About Helen

Head of the Writing Development Center

Best wishes from the WDC

It’s the last day of term, and what a strange term it’s been. The Easter vacation will give us all a bit of breathing space to figure out how learning and teaching is going to work for the near future. Many students have gone home to family, some are staying here in Newcastle, but few of us have the ideal conditions to work and study productively in. We don’t yet have a clear idea of how teaching and assessment is going to adapt to the new situation, so it’s hard at the moment to work constructively towards that anyway. And all of us have more urgent things than study to worry about right now too. The Writing Development Centre will be here alongside you, supporting you as ever to become confident, successful learners, but for now, we want to encourage you to take a bit of a break, look after yourselves and your loved ones, sort out more urgent priorities and let go of worrying about your studies for a little while. Even we think there are more important things in life than writing!

Some of us find work is a good way to structure our time and keep going, others of us will find it hard to engage with learning when our minds are elsewhere. We’ll be here for all of you, as you need us, with tips to make sure you get what you need out of your studies and a listening ear to help you find a balance and look after yourself too. Whether you need a bit of traditional essay writing advice, some direction on how to approach a new type of assignment or teaching format, or some guidance on how to pick up the pieces of your work and muddle along in difficult circumstances, we’ll be there for you! Take care, and take a break.

WDC Zoom Bingo!

It’s been quite a week for all of us, but the WDC tutors have been offering their usual 1-2-1 tutorial provision online for over a week now. We’re using Zoom, a really simple online meeting platform – all you need to do is book your appointment as usual, and then at the time of your appointment, click on the link sent by your tutor. No need to set up an account, just a small amount of setup needed.

We’re loving Zoom as it allows us to work with you in dialogue about your learning as we discuss your work together – we don’t tell you what to write, but help you improve your academic skills and study strategies so you can improve your own work. We do understand that some students won’t have access to a computer or the internet bandwith to work in this way – if that’s you, do get in touch and we can discuss alternatives. We’ll be here throughout the Easter vacation and the rest of the academic year to support you, wherever you’re studying.

We reckon we’ve got pretty good at online tutorials over the last week and it’s all going pretty smoothly, but judge for yourself with our WDC Zoom Tutorial Bingo Card!

WDC provision – we’re still there for you!

The University has made the decision to suspend face to face contact in the light of the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) outbreak, and that of course impacts on many of the things that the WDC normally do to support your learning! We’ve suspended our face to face tutorials, workshops, writers’ groups and drop-ins, but we’re busily exploring other ways in which we can continue to offer advice and guidance as you study in these unusual times.

Firstly, we’re prioritising moving our one to one provision online. If you already have a tutorial booked with us, we’ll be contacting you soon to let you know how it’s going to work. If you’d like to book a one to one with us over the coming weeks, then we will be amending the booking process and information ASAP this week so you can get yourself an online appointment. As far as our tutorials go, we’ll try and keep it business as usual as much as possible! We’ve offered distance tutorials in the past for students who are off campus, so we have arrangements in place that can be scaled up.

We will be using Zoom for our tutorials, which we think is intuitive and user friendly, and will give you an experience which is as close as we can get to one of our friendly, interactive face-to-face tutorials. Zoom allows us to discuss your learning with audio and video, and share screens so you can show us any written work to look at together (for this reason, it will work best on a desktop or laptop with a bigger screen rather than a tablet or phone). Your tutor will send you a link before your appointment which you simply need to click on and join the meeting at the start of your appointment time.

We’re also thinking as creatively as we can about how else we can support you in the coming weeks. Moving all teaching and assessment online is going to be a bit different for all of us, and we’ll be there with lots of ideas to help you navigate it all and stay motivated. Stay posted here on our blog and our website for more updates!

Relieving Academic Stress with Digital Companions

What is meant to be the start of spring can sometimes feel like the exact opposite for those with looming deadlines and exam dates. At this time of year a lot of students come to the WDC, trying to find their ways through what can feel like overwhelming amounts of demands. It’s a rough time. But it doesn’t have to be ruled by stress and guilt for taking breaks.

A problem that many students face is working out how to build in relaxation and stress-relief into their work schedule. They know they want and need to chill out, but they hit a wall when it comes to actually doing it. It’s not easy to tell guilt to get lost, and so they continue to work, though usually at a less productive level than if they’d managed even the smallest amount of relief time.

