About Helen

Head of the Writing Development Center

Catch up with a Cuppa with the WDC: 2020 round up

This academic year has been a challenging one so far, and our WDC tutors have been working hard all term to offer advice and guidance to students and support them with their studies through some circumstances that none of us have experienced before. We’ve found ourselves discussing a variety of issues with our students, and in this new video series, we’d like to share with you some of the main topics that have come up, and some of the advice we’ve shared this term.

Our tutors Caroline and Nicky discuss the questions that students have raised with them this term around the shift to online, remote learning, particularly dealing with overwhelm, lack of structure and motivation. Talking to students, they’ve found some great tips that work, and insights that reassure. Join them with a cuppa of your own, sit back and listen to their review of the first term of this academic year.

One Step at A Time

It’s certainly been an usual start to the 2020/21 academic year. There’s been a whole summer of wondering what’s going to happen and how it’s all going to work, and then, having had plenty of time to settle in over the induction period, teaching’s started in earnest.  

It’s natural to want to hit the ground running. Whether you’re just beginning your degree with us and wanting to make a good start on your new course, or a returning student who’s got a bit of experience under their belt of studying remotely and wanting to keep up and get ahead of yourself, it’s tempting to throw yourself into your studies. After all, none of us have lived and studied like this before, we’re not following in any established footsteps, and one of the best ways to beat fear of the unknown is to dive in.  

If you’re finding though that you’re feeling overwhelmed, anxious or under pressure, or just not sure where you’re going with it all and maybe getting nowhere, it might help to stop for a moment and take stock. One step at a time.

If you’re starting your degree, whether undergraduate or postgraduate, do remember that induction was only the beginning, and the process of transition continues…. well, certainly for your first term, and in many ways, your academic skills will continue to evolve throughout your degree. You’ll have had some light touch academic skills provision in the University’s online induction, but there will be more throughout the whole year, as and when you need it. Certainly no one is expecting you to be fully fledged already, with all the knowledge and skills you need. If you’re feeling behind because you don’t yet feel you know what you’re doing, that’s natural! It’ll come with time and experience. Just because an assignment or task has been set now, doesn’t mean that you already need to know how to do it – learning is scaffolded so you learn the right thing at the right time, rather than being deluged at the start. And if you’re not sure what you’re supposed to be doing yet, ask! It might not be as much as you think, or a bit of a steer might make you feel more focussed. 

Online asynchronous learning is playing a far bigger role for all of us this year than it ever has. This has shifted the way that we organise our work and manage our time, but think about whether it’s controlling you, or you’re in charge of it. Our VLE, Canvas, is structured around weeks and modules of information, packaged up into carefully designed linear chunks, but you can still decide how and when best to engage with it during your week. If several weeks’ worth of content have been released at once, you don’t need to work through it all at once – pace yourself around any synchronous teaching or assessments as your landmarks in which you will need to draw on those synchronous materials, week by week. And just because structured learning materials have been organised into a module on canvas doesn’t mean you have to keep clicking that ‘next’ button and work through it all in one go. Keep your learning active rather than passively clicking through: get an overview of the module, and decide how you’re going to break it up in a way that works with your concentration span, giving yourself time and space to take it in properly and have breaks in between or mix it up with other learning activities. If you’ve been given recommended timings to spend on each thing, remember they’re estimates and don’t feel intimidated by them. They’re just there to help you quantify how much work there is so you know roughly what’s expected and how to factor it into your schedule (as well as helping us estimate how much we’re reasonably asking of you!) – if it’s taking a bit longer or shorter, don’t worry too much.  

Time passes quickly in this first term even at the best of times, but time seems to be moving quite differently this year – speeding by and standing still all at once. Yes, deadlines approach faster than you think they will- that’s a universal truth! But a measured approach is the best, and a targetted one, once the task has become clear in good time. On a bigger scale, try and pace yourself, both to avoid burnout and to make sure that your learning is as efficient as it can be. Doing too much and too randomly at the start before you’ve got a sense of what’s needed and how to prioritise it doesn’t do much good, any more than cramming at the last minute. On a day to day level, to really sink in, learning needs to be broken down and spread out over time. It also helps to mix things up – interweave different activities or topics so you’re fresh and so you feel you’re making progress on several fronts at once. It also really helps you learn!  

And do take breaks and build in time to look after yourself. It’s really difficult at the moment, we know, and it can be tempting to throw yourself into work to feel more in control and more productive, but we all need to vary between work and play. The NCLInlcude app is a great starting point, and remember your Five Ways To Wellbeing. Days can feel very samey now we’re spending more time socially distanced indoors, but building in structured time for study and fun or self-care can be helpful – you need times when you know you’re NOT and SHOULDN’T be working, as well as times set aside for study. We’ve all got a lot of time on our hands at the moment, and work expands to fill the time available if you let it. A good balance of study and fun will help you negotiate between the extremes of burnout and lack of motivation.  

