About Helen

Head of the Writing Development Center

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

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

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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

Active Independent Learning

Learning remotely and online can present new challenges, or just put a strain on your existing learning strategies. You might be finding that you’re being provided with a lot of learning materials such as powerpoint slides, video, readings or handouts. What do you do with all this material, and how can you make sure you’re learning effectively rather than just staring at your screen, with nothing really going in?

Listen to Helen, one of our tutors, suggesting a few strategies to ensure that you’re actively engaging with learning materials and getting the most out of them.

Dr Helen Webster, WDC
Dr Helen Webster, WDC

Time Management Tips for Troubled Times: Structure and Routine

Photo by Mark Tegethoff on Unsplash

Term might be starting again, but it’s not always going to be possible to carry on as normal, when things really aren’t normal. If you’re able to, you might find it helpful to create a bit of routine to stay motivated and regain some control. This is the third in our series of Time Management Tips for Troubled Times, in which we explore Time and Space to help you get back a bit of normality in your day!


Without the full structured timetable of campus learning, your day can become a bit shapeless. Some teaching will still be synchronous (everyone participating at the same time), but much may move to ‘asynchronous’ where participants engage with the learning activities and resources at different times, so it’s more up to you when you study.

  • You might find that keeping to a similar schedule as your normal studying week is helpful, if that’s possible. You don’t have the commute, so you can get up a little later, but a routine that starts with setting the alarm and getting up, and getting on with learning as soon as possible, might work for you. Take regular breaks, stop work at a specific time, like 5pm, and keep bedtimes regular too!
  • You might find that a regular schedule is not possible for you, however. Instead, you might build in structured elements into your day, for example, a set number ‘blocks’ of work of a couple of hours (or more, or less, as works for you), to be fitted into each day where possible. 
  • Make sure you get down to a study task as soon as possible when you start work– you might find it helps to make it fairly small and specific, and easy to do – something like re-reading notes from the day before, or answering three emails, and perhaps decide what it’s going to be the night before.
  • Far-off deadlines are not motivating. Set smaller deadlines which are closer in time and more frequent. This could be the date by which you want to achieve or finish a task, or a time by which you want to move on to a different phase of work ie from reading to writing, or from exploratory thinking to deciding what you want to focus on. 
  • Build in cycles where you revisit learning, especially if you have exams to revise for so you can build up your memory, but also if you’re writing an assignment, to check your planning and original reading. This helps deepen your learning and keep a focused direction. Revisit it after a day, three days, a week, two weeks etc. 
  • If ‘work expands to fill the time available’, meaning that it seems to take forever, then try factoring in some time to do other things first –whether they are urgent priorities such as daily chores or something more pleasant, like exercise. Once part of your day is earmarked for those, your studies will have to fit around them, meaning that you’re likely to be more productive when you do work as time is more scarce.


Going into uni for the day clearly marked study from leisure time. When you’re spending all your time at home, making that clear distinction is going to be harder, but if you can find a way to mark ‘study’ from ‘other’ time physically or symbolically, it will help. 

  • You might be lucky enough to have a room that you can keep purely for learning, and turn it into a ‘study’. Make sure you close the door on it for the day, and decide how many hours is a reasonable amount of time to work, for you. 
  • You might be able to repurpose a part of a room such as like the dining table or a corner of the living room and set it up as your dedicated workspace so you’re in ‘work mode’ when seated there. Consider how to ensure your workspace is comfortable to sit at for longer periods, and how to keep distractions to a minimum, whether it’s moving temptations like your phone or displacement activities like laundry into another room, or negotiating times when other household members can’t expect your attention.
  • You might need to negotiate with others in your household to commandeer a suitable space temporarily for periods of the day. You could agree times to suit your best times of day for working (possibly a number of shorter periods might help you take breaks, rather than one longer period). Consider how you might set up your space for this period to create a working environment, even temporarily, whether that’s removing distractions where possible or using ‘props’ to create a focused atmosphere which you associate with study, such as particular music or background noise, a scented candle, or something that reminds you of your uni environment.  
  • You might have very limited space, for example if you’re living in a study bedroom. Where at all possible, avoid working in bed, as this might impair your sleep, which in turn will impact on your ability to study and cope with other things. If you can set up a different corner of your space for study, even for part of the day, you might use cues such as objects that remind you of uni, getting dressed in ‘work’ clothes, or particular music or other background sounds that create a different environment. 
  • If you have some flexibility over where you work, you might try moving around during the day – writing at the kitchen table in the morning, reading and taking notes in the living room during the afternoon, for example. This might help recharge up your energy levels and the variety might help keep you focused. 
  • If you are living with others who also need to work, whether this is study or working from home, you might find it’s helpful to work together to keep each other momentum and motivation. You could even organize this remotely with coursemates elsewhere through a virtual study group. 