Part of the advantage of being a student today is the access to apps to cover everything. And what that means is that we don’t have to use technology just to work, or for social media activity. We can also use it as a ‘calming companion’ during one of the most stressful parts of the academic year.

This post has been fun to write, mainly because I got to try all the following apps out – trust me, they make working and revising very much calmer. I’ve divided them into three sections, to help you see which might be more relevant for the work stresses you personally face, but they can also be used in conjunction with one another, during different stages of any stressful-work process.


Some students like to work in silence; some like music. Some students like to be alone in their work environment; some like the sense of others’ presence, without requirement to talk. How we work is a personal thing, the creation of our ‘working atmosphere’ is important in terms of how calm we feel while working. I tried out White Noise and Marine Aquarium to this end. Both are very soothing, though my preference was having the virtual fishes swimming around, complete with bubble noises, which are strangely calming. You can even choose what fish you want to have in the aquarium, so visually the colours can brighten your mind. This may sound rather random, but it is strangely addictive as part of a work background. Maybe try it and see….

Working aids

If work-related-guilt is really something you can’t ignore, and many of us can’t, what is important is managing that emotion (not letting it take over). To this end, SimpleMind+ for mind-mapping ideas when you can no longer force out a sentence, and Pomodoro Timer and Timer+ for breaking your working time down into more manageable, focused chunks of time are wonderful to give more of a sense of control over the working day. Escapes and Office Yoga also provide that ‘just-5-minutes-out’ that refresh without a need to leave the chair, if you really can’t face detaching from work for fear of not actually returning. And then of course there are the likes of writtenkitten.net, which will reward you with a picture of a cutey-pie cat every 100 words….now there’s an incentive. (NB. if cats aren’t your thing there’s always coffee/chocolate/reward-of-choice, though perhaps extend the reward boundary beyond 100 words for these more material items….).


Whether your working day finishes at 3pm, 5pm or 11.30pm, it can be really important to ‘calm down’ so you can get a good night’s rest, although sometimes this can be hard to achieve. The guided meditations on Relax + are extremely soothing, and also allow you choose a sleep function, which means they are framed to help you get to sleep. Headspace is a popular mindfulness app amongst students, if you are aware of or want to develop more understanding about mindfulness as a technique. I personally love journaling with Grid Diary, to concentrate on the more positive aspects of the day just gone, and the digital colouring-in apps like Pigment – there is something remarkably relaxing about not having to think about anything except what colour you want to pick, and filling in the white spaces. The short yoga/stretch routines of Asana Rebel also really help to bring stress to a close for the day. Perhaps obviously I don’t do all of these every single day, but one a day can be just enough to make the evening peaceful.

So, which ones appeal to you?

Posted by Heather

*Disclaimer: Please bear in mind that for any of the health or activity-based apps mentioned here that you are fit to use them, or that you seek medical advice prior to using.

Breaking Not Bad

Students often feel their concentration should be focused on how to manage their work, how to meet deadlines, how to navigate their ways through massive amounts of reading… However, it is also important to think carefully about the question ‘how do I manage rest?’ At the WDC we frequently hear from students who find it hard to take breaks because they feel guilty if they do – the statement ‘I should be working’ is uttered very frequently. But the truth is taking a break is not a bad thing and can actually enhance your overall productivity.

Why is it important to take breaks? There are many reasons, all of them generally answered by the comment ‘because they enhance your learning’. Some explanations are as follows:

  1. This one is very important – NO-ONE can physically study all the time. EVERYONE needs to battle exhaustion at some point, to recharge their battery, so that they are fit to continue their work productively.
  2. Many students come to the WDC because they can no longer really see what they are trying to say; they have lost sight of their focus and feel out of control of their material/reading. They no longer have their own academic voice and are allowing others to speak for them. They can’t, as the saying goes, see the wood for the trees. It is at this point that a break could really help to refresh sight of the work, to allow a view of the topic from a different angle, to encourage approaching the same material in a different way, so that, ultimately, clarification of ‘what is my overall point anyway?!’ can be achieved.
  3. This one is also important – when charged with a task to do, we often focus on the writing part (well, obviously…) but what we often forget is that whatever words are on a page must also, eventually, be read. This therefore means that we should at least give some time to think about how a reader might look at, indeed interpret, our work. A break allows us to change shoes, to step into those of the reader and approach the text as them. This can sometimes be a real eye-opener, and lead you spot things you wouldn’t have otherwise noticed.
  4. Lastly, just as a little aside, breaks allow us to enjoy eating (and see food as more than just a necessity of the day!) and to get some exercise, even if that just constitutes a little walk round the library floor. A healthy body is a healthy mind and all that….