There will be challenges this year – some of them we can anticipate, and others will be more unexpected, but everything in its own time. If you’re not sure now how to do something, then try not to panic just yet – there will be more advice from your lecturers at the appropriate time, or the task might simply become clearer the more experience you get. And you can always contact us at the WDC for study advice!  

First Year, First Term, First week!

it’s the first week of teaching this week, and if you’re a first year just starting your studies, you’ll have completed the university’s online induction programme Newcastle Beginnings, and be wondering what’s next…

Well, don’t worry – induction was only the beginning, just enough of a heads up to get started with. You’ll be getting real hands on experience of teaching, learning and assessment in your subject from now on, so will be able to develop your academic skills in context with real life, relevant examples – which is the best way!

These skills take time to develop and refine, and will evolve over the whole course of your studies. You’re not expected to be a fully fledged university student before your studies even start! Your first year is the time to experiment and develop and find out more about how things work in your own subject and what approaches work for you.

And you’re not on your own. The WDC will be here alongside you throughout your studies to help you develop not just your skills, but your confidence as an independent learner. Our tutor and Head of Service Helen Webster has a message for you to wish you the best as you begin your studies for real!

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How do I improve my academic writing?

Unsurprisingly, given our name, one of the most common questions we’re asked at the Writing Development Centre is “so how do I improve my academic writing?” Although writing is only one of the topics we can help you develop, it is one of the most prominent ones as writing is the main way that learning is assessed in most subjects. Our writing is a reflection of ourselves, our voice, so it can be quite personal, and academic writing in particular can feel a bit of an alien way to express ourselves.

Each subject and level of study ‘does’ academic writing in a slightly different way, and each of us will have different things we need to work on in our own writing. So in our latest “You Ask the WDC” video, our tutor Caroline shares some ways which you can target things to work on and develop your own academic voice.

If you’ve got a question for our You Ask the WDC agony aunts, let us know!

3 Domains of Literature Reviewing

If you’re working on that dissertation or research project, it’s possible that about now you’re feeling as if you’re being swamped by the literature. There’s so much of it to read – how can you possibly get an overview and bring it all together into a coherent review? How do you know what you think of it all, when you’re starting to lose sight of your own project under the weight of what everyone else has ever said? So many literature reviews start to turn into more of a catalogue of the literature – “I read this, it said that, and this is what I thought. Next!”

Critical reading is hard work – if you’re finding it hard going, then be assured it’s not you! There’s a lot going on when we read critically, and it might help to unpick what that is, so you can take control of the process and feel more on top of it.

the WDC have a framework we use called the Three Domains of Critical Reading, which you can apply when you’re ploughing through all that literature for your literature review. We’ve now turned it into an online resource which walks you through three perspectives to look at each text from – Is it any good in its own right? How does it relate to other scholarship? and What use is it to me? In each domain, you’ll find critical questions you can apply when reading to find your own stance on the literature.

You can find the new Three Domains resource on the ASK website, along with printable PDFs to use in your own reading!

New video – online academic communication!

Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash

“Should I say something?”

“What am I expected to say?”

 “Is that the ‘right’ answer?”

 “Does this sound clever enough?”

Academic discussions can be tricky to navigate at the best of times. Add to that unfamiliar environments like webinars or discussion boards and figuring out the best way to communicate with coursemates and teaching staff can become a real headache!

If this sounds familiar, then you might want to check out the WDC’s latest video ‘Communicating Online in an Academic Context’ where we talk through some of these difficulties and offer possible strategies for dealing with them.

Writing coursework….fast!

Photo by Veri Ivanova on Unsplash

Many of you might be facing coursework as a replacement for an exam that just wouldn’t work in an online, remote format. You may have experience of writing assignments before, but not necessarily under such time limits – your writing skills need to be sharp to ensure that you can work efficiently and do your best under such conditions! Especially when you may also have exams to revise for – you don’t want to throw yourself into an assignment at the expense of revision.

Just for you, the WDC have pulled together some of our top advice for really focussed, efficient writing, from analysing the question and planning under pressure, to targetted researching, and writing and editing your work with as little waste as possible. If you are writing essays or similar things for a 24 hour take home paper too, some of these tips might be helpful.

You might also like our videos on free writing as a way of generating writing – and ideas – quickly. This is a useful technique to kickstart the writing process or work through a block.

Communicating in the online academic environment

Typing on a laptop
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With the sudden move to online learning, you may find yourself having a lot more academic discussions online. This might cause some uncertainty about how to communicate appropriately in this strange new space – the ‘online academic environment’.

