the start of an assignment.   

Eszter Racz, who has just finished her MA in International Multimedia Journalism, produced a short podcast series. Eszter spoke to a diverse range of students from all stages and faculties across the university to dig deep into the most challenging aspects of academic writing and research. The resulting five episodes talk about topics such as referencing, finding sources academic writing, and accessing university support services. 

Eszter producing the podcast series

The students share the strategies they used to develop as learners, as well as opening up about their journeys through UG and PG study, and the transitions they made along with way. To complement this, Eszter also spoke to a wide range of experts, both academic and professional staff who were able to provide an insight into the issues the students mentioned and also what resources and services are available at Newcastle University.

All the episodes are available on Spotify

Keep checking as we’ll add more episodes !

Seminar Participation: How to Contribute Effectively

“No-one’s spoken for a really long time, how can I get a discussion going?” 

“I think this person has a great idea, but doesn’t seem very confident in it – I wonder how I can help?” 

“I really disagree with what that person said, but I don’t want to sound rude…maybe I just shouldn’t say anything…” 

 Sometimes you know what you want to do in a seminar, but you’re just not sure how to do it. It’s easy to spend so much time wondering how to contribute that you miss your opportunity to do so altogether. Or you might find yourself so worried about doing the wrong thing that you end up not doing anything at all!   

Although there isn’t necessarily a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ way to participate in seminars, there are some approaches that you may find more effective than others. You’ll likely find that throughout your time at university you’ll gradually develop your own approaches to seminar participation that work for you. But it can also be useful to have a couple of strategies to fall back on when you’re not sure what to do or if you’re still new to seminar participation. 

The key thing to remember is that, although you might find yourself gravitating towards a particular ‘role’ or set of strategies, you’re not limited to these. In a previous post we thought about Speculating, Enabling and Challenging, and we should keep in mind that these are just behaviours not types of people. So feel free to try out different roles and approaches depending on what you need from the seminar and how comfortable you’re feeling on the day.   

If you want to find out more, you can follow this link to hear Academic Skills Tutor Nicky build on the Speculating, Enabling and Challenging framework we looked at last time and provide some strategies for how you can effectively enact these behaviours. 

You can also book a 1-1 appointment with the Academic Skills Team if you’d like some more tailored guidance on seminar participation or other academic skills. 

And stay tuned for more videos on seminar participation. Next up we’ll be looking at some strategies for dealing with unhelpful seminar participation. 

Producing your first assignment

Getting started on your first university-level assessment can seem daunting. Where to begin? What to include? What’s expected? This post, in conjunction with the Your Skills First Assignment session, is designed to give you some introductory guidance on:

  • Essay planning and structure
  • Four key features of academic writing
  • How to conquer that ‘blank page’ horror!

Getting started: two ways to confront that looming blank page…

To begin with, here are some questions to help you get going when you just don’t know where to start:

  1. What do I need this piece of work to do?
  2. What do I want to achieve?
  3. Is this similar to a previous task?
  4. What are my existing strengths and how can I apply them to this assignment?
  5. What have I learned from my previous work about things I need to do differently?
  6. Where do I work best?
  7. What will I do first?

Another helpful (if obvious!) place to start is by making a plan. The good news here is that keeping it simple is the best way to go. You’ll need the following key sections for most types of assessment, including essays, presentations, reviews etc.

  1. Introduction: 5-10% of your word count (1 or 2 paragraphs)
  • Main body: 80% of your word count
  • 1st main point – 20-30%
  • 2nd main point – 20-30%
  • 3rd main point – 20-30%
  • Conclusion: 5-10% of your word count (1 or 2 paragraphs)
  • Reference list/bibliography (not usually included in word count)

None of these are hard and fast rules – you might need more main sections, your introduction might need to be longer, and your percentages will not end up being this exact. However, it can be useful to have a template to help you get going with your plan.