So here are some reasons as to why stops in study are good. But how do you kick guilt to the curb and set in place a breakin’ routine? Here are some strategies you could try:

  1. Schedule a break and stick to it. That means break at the time you intended to break AND return to work at the intended end time. Breaks do work better if you neither skip nor lengthen them….
  2. Here we must reference Monty Python: ‘And now for something completely different’. Plan something to do in your break that makes you think about something else. Something that allows creativity, movement, relaxation, a change of scenery, maybe…. For me, a dance class was great for this – you have to stop thinking about your work to make sure you put your feet in the right place to avoid falling on your face. Dance doesn’t work for everyone, but the idea is that a break should be a real shift for you, taking you away from the work to allow you to come back refreshed. What would do that for you?
  3. If you are really worried about how a break might affect your work, there are a number of ways to manage your concerns. For example, you could identify where to pick up from in your work before you take a break, so that you know exactly where you are coming back to. You could even try taking a break mid-way through a sentence, so that the transition back into your work is easier – you will have to finish that sentence!

There is no set length for a break time and there is no prescription as to what you should do in one – it’s up to you to think about how break might work best for you. The important thing is to try and take them and, ultimately, give yourself a break for breaking…

posted by Heather

Dissertation Toolkit: Using X-rays to structure

Dissertations are long and complex. Planning and structuring are going to be even more important to help you stay in control of your material, make sure it flows logically and bring out your own argument. It’s very common to feel as if you’ve got lost inside your dissertation and can’t see your way out – and then it also becomes a common experience for the reader that they can’t see where the dissertation is going!

Writing is naturally a messy process, moving constantly between thinking through your ideas, writing them down, doing more reading and thinking, changing and reorganising the draft… It’s tempting to tell you to first do your reading and thinking, then plan your material, then write up, then edit. If only it were that easy! However, it can help to separate the way you think about planning and structure, to help you see your material and its organisation more clearly.

We can think of Structure as the natural shape of your dissertation. Each dissertation question will imply a particular sort of structure – is it a two-parter, in which you compare and contrast, look at for and against? Is it progressive, in which you look at a case study and identify the main themes/causes, then analyse what causes them, then evaluate what the best solution/explanation is? Is it thematic, in which you break the topic down into related aspects, ranked by importance? Are you looking at a problem, then methods, results, discussion, conclusion? Whatever structure might best suit your dissertation question, you can get a sense of this without getting bogged down in the content, which can cloud your sense of the structure. Think of it as the skeleton which gives your dissertation its shape. It’s the sections and the way the sections relate to each other. You can articulate it without any words at all:

structure 2 structure 3 Structure 1

Planning, on the other hand, you could think of as the content. It’s the flesh, the muscles that you add onto the skeleton. The points you want to make, the evidence and data you want to include, the quotations you want to use. Without a sense of the underlying structure, it’s hard to organise these into a ‘shape’ – they need a frame to hang on. Once you see the shape or structure of your dissertation, it’s easier to see where that point should go, or where that information would be useful.

Many people plan a dissertation by trying to organise the structure and the content at the same time. This is possible, but if it’s not working for you, try to separate the two out. Planning with content takes the form of words, and if you’re getting lost in all the words when you’re planning, go back and see if you can see through it all with x-ray vision to what the bare bones of your structure are. Drawing it out rather than using words is one way to approach this – it could be a mindmap, a diagram (as above) or a timeline, but getting away from all the words could help you to see where you’re going, and signpost that direction for your reader.


Posted by Helen

Dissertation Toolkit: A Lens for Critical Reading

Getting to grips with the literature on your topic is one of the earliest stages of the dissertation. Among other things, the existing scholarship helps you explore different perspectives, interpret your findings, build your own argument and position yourself in a debate. Immersing yourself in the literature is a great way to get to know the subject, but it can also be overwhelming – you can become so swamping with what everyone else has ever said on the topic that there’s no room for you to know what you think!

