About Helen

Head of the Writing Development Center

Working to deferred deadlines this summer?

This academic year has certainly been unsettled and unpredictable, and this has impacted on the assessment deadlines that structure our work. If your deadlines have been deferred to accommodate the disruption, or if you have an extension to a piece of coursework, this has hopefully given you the breathing space you need to complete assignments to the best of your ability (which this year, might also mean ‘good enough’). But it may also mean that these assignments are overlapping with other things you need to do this summer such as dissertations, exams, or simply having a break. Here are five resources from the WDC which might help you manage them.

Need for speed?

Sometimes, you just need to write an assignment … fast. Check out our video on doing just that:

We also have an accompanying guide outlining the essentials to focus on when producing coursework fast – probably things you already know, but sometimes it helps to boil it down!

Need to stop procrastinating?

It’s never easy, but we have some suggestions to help identify what might be putting you off so that you can make progress. 

Need to get going?

Procrastination can creep in because getting started with writing can be tricky and seeing an assignment as whole can seem daunting. Write all day?! Write 2000 words?! Why not give yourself a gentler start with a smaller, more manageable target and build your work up gradually. Our 1-Hour Writing Challenge could be just the thing to help you make a start, get some words down, and build momentum. 

Need to concentrate?

We have a range of resources for you if you’re struggling to focus and would like to create a sense of structure

Need to know what to do today?

Sometimes *everything* seems urgent. But it isn’t. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, check out our short-term planning tool to help you set priorities when everything seems a bit much.  

How can you learn *everything* for an exam?

an image of a full dinner party table
Photo by Matheus Frade on Unsplash

Exams are a common cause of stress, and I think one of the reasons is that the ‘curriculum’ at university, unlike the school curriculum, is very open-ended – there isn’t a finite, definitive list of all the things you have to learn, just a suggested starting point. You’re expected to ‘read around’ on top of the material covered in lectures, so there’s no ‘end point’ where you can say ‘i have learned everything and I can stop now’. It can feel unmanageable and overwhelming. Anything could and might come up in the exam, so how do you, how can you, prepare for that? 

So there really is a limit to how much you can realistically learn, and just because in theory with an open-ended curriculum, if it’s relevant, you could include *anything* in an exam, doesn’t mean you have to learn *everything* just in case. One of the keys to doing well in exams is understanding what is really being tested, being selective about what you learn and thinking about how and why you select it.  

What’s often behind this stress, this perception that you need to learn ‘everything’, is that we’re often not clear about what exams actually test and how that’s different to other forms of assessment, and we’re not sure what the expectations are that we’re trying to meet. We try to hold ourselves to the same standards we’d expect when we’re working on a piece of coursework, because that’s a standard that’s familiar, that we know, and exams are the unknown (which is kind of the point of them). This is true even of take-home exam papers – although you often have a longer time period, such as 24 hours, you’re not expected to learn everything or research *everything* within that time frame as you would with coursework – you’re working with information that’s already to hand and familiar.

There are differences between subjects – if you’re studying the physical or medical sciences, for example, there is especially in the first years, an emphasis on memorisation and understanding of key information, and a bit less on the kind of open-ended analytical thinking that you’d find in an Arts and Humanities subject where it’s less about learning core facts and more about building arguments- but certainly in higher stages, there is less of a difference.  

Let me give you an analogy to help illustrate the difference between the expectations for coursework and exams. So coursework, whether it’s a report or an essay or a dissertation or other piece of writing, is like giving a dinner party. You know in good time that you are going to throw a dinner party for your friends, and you can fix a lot of things in advance – which friends you’re going to invite and how many people, what they like and or can’t eat etc. You then have time to do some research in your cookbooks and online recipe blogs to decide what the menu will be, find just the right recipe, you can spend time sourcing the right ingredients in all the different places, you can go to the deli, to the posh supermarket, that specialist shop you’ve found, and you can plan how you’re going to approach it, practice any techniques and make sure everything’s prepared on the day. Your guests expect you to go to that effort and put in that extra work to make it a bit special for them. Now, you don’t throw dinner parties that often, and even if you did, you’d probably not cook that exact meal again for those same people, so chances are, the ingredients you’ve bought might not get used again much, they are quite specialist, for a particular recipe and occasion, and that’s ok. You *might* find another use for that particular jar of unusual spices you bought, or you might not and it’ll quietly go out of date at the back of your cupboard, but that’s not the point. It was sought out and chosen for a particular purpose, and that’s been achieved, you’ve shown that you can plan, source and prepare a special meal and you’ve impressed your friends. Coursework tests your ability to do just that – think about how you’re doing to approach it, find and choose just the right knowledge and use it in just the right way for that particular task, and if it’s a bit unusual or special, so much the better, you’re showing off. And you don’t need to memorise or keep all that knowledge handy – the point is that you were able to find it and use it when you needed it.  