Four key features of academic writing you should know about

The purpose of academic writing is to communicate your ideas with clarity, precision, and references to reliable evidence. The point is not to sound as fancy as possible! Your writing should be more formal than the kind of language you’d use in conversation, because we use different levels of formality for different settings. However, your markers are not looking for deliberately obscure and elaborate vocabulary. Simplicity really is the best option here (if you’ve seen the episode of Friends where Joey uses a thesaurus on every word, you’ll know why…!). Your markers aren’t looking for how many times you can throw around words like ‘therewith’ and ‘heretofore’. So, what are they looking for? Here are four key features of academic writing that we’ll be covering in the session:

  1. Clear, explicit aims and structure
  2. An identifiable argument or ‘take’ on the subject being discussed
  3. Evidence-based ideas and conclusions, backed up with appropriate references
  4. Clear and precise academic language – no abbreviations, no slang, and no waffle!

Book your place at the session to learn more about these, and to see clear, concrete examples of how they all work in practice.

Missed the session or can’t make it? The slides for all Your Skills session are uploaded on the Your Skills Sharepoint site so you can still access them after the live session has ended.

You can learn more about what the Academic Skills Team offers on our webpage. If you have any questions, please feel free to drop us a line:

The One Hour Writing Challenge

Image of hands writing in a notebook. On the desk in front of them are a cup of coffee, some glasses, a laptop, some books and photographs.
Image from: ThoughtCatalog

Are you tired of spending all day writing away only to feel like you haven’t made any progress? Maybe you’ve been rewriting the same paragraph (or sentence!) for hours on end or putting off writing altogether because you have no idea where to start. If so, give our one hour writing challenge a go!

The one hour writing challenge is a structured hour of activities designed to improve your focus and motivation and, most importantly, help you get some writing done:

Step One: Goal setting (5mins)

Setting a realistic goal for your writing before you gets started helps make sure you stay focussed on the task ahead (and that the task isn’t too overwhelming or unmanageable). It also ensures you get a nice dopamine hit when you achieve your goal and can tick ‘writing’ off your list for the day.

When it comes to goals, the less vague the better – the SMART approach can help you pin down and clearly define your task:

Specific: the specific idea I will write/section/paragraph I will work on is ….

Measurable: I will write _____ words

Achievable: this will be a rough draft/quick bullet points for me to work up later/polished final version/edited final draft

Relevant: where this section will fit in is …

Time- bound: I will write for 40 minutes.

Bear in mind that there may be some days when 40 minutes of writing is just too much. It’s fine to decide that 30 minutes or even 15 minutes is all that you can manage today. On the other hand, you may find that you want to write for longer! Goal setting is therefore a useful way to check-in with yourself and decide what’s realistic for you today.

Step Two: Freewriting (8mins)

Freewriting is like a warm up for your writing muscles, helping ease you into the task and giving you some time to think your ideas through before you try to communicate them to your reader.

It’s a great strategy for helping with writer’s block and procrastination too, which often occur because we’re trying to write something ‘perfectly’ first time or are unsure what we want to say in our writing. Freewriting gives you permission to write a ‘messy’ first draft and work out your thoughts without fear that your language isn’t ‘academic’ enough or your structure doesn’t ‘flow.’

The rules of freewriting are:

  • Set a timer for 8 minutes
  • Start writing whatever comes to mind about the section you’re going to be working on.
  • Write in full sentences
  • Don’t stop writing
  • Don’t look back or edit
  • If you get stuck, write about that – why are you stuck? What would help you get unstuck?! You just might be able to untangle yourself!
  • If you don’t like what you’re writing, write about why

Step Three: Review (2mins)

Look over what you’ve just written. What points could you pull out of your freewriting that you might use in your draft?

Step Four: Write! (40mins)

Write for 40 minutes and work on your draft.

Step Five: Next Actions (2mins)

Use the final couple of minutes to leave notes to your future self about the next steps you need to take to progress this piece of writing. This helps you maintain momentum.