Rather listen to an audio version? Here’s our tutor Helen talking you through some of these tips:

Dr Helen Webster, WDC
Dr Helen Webster, WDC

Time Management Tips for Troubled Times: Working in short bursts

Photo by Tonny Tran on Unsplash

Stress and worry are completely natural at the moment, and will impact on your ability to focus and think straight. You might also be trying to study in less than ideal circumstances, having to share a computer or fitting it around other priorities such as caring responsibilities or managing daily chores. All is not lost though – you can be surprisingly productive in short bursts, and you can still make progress while being kind to yourself and mindful and realistic about what you can take on. This is the second in our series of Time Management Tips for Troubled Times, in which we look at working with, not against, your reserves of time and energy.

  • Be mindful each day, and as the day progresses, of what your concentration span or demands on your attention realistically are, and work within that. Don’t put expectations on yourself to work for an hour or more if it’s not going to happen – it will make you feel worse. You can achieve a lot in shorter slots of time.
  • Break tasks down into as small chunks as possible, and be specific about what you’re aiming to achieve. Big, vague goals in your mind then become manageable concrete tasks with a clear output.  If you only realistically have 10 mins, ‘read the article’ might not be achievable, but ‘skim the first page and identify 3 key points’ might be.
  • When you break, take a moment to leave a ‘note to future self’ about where you got to or what you were intending to do next. 
  • A to-do list with all your tasks easily becomes overwhelming and can become a displacement activity in itself. You might use a ‘next action’ list, keep it short and make it on the day, just to cover the immediate future. What’s the next thing you need to do to take a step forwards?
  • Set concrete criteria for when a task is ‘finished’ or even just ‘good enough’. What exactly would that look like in practical terms? 
  • Make sure your learning approach is active – we quickly disengage if we’re just passively watching or reading something. When reading or watching a lecture, try summarising paragraphs, making a mindmap, leaving notes to self about ideas, connections or questions that occur to you, etc
  • Is there anything you can do with your environment that might make it easier to concentrate undisturbed? This might mean negotiating with other members of your household, or just thinking about what helps when you are on campus and recreating that, from background noise apps to setting up your table to remind you of working in a university study space.
  • Find a way to block distractions. Repeatedly having to make yourself ignore them will drain your energy to say no to them, so see if you can avoid them altogether (ie a social media blocker, turning phones off, studying somewhere with few temptations).  Of course, some distractions, such as children, can’t be handled in this way!
  • Make sure you’re only doing one thing at a time. For example, if you’re writing, make sure that you are EITHER writing a first draft OR planning it OR editing it OR checking it – don’t try to do all those things at once, but separate the process out. If you’re reading, EITHER skim to find the relevant bits OR read marked sections in depth to foster understanding OR critique the whole. 
  • Try freewriting for 10 minutes. Set a timer and write, as a stream of consciousness  without stopping, whatever comes to mind about what you’re reading, revising or thinking, and see what comes out. It might be the first draft of something, it might move your thinking on, or it might clarify a sticking point. 
  • If one of your short working blocks doesn’t go as planned, let it go and see the next one as a fresh start. Short working blocks are low risk, whereas if you try and work all afternoon and it doesn’t go to plan, you might feel anxious that time has been wasted. 

No time to read? Listen to our tips instead! Our tutor Helen will talk you through.

Dr Helen Webster, WDC
Dr Helen Webster, WDC

Time Management Tips for Troubled Times: Getting going again

Your Easter break may not have been the one you were planning (although we hope the Easter Bunny brought you some chocolate) but there’s no doubt we all needed a bit of a rest after all the upheaval and disruption we’ve been through. It’s still the vacation, although you might find your thoughts turning to the new term – work you still need to complete, assessments you might need to prepare for – or just wondering what the new term will be like, studying remotely. If you’ve had to move home to study, been unwell or had to take some time out to focus on other urgent priorities, you might be finding it particularly hard to know where to start or how to get going again. 