Now, an exam is much more like an evening when you’re sitting at home and a couple of your friends turn up at your door unexpectedly, they were in the area and thought they’d drop in and say hi. They’re also hungry. Your job here is to keep a well-stocked store cupboard of things which you could throw together to give them a couple of options depending on what they fancy and whether one of them is vegetarian or doesn’t like spicy food, whatever. And by ‘well stocked store cupboard’, I don’t mean you’ve got every possible ingredient in, I mean you’ve got the basics, the rice, the pasta, the bread, the tins of tomatoes, maybe some cheese, onions, peppers, lentils… enough things that are the foundation of a meal and could potentially be turned into a number of different dishes. You’ve also got the herbs and spices and other things that could be thrown in there to help you create those different options and make it tasty and interesting. No one is going to expect a three course meal with elaborate ingredients, but with the basics and a few creative options, you could offer a pasta dish, a curry or tasty soup according to what’s needed. IF you still have that jar of spice from that dinner party last month, fine, throw it in there if you think it would work. And that’s what exams test – can you answer questions and problem-solve under time pressure with what you have to hand – not *everything*, but do you have the fundamentals, the essentials and a few useful, adaptable things you can use flexibly in multiple ways, throw in there to spice it up a bit creatively so that you’re responding to whatever challenge is set on the day. You’re not expected to know absolutely everything, no matter how niche, or create perfect, polished and in-depth answers- that wouldn’t be realistic under the circumstances, nor would it be a useful thing to test. Students often ask us if they should include references in exams – it might add a bit of interest if you could throw in the names and dates of a couple of relevant or key studies, but there would be little value in asking you to memorise the full bibliographic details of references – why would you need that information in your head? 

So when it comes to selecting and managing your revision, you’ve got two starting points. The first, to ensure that you’ve got the essentials in stock, are the lectures. These will cover the fundamental, essential facts, concepts or techniques you will need. When you’re going back over lecture recordings and notes, don’t get sucked into revising everything, but try and distinguish which is the core knowledge, and what are illustrations, examples, demonstrations or just interesting asides. If you want to cross-check this, you could map your understanding of the fundamentals with a textbook or handbook or two – where the coverage overlaps, that’s reassuring you that you’ve covered the essentials. You can also add in anything else you find in your reading around as that extra spice, those additional ingredients you can throw in to adapt those essentials in different ways or give them different flavours to respond to the question you’re set in the exam, but again, you can’t learn everything – the key is to go for things that could be used flexibly in various ways or for different purposes. 

The second starting point, which might give you reassurance that you’ve covered the essentials AND that the kind of extras you’re selecting will earn their keep, is past papers. Try working with past papers right from the start of your revision process – NOT to question-spot or predict what will come up this year, that’s very unreliable, and NOT to test yourself to see if you HAVE learned something, but as a guide to the kinds of thing that are typically called on in exams, as a way to think through how you might use a piece of knowledge in an exam, how useful or adaptable or central it’s likely to be. What would you need in order to answer that question, bearing in mind the time limit in the exam and the fact that you can only be expected to work with what we can reasonably assume is in your head? If you’re wondering whether or not you need to learn a particular piece of information, could you see how you might potentially use it in more than one question, or is it so niche that it’s unlikely to be an essential or even useful as an optional extra? 

No past papers for your module? Try this – put yourself in the examiner’s shoes and set your own questions. If this was your module, what questions would you set to test your students’ knowledge of the essentials and also their ability to problem solve creatively under pressure, with a time limit and only what it’s worth carrying in their heads rather than researching? How much would you test, how much depth, how much detail, before you felt you’d got a reasonable measure that they know their stuff? Would it be worth them learning that knowledge or is that more the kind of knowledge they just need to know how to find if they needed it for coursework? 

So when you’re revising for exams, and perhaps looking over previous coursework from the module to help you prepare, don’t feel that you need to reproduce a coursework-standard answer in an exam – they’re testing different kinds of learning, and expect different sorts of response. You don’t have to learn *everything*.  

Revising during a pandemic

Photo by Jakub Kriz on Unsplash

Research has show that we can often recall things better when we are in the same context as we were when we learned them. The features of our environment enrich our memory with more detail (the sounds, scents and sights around us), which act as prompts to cue recall when we try to remember that information in the same situation. 

When sitting an exam in a traditional exam hall, this can work against us, as we will not be in the same surroundings (library, study bedroom etc) that we were when we were studying for the exam. Some people use ‘portable’ cues such as a particular scent they associate with studying, but generally under normal exam conditions, you have to work extra hard to find intrinsic ways to prompt yourself within the material you’re learning rather than relying on external cues.  