If you’d like to try out the One Hour Writing Challenge in the company of others and with some guidance from one of our Academic Skills tutors, sign up for our Write Here, Write Now writer’s group which will be running online every Wednesday at 10am from 2nd November to 14th December. Find out more here.

A Quick Guide to Reading and Notetaking

Reading and highlighting
Image by Raul Pacheco-Vega

Taking notes as you read helps you:

  • Engage with the material
  • Process your thoughts
  • Gather information and evidence to use in assessments

It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of taking too many notes, though, and it can be overwhelming to end up with pages and pages of notes that you don’t quite know what to do with. The key to avoiding this pitfall is to identify your purpose: if you don’t know what you’re reading for, you’ll risk turning into the ‘human photocopier’ and noting everything down.

To begin with, then, think about why you are reading and, relatedly, what you will use the resulting notes for. For instance, are you:

  • Reading for background to prepare for an upcoming lecture and/or seminar
  • Reading to clarify understanding from a lecture and/or seminar
  • Reading for further knowledge for an assignment. 
  • Reading to develop an argument by evaluating existing viewpoints on a topic or synthesising current knowledge and understanding with the viewpoints of other authors
  • Or, another purpose?

If you are reading to gain background knowledge, or to clarify your understanding of a topic, these questions might be useful in helping you stay on track and avoid tangents. They’ll also help identify exactly what you might need to make notes of:

  • Are there any specific questions you’d like your reading to answer for you? Any particular gaps in your knowledge you’re looking to fill?
  • What wider context do you need to understand and why?
  • What knowledge, information or data do you need and why?
  • Do you have any articles/texts in mind that it would be useful to consult? If you are looking to construct an argument, what answers/positions/debates/arguments already exist?

Once you’ve identified your purpose for reading and notetaking, you can think about the type of reading you need to do. For instance, if your main purpose is to get a general sense of somebody’s argument, you probably don’t need to read the entire article to begin with. Reading the introduction, conclusion and first line of each paragraph could well give you what you need (and ensure your accompanying notes are concise and relevant!). If you are working on your dissertation and are looking to adapt an existing method for your own use, then focusing on the methods sections to begin with will give you what you need. Identifying your purpose thus means you can be selective when reading and notetaking, which can also help you save time. If you’d like tailored advice on reading and notetaking, feel free to book a 1-1 session with us.

Seminar Participation

“I’ve got something to say, but I just don’t know how to say it. What if I say the wrong thing or forget what I was going to say halfway through? I probably don’t know as much as everyone else here, anyway. What does that word even mean? Should I look it up or keep listening? What am I supposed to be doing anyway?“

Let’s face it, whether they’re online or in-person, participating in seminars and tutorials can be tricky. You might find it quite unnerving or intimidating talking in front of your peers or a tutor. Or maybe you find it easy to speak, but that it’s difficult to get a conversation going. Or maybe you’ve got things that you want to say, but just don’t know how to enter the discussion.

Well, if any of this sounds familiar than the Academic Skills Team have got you covered. We’ve been working with our colleagues from the university’s Counselling Services to put together a bunch of resources, strategies and tips for effectively participating in seminars.

They key thing to remember is that seminar participation isn’t all about talking or answering questions, there’s lots of different ways to valuably contribute to a seminar. You can ask a question about something you didn’t quite understand, provide space and support for others to express their ideas, build on something someone else said or even just express agreement or disagreement.

If you want to find out more, you can follow this link to hear AST tutor Nicky talk about the Speculating, Enabling, Challenging [SEC] framework for seminar participation and how it can help you get the most out of seminars.

You can also book a 1-1 appointment with the Academic Skills Team if you’d like some more tailored guidance on seminar participation or other academic skills.

And stay tuned for more videos and study guides on seminar participation. Next up we’ll be looking at some concrete strategies for doing each of these things in a seminar.