Photo by Mitchell Orr on Unsplash

The WDC has had a good think about how we can help you with picking up and getting going with your studies again in what are most certainly challenging circumstances. We didn’t want to trot out the usual smug tips on organising your time, but thought hard about the things you might be facing, and how we can help you be compassionate with yourself, doing the best you can. Below is the first in our series of Time Management Tips for Troubled Times – you’ll find more on the ASK website!

  • The main thing is to make a start, less so where to start. Make your first step small so it feels do-able, whether it’s just digging out your module or programme handbook or any other information you need, or filtering through your emails or BlackBoard notifications to pick out important communications about changes to teaching and assessment, or assignment deadlines (maybe just a week’s worth if there has been a deluge of them!). Even just logging on might help you feel back in the swing a little. 
  • Figure out first if there are any priorities you need to be aware of such as assessment. Your lecturer may have posted these already, but you could also check with friends on your course or contact your module leader if you’re uncertain or concerned. 
  • You might have several modules or assignments competing for your attention. Does one of them have a more urgent deadline, or is there one you feel more behind with?
  • You might begin by going back to your module handbook and any other information about the module to refresh your memory about its learning outcomes, topics covered already and those yet to be covered. You could gently review work you’ve already done, lecture notes, ReCap recordings or past assignments just to familiarize yourself again with the topic, activate that learning again and remind yourself that you do know things! Don’t see this as revision or worry if you can’t remember details, you’re just refreshing your sense of it and reactivating your memory.
  • If you feel you’ve missed a lot of content, you might just watch any video content for each week to get a sense of what’s been covered, rather than working through all of each week in turn. You can then go back and undertake any activities that have been set, or pursue any reading, for previous weeks. This will even help you synthesise your understanding across the module so far, getting a better overview to help make connections and prioritise.
  • Try doing a bit of freewriting to get back in the flow, either to warm up for writing or just to get your thoughts moving again. Set a timer for 10 minutes and write, as a stream of consciousness without stopping, whatever comes to mind about the studies you’re picking up again, and see what comes out.

No time to read? Listen to our tutor Helen talking you through these tips.

Dr Helen Webster, WDC
Dr Helen Webster, WDC

At Home with… The WDC

The first in a new series in which members of the Newcastle University community discuss how they’re negotiating the current disruption. Or not … because, well, everything’s a bit difficult, isn’t it?

Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

Many of us, including the entire WDC team, are currently working or studying from home. One of the things we’ve found we have in common with the students we’ve been speaking to is a struggle with the initial loss of structure and routine this transition has caused. These routines – getting up at a certain time, having somewhere to go, arriving at the library at a particular time, studying a specific topic on a set day – help keep us motivated and stay focused. Their sudden loss can affect our mental wellbeing. 

Now, before we get to the core content of this post, one thing needs to be acknowledged. And that’s that the world is a very difficult place to live in right now. You may have other, far more pressing things requiring your time and attention. Focused work may be an impossibility. And that’s fine. We can recommend some funny fainting goat videos if you need them.

But if focusing on your work or studies is something you’d find helpful right now and you’re interested in reading about how other people are coping in these challenging circumstances, this is the series for you. You might even pick up a tip or two. 

We hope to chat to students, academics and professional services staff so do stay tuned. First up … well, of course it’s us! We, the WDC – Helen, Nicky, Victoria and Caroline – got together to discuss the challenges we’ve faced and the things that have helped us stay focused, keep motivated and feel like we’re ‘at work’ when we’re really just huddled in the only tidy corner of the front room.

Working from home can be challenging in many ways. What are the biggest challenges for you personally?

Caroline: As a student, I really struggled with perfectionist tendencies and perfectionism is still something I have to negotiate. So, for me, one of the biggest challenges has been dealing with the gulf between my idealised image of homeworking – where I am super productive and always motivated – versus the reality. 

Helen: As I’m stuck at home, there’s no clear divide between work time and home time as there would be if I was commuting to the library each day – there’s the danger of either overworking with no ‘cut-off point’ or just feeling constantly guilty that I *should* be working….