This year, most students will be taking exams ‘at home’, in the same environment they have been studying in, and you can use this to your advantage. However, over the last year, you may have had to live in lockdown conditions or isolate yourself, or been unwell. Many people have found that this has impacted on their memory, concentration span and motivation. They’ve found that they are forgetful, their minds are prone to wandering, it’s harder to think straight or get organised and they have ‘brain fog’.

This is happening as it’s likely that your environment hasn’t changed much and days seemed very similar. There is very little variation to distinguish one memory from another, or novelty to make anything stand out as worthy of attention. Chronic boredom and monotony do not make good memories, or make you want to take notice of your surroundings. Social interaction can be stimulating, but much of our socialising has been online, which is known to be more tiring, requiring greater concentration and resulting in overload and overwhelm. We have all been living in stressful circumstances to one degree or another for a long time, and this too can wear away at our ability to focus.  

This all means that material you learned during lectures and other teaching might be less easy to remember and all blurs together, and also that your revision becomes more difficult as your circumstances don’t vary enough to aid your memory or concentration.  

Try to deliberately vary your surroundings as much as possible – change room or position in your room as much as possible, change something about your room by moving things around every so often, or change up the things you’re using to revise – your notepad, font or ink colour. Be a little cautious about changing the sounds around you by using music or radio – listening to music splits your attention, adds an extra load on your mental processes and means you have less awareness to focus on what you’re learning.  

If you’re finding that learning really is becoming a struggle and you’re concerned at the impact on your results, do speak to your Personal Tutor or contact Student Wellbeing.   

Dealing with Overwhelm – 7 Ways to Set Priorities

Watch these lectures! Read these articles! Complete this quiz! Just logging on to your Canvas module pages can sometimes feel like being buried beneath an avalanche of tasks to complete. Seeing so many different learning activities competing for your attention can easily feel intimidating and you might well find yourself asking ‘Where am I supposed to find the time and energy to do all of these things?’  

Well, the truth is that not all learning tasks are created equal, and your time and attention are valuable – and finite – resources. You can’t put 100% effort into every activity without quickly burning out, so it’s more effective to be selective and distribute these resources appropriately. Try giving yourself a moment to decide where you can take a more relaxed approach by skimming texts and lectures to jot down key content, and where you might need to engage more deeply with the material by taking more comprehensive notes and re-watching important lectures.  

But how do you decide what content to prioritise? There’s no one answer to this as not everyone’s priorities will be the same. Whilst you can’t know for certain which activities will be the most important, you can make an educated guess by looking out for clues and reflecting on your own preferences and motivations for study. To help figure out which activities to prioritise, here are some things you can try. 

If you don’t know where to start, look to outside clues: 

1. Check the module objectives. The objectives stated in the module handbook or the ‘syllabus tab’ on Canvas often give clues to which content is most important. For example, if the objective is to ‘become familiar with the latest developments in etc. etc..’, then it might be worth prioritising learning activities that focus on recent issues and deprioritising historical background. 

2. Watch out for repetition. If the same concept, idea or theory keeps coming up over the course of a module (or even across different modules) then it’s likely an important topic that’s worth prioritising until you develop a solid understanding. 

3. Use upcoming assignments as a guide. If you have an assignment coming up on a specific topic, try prioritising associated content as it’s more likely to be directly relevant in the near future. And don’t feel you have to look at modules in isolation, sometimes content from one module is useful for an assignment for another. 

4. Pay attention to tutor comments. Sometimes your tutors will explicitly state what ideas or topics they feel are the most relevant in lecture videos, commentary or activity descriptions. Alternatively, you might want to get in touch with your module tutor and ask what items they recommended prioritising. 

If you’re feeling a little more confident, look inside yourself:

5. Go with your gut. Not everyone’s priorities will be the same and it’s perfectly fine to prioritise the topics or activities you find most interesting and engaging. The more invested you are in a topic, the more likely you are to retain information and develop a deeper understanding. 

6. Consider your goals. Ask yourself ‘what do I want to get from this module/course/degree?’ Perhaps you have specific career ambitions, personal learning goals or just want to make sure you pass the module. Prioritise the content that speaks to these ambitions. 

7. Target your weaknesses. Maybe you’ve received feedback that indicates you need to improve your understanding of a certain subject, or maybe there’s a topic that you just know you have trouble with. You might want to prioritise that content for a while, if you think it’s relevant and likely to come up again.  

What To Do Today: 4 Ds to help you manage overwhelm

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Some days it’s hard to know where to start. There are lectures to watch, additional reading to catch-up on, that essay to finish by the end of the week, those seminar notes to review. Oh and the laundry basket’s overflowing and that other essay title has just been released. 