Listen to Nicky, one of our WDC tutors, talk about some of the potential difficulties associated with communicating online in an academic context and offer some strategies for addressing them. You can also find this information and more in text form on the Academic Skills Kit

Dr Nicky Gardiner, one of the WDC tutors
Dr Nicky Gardiner

New Youtube series: You Ask the WDC!

We know many students have questions about learning in these suddenly uncertain times, and we’re here to help you develop and adapt your study strategies and academic skills to meet these challenges. The current situation is unprecedented – we wish we could tell you how it’s all going to work out, but the truth is, we’re all figuring it out as we go. The good news is, the WDC tutors are experts in learning, and in listening to students to help you find ways of working that will work for you.

To that end, we’ve launched a new video series on Youtube – our Academic Agony Aunts (and Uncle) are here to answer your academic skills queries! in You Ask the WDC, we respond to some of the most common issues you’re raising, whether it’s about remote study, online assessment, or even just a good old fashioned study skills question.

Check out the first videos on our Youtube channel!

Got a question? Submit it here!

Time Management Tips for Troubled Times: Dealing with Overwhelm

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

Term might have got underway, but if you’re feeling behind and overwhelmed with your studies, losing motivation and generally not keeping up, that’s quite understandable. We’re all navigating a completely new way of studying, with new teaching formats to get used to, new learning strategies to adapt and all in the middle of a pandemic crisis. It’s no wonder if you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed, lacking in motivation or suffering from procrastination and uncertainty. This is the latest in our series of Time Management Tips for Troubled Times, in which we try to help you get your mojo back and find your way forward.

  • If you don’t feel ready to start a task (not done enough reading, thinking, etc) or don’t know where you are with it, jump in and start anyway – use this as a way to experiment and find out exactly what else you need to do, rather than a vague sense you’ve not done enough or aren’t sure what you’re doing. 
  • Use freewriting as a way to find a bit of focus. Set a timer for 10 mins, and write a stream-of-consciousness exploring the task you will be working on, what the sticking points are, anything you’re worried about, things that are distracting you and how you feel about it. Don’t stop, don’t edit, don’t judge – this is just you warming up and thinking aloud on paper. 
  • Break tasks down. This allows you to see exactly what needs to be done, and how long it might all take. It also makes big, vague goals into manageable, concrete tasks, where you can see progress. 
  • Build in points where you can reflect, take stock of where you need to be, and check your direction. Try and commit to a goal, even if it’s for a day, rather than switching between them in case you’re worried you’re not doing the right thing.
  • Alternatively, try interleaving – every hour, two hours or mornings and afternoons, switch task. This might help you feel that you’re keeping all the plates spinning, and actually helps you refresh your concentration. It’s also true that if you leave a problem you’re stuck with, your brain is likely to have made progress on it when you were thinking about something else. 
  • Think How, not just What. Focus on the actions you need to take, not the things you need to achieve, and make your intention to implement the goal explicit. ‘IF I am going to achieve ……., THEN I will do …..
  • Make each task as concrete as possible, to make it doable and give yourself a sense of achievement. You could frame it in SMART terms:
    • Specific: What exactly will the output be? Which section or paragraph?
    • Measurable: How many words will you write, approx?
    • Achievable: How realistic is this? How ‘finished’ does it have to be?
    • Relevant: how does this contribute to the rest of your work? How important is it?
    • Timebound: how long will you work on it?
  • Build in small, immediate, short term rewards for things where the real outcome is a longer way off. 
  • Reward yourself for a job done, or for progress made, whether you feel it is well done or not.
  • Intrinsic rewards: A sense of achievement or pride is a kind of reward, so frame your work in a way that allows you to tick things off or check how well you’re doing. 
  • Extrinsic rewards: You could also use rewards that have nothing to do with work. Rewards should be small and also framed in SMART terms so you don’t get distracted from returning to work.
  • You’re likely to put something off if you don’t think you can do it. If you aren’t sure what it is you’re supposed to achieve or how to go about it, list up the questions you have, so you can find answers – friends on the course, a peer mentor, your lecturer, a Writing Development Centre tutor. Identifying what you don’t know is the beginning of finding out.
  • If your planned time didn’t quite go to plan, write a list of ‘things achieved’ anyway – this will help you see where you’re still being productive or where you need to get back on track, without making you feel you’ve achieved nothing.
  • There is often no single right answer, or no single right way to do something at university. If  an approach isn’t working for you, try a different way rather than avoiding a task due to fear of failure or not being good enough. Find your own best way to study.

Prefer to hear it than read? Listen to Helen, one of our WDC tutors, talk you through some tips.

Dr Helen Webster, WDC
Dr Helen Webster, WDC