Have you been able to overcome these challenges? If so, how?

Nicky: My current strategy is to do things that help me go into ‘work mode’. I still dress as if I were going into work, even wearing my formal shoes around the house! 

Helen: I’m lucky that I can keep a room specifically for work – I’m trying to close the door on it at 5pm. I’m still using the same laptop for work and watching Netflix though, so I’m trying to close down the browser windows and mute the notifications for work at 5pm, and likewise, the one for Netflix and social media is firmly closed at 9am! I’m also still ‘getting dressed’ for work in the mornings, and the PJs only get worn after 5. 

How do you manage to stay focused and remain productive? In other words, how do you make sure you feel like you’re “at work” when you’re at home?!

Victoria: I’ve tried to keep to as much of a routine as I can.  Logging on and checking in with colleagues by 9am has helped to frame the start of my day. It’s a small detail, but I’ve also kept to my work-wardrobe, wearing clothes I would tend to keep for work rather than allowing myself to get used to more loungewear! I’ve also given myself tasks to do each day, and used my calendar to identify those tasks in my working day. I’ve also discovered that the most productive place for me to be is at my kitchen table where I can look out into the garden and I have plenty of daylight coming through the conservatory. 

Helen: I’m not sure how focussed and productive it’s possible to be right now, but keeping a clear sense of why I’m doing this really helps. Whatever routine tasks I have to tick off, I’m bearing in mind that I’m working to support students, and thinking of the real motivation for this helps. I’m also being far stricter with myself about taking lunch breaks and knocking off at 5pm than I am usually at work!  

What new skills have you had to develop?

Victoria: The knowledge of using software, such as Zoom. However, rather than new skills, I feel as though I’m honing and refining other skills, such as self-focus.  It could be possible to get drawn into making more cups of tea and doing other things I enjoy, such as working in the garden. However, the professional work I do is important to me and that continues to give me a sense of purpose to my days and motivates me to keep a sense of focus to my working days.  

Nicky: I’ve had to become a bit more disciplined in scheduling my days to alternate between work-tasks and breaks. Otherwise the two tend to bleed into each other and I’m no good to anyone!

What have you had to let go of? This might be a particular habit or skill, or just a way in which you’ve generally had to manage your expectations and ‘lower your standards’?

Caroline: I have found it incredibly helpful to redefine my idea of “productivity.” I’m now trying to focus on what I produce or achieve in a day – writing a blog post, making a valuable contribution to a team meeting, helping a student with their dissertation – rather than how many hours I spend at my desk. That way, I don’t feel guilty for not being “on” all the time and for needing to take breaks to have a rest or manage my anxiety, 

Victoria: Rather than letting go, I see it as embracing how I deal with uncertainty.  Rather than trying to ‘have everything figured out’, I’m working through my own thinking and approach to the speed at which things are changing, and how I can respond and work with these rapid changes.

Nicky: Control? A lot of my coping strategies so far have been aimed at maintaining a sense of control over my surroundings, but there’s only so much I can do. In truth, I think I’m just trying to give myself time to adapt and embrace the ‘new normal’.

Helen: I think the biggest challenge for any perfectionist is letting go of the idea that perfection is desirable, let alone possible. No one really knows what they are doing, or what to expect, and I’m learning to work with that in a positive way. If we’re all making things up as we go along, maybe there are no standards to judge ‘perfect’ when you’re innovating and being creative. 

If you could pass just one “Top Tip” to the many others currently working or studying from home, what would it be?

Caroline: Start each day by asking yourself what being productive would look like for you today. Think about what you need to do, and what you feel able to do. 

Victoria: Be kind to yourself. This is a very unique set of circumstances that we are learning to cope with. Of course, we are also juggling changes to our working/studying patterns with other important tasks, be it keeping in contact (virtually) with family members, taking care of dependents, and that’s if we are feeling well ourselves!

Nicky: It can be useful to try and retain a sense of normality in these circumstances, but don’t give yourself a hard time when the abnormal (inevitably) encroaches. At the end of the day, this is a very unusual situation and sometimes we have no choice but to roll with the changes.

Helen: Don’t forget to take breaks. Breaks are something you need, rather than deserve. And set yourself one small, doable task each day with a really concrete output so you feel you’ve gone something done that wasn’t there before.