The danger here is that you can become too descriptive. In losing your own unique perspective, the literature review can just become a collage of what other people have said. You end up just describing what your reader can go read for themselves if they want, and not adding much of yourself. It’s your dissertation and yours is the voice we’re interested in, so avoid it becoming a catalogue of ‘Scholar X says this, Scholar Y says that’, and foreground your own views!

In this post, we’ll look at how you can read with an active and critical eye, questioning what you read so that you don’t lose sight of your own agenda. We’ll look at three things to bear in mind about critical reading:

  1. Evaluating research on its own terms – testing its validity
  2. Understanding research in relation to other scholarship- its place in the debate
  3. Critiquing research in relation to what you want to do – its relevance and usefulness

1/ In the first place, critical reading means taking a journal article or book etc and asking specific questions about it on its own to evaluate its validity. This is tricky – you have to have a good understanding of things like research methodology to answer questions like ‘was the sample size large enough?’ or ‘was the use of this theory appropriate?’ It’s important to remember that while you need to critique each source you’re using to test its quality, you’re not necessarily looking to find fault with it. Agreeing with it is as critical a standpoint as disagreeing. And it’s not black and white- you might be less convinced by one aspect, but still find valuable elements elsewhere.

2/ Of course, you can only read one thing at a time. However, what you’re also doing is contributing each thing you read to your own mental map of the literature. If you read each source in isolation, without thinking about how it relates to everything else you’ve read, it will again lead you to very descriptive writing, which doesn’t build an argument or position you in a debate, but instead just catalogues each text in turn. Think about how each text relates to others – Can you see scholars who disagree with each other, or take up positions which are mutually exclusive? Can you see clusters of scholars who agree with each other- a school of thought? Can you track the development of an idea over time, seeing how it’s been refined or adapted for other contexts? Can you see scholars approaching the same topic from different perspectives, perhaps different subject backgrounds? Are these approaches complementary?

3/ Finally, you need to remember your own agenda. Academic writing is by nature very persuasive. It’s easy to get sucked into the agenda of the scholar writing a particular article or book – for them, this is the most important thing you can read on the topic. Of course it is – to them! But they’re not writing to help you solve your dissertation question, they’ve got their own agenda which may or may not be useful to you. So try to keep in mind your own research aim when reading – yes, the information may well be interesting, but is it relevant or useful to you? This is no reflection on the research itself – it may be the best journal article in the world on that topic, but if it doesn’t help you further your research goals, then it’s not relevant!

 Your note-taking strategies can also help to support this kind of critical reading. Instead of copying down or highlighting what the text says (it’ll still be there, so there is often little need to ‘capture’ the text in this way!) think about how you can use your notes to respond to the text in the three ways described above, whether it’s annotating your response in the margin, devising a system of note-taking that provides you space to look at all three aspects, or even the folders or categories (keywords and tags) that you’re saving the information in!

We’ve developed a resource that might help you think of the kinds of question you might ask in all three categories, which you can download here: Three Domains of Critical Reading

Posted by Helen


Dissertation Toolkit: Starting on the Right Track

Your dissertation is very often the first piece of academic work you get to decide for yourself. It can be really exciting to explore in depth an area of your subject which you’re passionate about – it can also seem like a big decision to make! Alternatively, you might have been allocated a project topic, and need to find a way to make it ‘your own’.

Getting a good initial grasp of the dimensions of your topic is crucial to the success of the dissertation. In this blog post, we’ll explore ways to ensure you’re on the right track. Having said that, what is the right track? Dissertation research is a bit more original and open ended than other assignments. You’re heading into the unknown. Neither you nor your supervisor quite know where you’ll end up, and after all, what would be the point of the question if you already knew what the answer would be? So, where should you start?

To help you focus and refine your dissertation proposal at any stage, you might try working your way through these questions. Try writing the answers down or talking them through with someone (perhaps your supervisor) so you’re articulating them clearly – this will also help with writing your proposal, title, introduction and conclusion.