It’s natural to feel overwhelmed when so many things are competing for our attention. And, when we’re stressed, we often find it harder to prioritise, assigning every task equal importance.  

This is when the 4 Ds might come in handy. This is a short-term time management strategy designed to be used on the day to help regain a bit of perspective. This technique can help us prioritise our tasks for the day so that we can at least make a start, make some progress and start feeling productive and in control again. 

The 4 Ds stand for Do, Defer, Delegate and Dump.  


What will you focus on today? To help you decide, you may like to think about: 

  • What is most urgent, in terms of deadlines etc.? 
  • How much time do you realistically have available today? Which task(s) would best fit into this time?  
  • What would calm you down the most and/or make you feel like you’d made progress? Sometimes, just making a start on something you’ve been putting off for a while is enough to make you feel you’re back on track. 


These are tasks that you will need to get to shortly, but they’re not urgent enough to have to be done today. Often, we worry we’re going to forget to do something if we don’t do it immediately. Help prevent this by making a list of any tasks you’re deferring. You may then find it helpful to put this list out of sight so the tasks you have lined up for the future don’t distract you from the one you’ve chosen to focus on today. You can refer to this list again the next time you’re deciding your ‘Dos’ for the day. 


Is there anything (outside of your studies, of course!) you could ask somebody else to take on to free your time up a little bit? Granted, the opportunities for delegation are few and far between at present due to social distancing. But perhaps you could still do something like getting a housemate to take your turn loading the dishwasher to give you a clear run at studying? 


As we mentioned at the beginning, that overwhelm is often caused by too many things competing for our attention at once. Which tasks could we eliminate from that competition – for now? What might we need to get to eventually, even fairly soon, but which we could ignore for today while we make progress with more urgent things? Dumping a task isn’t permanent. That task might become a ‘Do’ in two days time. This is just a way of clearing some headspace for the tasks that have the greatest priority right now. When you’re juggling lots of plates, it’s worth recognising that some are made of glass and some are made of paper. Dropping a glass plate may have a long-term impact on your future, but dropping a paper one won’t. Sometimes it’s okay to let the odd thing slide.  

The 4 Ds is just one of the time management tips our tutors Nicky and Caroline discussed in their Cuppa and a Catch-up video last month. They introduce this strategy at the 30.53 mark, but you may wish to check out the rest of the video for more top tips. And if you’d like to discuss time management or any other study strategies with us, you’re welcome to book an online 1-1. Head to our website to find out more.  

5 Fab WDC Resources to See You Through the New Semester

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

The new semester is fast approaching so we’ve compiled 5 resources to help you get back into the swing of things and support you throughout the next few weeks.  

  1. Getting Going Again 

It can be tricky to pick things back up after a break, particularly during troubled times like these. We originally wrote this blog post at Easter but it’s worth revisiting for our top tips on finding your way back into your studies. We also have a soundcloud version if you prefer audio:


  1. Creating structure and routine 

Getting back into routine can be one of the more challenging aspects of beginning of a new semester. Creating a sense of structure and establishing a realistic, healthy routine is trickier than ever right now. You may wish to start by reflecting on what worked best for you last semester, and what you feel you’d like to change. Check out our hints and tips in our blog post or listen to an audio version, if you prefer.

  1. Working in short bursts 

It can be tempting to want to hit the ground running at the start of a new semester. However, it’s often best to give yourself a gentle start to ease yourself back in rather than trying to do ALL OF THE THINGS AT ONCE. Indeed, working in short bursts can improve motivation, concentration and productivity in the long-term. Check out our guide from a previous blog post, or listen to us talk you through it!

  1. Active Independent Learning 

We know: it’s been all too easy to start out with the best intentions at the beginning of a study session then end up spending hours just staring at a screen and feeling like nothing’s really going in. Check out our guide to active independent learning to help ensure you’re studying as effectively as you can. 

  1. Dealing with overwhelm 

Deadlines. Additional reading. 5 lectures to watch. 3 seminars to attend. Discussion boards to contribute to. It can all feel a bit much sometimes, and that’s perfectly understandable. Our guide to dealing with overwhelm can help you take a breath and find your way forward. Also on Soundcloud:


Very best of luck for the new semester from all of us at the WDC. And remember, you can always book one of our online 1-1 tutorials if you’d like to review and discuss any aspect of your writing and study skills. Check out our website for more details    

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 Academic Skills Team will be here alongside you throughout your studies to help you develop not just your skills, but your confidence as an independent learner. Sarah Cullen, one of the learning developers in the team gives you an overview of some of the support and services we offer.


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!