Time Management Essentials: getting the most from an independent study session

Time Management” by RLHyde is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

We’ve all done it: set aside some time to start that assignment or get some pre-lecture reading done and … somehow got distracted instead, spending a lot of time doing very little. Often, this is because we’ve sat down to do some work without really considering what it is we’d like to achieve. Our aims are either too vague or too ambitious to fulfil within the time we have available, meaning that we lose focus and motivation fast. Setting a clear, manageable goal for each session is the key to successful independent study and we’ve put together our top goal-setting tips for you here.

Be specific and break it down

A clearly-defined goal is easier to achieve. Instead of telling yourself you’re going to work on your assignment, for example, break this into smaller, more manageable chunks. The first few tasks might be choosing a question, analysing the question, and deciding what reading you need to do. Breaking a larger task down in this way makes it easier to recognise how much the process involves, meaning you’re less likely to be caught out with the realisation that something will take longer to complete than you thought it would. Setting smaller goals also makes it easier to …

Try working in short bursts

You don’t have to work for hours at a time to be productive. Often, you can make more progress by working in shorter bursts and taking regular breaks. Work with your concentration span and not against it by setting a timer for however long you feel you can focus for but no longer than 30 minutes. You might want to start by working in 15 minute bursts and then building it up. Follow each short session with a 5-10 minutes break. It’s easy to lose motivation if you feel you have to work for long stretches without a break so this method makes working feel more manageable. It’s also a good method to use if you’re trying to break a cycle of procrastination or feel particularly anxious about starting a task: spending 15-30 minutes making a start is a gentler way of ‘breaking the ice’ than committing to hours of studying or writing. 

Setting priorities

Deciding what to work on – especially if you have multiple deadlines and lots of tasks competing for your attention – can feel overwhelming and lead to procrastination. Additionally, if you’re feeling stressed about your workload, it can be tempting to view everything as urgent, making it harder to prioritise. Using the ‘3 Ds’ at the start of the day can help with this:

Do: Think about where you need to be at the end of the day: what do you need to have made progress on today to stay on track? This will determine what you need to spend your time on

Defer: What tasks are important but not urgent? You might need to get to them this week, but not today.

Ditch: Items on your ‘ditch list’ might be on your ‘to do’ list in a week’s time, but aren’t urgent right now, meaning you can easily switch your focus to more pressing tasks.

We hope these tips help you manage your workload and make the most of your time. Remember, it’s just as important to schedule in regular breaks!

If you’d like tailored advice on managing your time and workload, feel free to book a 1-1 session with us.  

Step it up: Your Skills sessions for navigating your next level of study

Autumn is finally here – season of mists, mellow fruitfulness, and pumpkin-spiced deadline anxiety. Fortunately, we’ve designed some upcoming Your Skills sessions to help you navigate the demands of a new level of study, and help you make sure that your autumn term is more ‘Nora Ephron’ than ‘Stephen King’. Read on to find out why you need this series of sessions tailored to each stage (and see how many laboured Hallowe’en references it’s possible to fit in a single blog post).

What is the Your Skills Programme?

The Academic Skills and Liaison Librarian teams have joined forces to bring you a central programme of academic skills sessions. In addition to sessions and resources offered by individual teams, this central programme will be co-taught by staff members across the board to give you a holistic and wide-ranging series of workshops and resources. We’ll be covering everything from planning your work to editing the final draft. The programme also includes sessions on less talked-about areas of academic life. Ready to confront eldritch horrors in the vaults? Indulge your inner M.R. James with our sessions on Special Collections and Archives. Problems with The Others? Try the session on managing conflict in group work. Keep an eye on the calendar to see what’s on offer and how to book in. All slides and recordings from these sessions will be posted online afterwards – find them here along with slides from previous sessions.

How can it help you?