  1. What is your dissertation about? This question is the first step: identifying the general topic. Without this, there is no dissertation! Follow your heart as much as your head – you need to be interested to sustain the project. However, if you don’t probe deeper than the overall subject, you may end up with a dissertation that is too broad, unfocussed and descriptive.
  2. What about it? What aspects will you focus on?  One of the pitfalls of writing a dissertation or research project is trying to cover too much ground, leaving you no room for in-depth analysis or fully working through an argument. Depth is always better than breadth – narrow down the topic again by choosing selected aspects to focus on in detail. You may not have written an assignment this long before, but once you get into it, trust us, you WILL find more than enough to write about! This process will also help you explore search terms when looking for literature.
  3. What are you going to do? You’re going to do more than just tell the reader everything you’ve found out- that would be too descriptive. How would you describe the intellectual work your dissertation will do? Are you analysing how something works or why something happens? Evaluating the best strategy or interpretation? Identifying common themes and patterns? Arguing for a new approach to solve a problem? Make sure you’re working at an appropriately high level – look at the kind of language used in marking criteria.
  4. What question will you answer? Even if your title isn’t in the form of a question, it’s useful to have a research question formulated in your mind. Phrasing your topic as an actual question (with a question mark!) is a very concrete and precise way to articulate your thinking and help you really put your finger on what you’re doing. A question implies an answer – they give you a direction, help you know when to stop (when you’ve answered your question!) or if you’ve gone off track (when you’ve stopped answering your question, but wandered off to answer a different one!).
  5. What problem will you solve? There are lots of questions that can be asked, but not all of them deserve an answer. Problematising the question helps you justify why it’s worth addressing so intensively. What exactly is the problem here, why is it significant enough to invest time in creating a solution? Why should your reader care?
  6. What might your answer look like? Go back to your research question. What range of possible answers might you reach? You might want to formulate this as a ‘hypothesis’ that you’re aiming to prove or test, or an aim you want to achieve, but remember to remain open minded. This will help you to make sure that you stay on track – that you answer the question you set yourself.  You might also have a look at the literature – have people tried to address this question, or a related question before? What kinds of answers were they proposing? Is there a debate here, or anything you can build on? Is there already a well-established answer to your question (which may mean a lot of literature to wade through, and might not leave you much scope)?
  7. What literature, sources and methods/tools/ideas will you use to reach it? Again, there are lots of questions that can be asked, but not all of them can be answered. Either the literature, methods, data, sources etc don’t exist, or they can’t be accessed or carried out in the timeframe you have. This question helps you address the feasibility of your project.

Part of your supervisor’s role is to help you answer these points and ensure that your dissertation or project has a clear focus and is do-able and worth doing, using their experience of the research process with all its trial and error. They understand that research is an open-ended process, and can help you to review and adjust your answers to these questions as you progress, and stay on track – wherever that track ends up leading!

You can download a worksheet with these questions: Refining your Dissertation or Project Topic

Posted by Helen

#unhelpfulstudyadvice 1: the placebo effect

There’s a lot of study guidance around. Top tips, how-to’s, help sheets, study guides, skills books, online resources, not to mention all the advice (solicited or unsolicited!) from lecturers, other students, family, friends, online contacts and yes, Writing Development tutors… All of it’s well meant, most of it is given by people who have been students at some point and presumably know what they’re talking about, and much of it may be genuinely helpful or encouraging.

There’s also plenty of study advice out there which is unhelpful. It may look useful, it may be accurate, it may seem reassuring, but for one reason or another, it just doesn’t quite work.

  • “Your writing should be clear”
  • “Make sure you have a strong argument”
  • “One point per paragraph”
  • “Check your work has a logical structure”
  • “Follow these simple steps to writing an essay”
  • “Plan your time effectively”
  • “Don’t include any unnecessary material”
  • “Ensure your grammar is correct”

None of this is untrue or unreasonable. Your work should be clear and critical, well argued and logically structured, grammatical and well written. You should just get on with it and plan your time effectively. Easy.

So why aren’t you just doing it?

What does it mean?