These sessions cover key topics and core skills at each level, including…

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”: planning and time management

  • We all know there’s nothing more likely to induce zombie-like exhaustion than the desperate, caffeine-fuelled rush to finish the work we should have started weeks ago. Make sure your Sleepless in Seattle doesn’t become Night of the Living Dead with practical strategies for managing your time and planning your work.

“What’s this? What’s this?”: searching and finding information

  • It’s easy to become overwhelmed with the sheer quantity of potentially useful sources. Before you know it, you’re struggling through piles of disparate articles like Jack the Pumpkin King skimming the baffling tat of Christmas Town. Learn how to streamline and refine the process by developing your skills in finding and managing relevant sources.
  • “What do you want from us?”: the demands of academic writing at each level

Writing at a new level can feel like trying to navigate a haunted house helped only by annoyingly cryptic messages from the resident ghosts. “Be more critical”, they intone. “Improve your academic language”. Like the unfortunate inhabitants of Hill House and 112 Ocean Avenue, we simply don’t understand what these mysterious forces are asking us to do. These sessions aim to clear away the fog and shed light on the shadowy corners to help you get a better understanding of the requirements of your new academic year.

Session dates and how to book

Book your place and find out more via our online calendar.

Step it up: academic skills for second years

  • Monday 10th October, 13.00 – 13.45

Step it up: academic skills for third and fourth years

  • Thursday 13th October, 14.00 – 14.45

Step it up: academic skills for taught postgraduates

  • Friday 14th October: 11.00 – 11.45

Welcome to the new academic year from your Academic Skills Team!


It’s autumn and the start of the new academic year and you may well have questions about the work you’ll have to do on your course and your assignments.  Luckily, the Academic Skills Team is on hand to help! We’re based in the Philip Robinson Library and are here to support you whether you are new to Newcastle University or are a returning student, whether you’re entering at stage one or doing your PhD. We have a wide range of resources and services to help you develop your academic skills throughout your time at Newcastle.

Firstly, we’re running a meet the team event from the 27th -29th September in the foyer of the Philip Robinson Library. During this event, we’ll be able to answer your questions about our services, show you some of our resources and help you book one-to-ones and workshop sessions. Plus, we’ve got some great freebies to give out!

Throughout the year we’ll be running focused clinics to help you with for example, exams and revision and completing a dissertation. You’ll also find us across Campus in a variety of locations where we’ll be able to answer your academic skills questions. You can find out when and where you can catch us at one of these events on our booking page.

We’ve also got lots of great material for you on the Academic Skills Kit, where you’ll find curated collections to help you at key points of the year. Our latest collection, New at Newcastle, contains useful resources around studying, from applying critical analysis to your work, avoiding plagiarism to time management and healthy study habits. We’ve been working with students over the summer and have created a resource around managing and planning your time, and we’ll be releasing a student led podcast over the next few weeks, where students talk about a range of academic skills issues and provide some useful contacts and advice.

Throughout the year you can make use of our one-to-one sessions, which we offer in person or online. You can book an express slot if you have a quick, focussed question such as how to get started with your work or talking about different reading strategies. If you’d like to discuss a piece of work in more depth, you can book a 50- minute appointment, which will give you the opportunity to work with one of the team and develop strategies you can apply to your work moving forward. Again, you can see all existing availability and book an appointment on our booking page.

Keep an eye out for us on your course, too, as we work with academics across the university to embed our teaching into a range of courses and Canvas sites. In addition, we contribute to the Your Skills programme, where you can sign up to our wide range of sessions run in conjunction with colleagues across the university. These sessions are interactive and focus on information and academic skills to help you reach your full potential as a student. You can find out more on the dedicated Your Skills page ( If you’d like to get in touch quickly, you can use our LiveChat service, just click on the icon on any of the Academic Skills Kit pages between 12 and 4 pm on weekdays and you’ll be able to make contact with one of the team. Lastly,  you can email us with any questions, comments or suggestions on

The Academic Skills Team wishes you all the best for the coming academic year!