Clear. Concise. Relevant. Well-structured. Effective. All good qualities to aim for, all good things to check your work for. But what do they actually mean? All of these words are ambiguous, abstract, subjective and context-dependent. What is clear to one person may not be to another. What is well-structured in one subject may be inappropriately organised in another. What is concise at one level of study may be simplistic at a higher level. These words are almost meaningless out of context. So how could you even begin to aim for them? Any advice that tells you that your writing or study practices should conform to a subjective term like this should at least try to unpack in concrete terms what they mean by it, and help you understand what it might mean in your own subject or level, or the audience you’re writing for.

How do you achieve it?

Telling you that “your writing should be clear” or “you should check that your structure flows” doesn’t actually help you to get there. Much of this type of advice doesn’t actually give you concrete and practical things to do, but only tells you what you should be. But never mind the what; what about the how? Leaving you without practical strategies to achieve this goal isn’t really helpful.

Other advice might give you attractively practical-seeming suggestions:Ten Simple Steps to Successful Essay Writing! Always do this! Never do that! But it doesn’t acknowledge that there might be other ways to achieve the same goal, exceptions to the rule, or that the process might be less simple and clear cut, more messy than that. Much of this type of advice may have worked for the person giving it (possibly a long time ago, and with the benefit of hindsight…), and it may well work for you, but then again, it may not. Giving the impression that there is only one correct way, that the same advice should work for everyone, or that it’s just a straightforward process, may set you up for failure if it doesn’t suit you or if the simple steps turn out to be not so simple in practice.

What would it look like if you did? How would you know?

Does anyone actually try to write unclearly? You think it’s clear; of course you do, you wrote it.  It makes sense to you. Is it clear to someone else? Well, how would you know? It’s all very well to tell you to check your work, but without a idea of what you’re looking for and strategies to reflect on your practice and edit your work, you’re not going to know if your efforts are working until you get your mark back and it’s too late. Does the advice show you what clear writing might look like and why, with examples? And does it offer practical technique to read back your work as if through a marker’s eyes?

The Placebo Effect

University study is challenging, complex and diverse. It teaches you that nothing is ever that simple, to question everything. And this can be unsettling. It would be nice to think that there are simple tips which could make sense of all this complexity; straightforward steps you could take through the challenges of higher level study. And that’s why this kind of study advice is so appealing. It’s tempting and reassuring, it looks very certain and authoritative, but doesn’t actually offer you any way to act on it. It’s a placebo. It might make you feel better but does it actually help you to develop and learn? It doesn’t do justice to the challenge of university study, and it doesn’t do justice to the complex, diverse individual that you are. Ultimately, it disempowers and undermines students by making them feel that they are the failures- all you had to do was just had to ‘write clearly’, such a simple thing, and you failed to do so.

We’re working on a series of blog posts, #unhelpfulstudyadvice, in which we will examine some of the less useful tips and try to turn them into more useful guidance. Do let us know if there’s a particular example you come across and we’ll include it! We promise to explain what we mean, to give you concrete strategies to achieve it and ways to reflect on or edit your work to see if you’ve been successful!

And we promise to avoid the words “should”, “just”, “always” and “never”…

Posted by Helen


Shopping around for a critical opinion

Critical thinking or critiquing is central to university level study, and becomes more important the higher you progress. It’s in your marking criteria, very often in the wording of your assignment question or instruction, and makes a frequent appearance in feedback.

However, critical thinking can seem strangely contradictory. How can a lowly student criticise the work of an authority with far more expertise than them? For years you’ve been told that you can’t believe all you read on the internet, and that you should look for ‘high quality’ peer reviewed sources in academic books and journals, as they are more trustworthy than Wikipedia. And then we tell you not to trust even these sources, which the university library provides, but that you have to question those too?! Why?!

One of the barriers to confident critical thinking is feeling that you have to criticise – to find something wrong with a text. Actually, critiquing or critical reading is often simply testing, checking. All academic knowledge is constructed, created through the process of research: posing a valid question, gathering evidence objectively, interpreting it logically, forming a rational argument. Academic peer review is one stage of filtering out poorly constructed knowledge before it is published – research that is flawed, inaccurate, biased, not rigorous or simply not very important. Peer review is a good process, but can overlook things. And any two scholars may see things differently. When we as students or academics want to draw on scholarship, one of the things we need to do is to take responsibility for just checking to see for ourselves if it was well constructed. We’re asking – how do they really know that for sure? And, following their reasoning, do I see it the same way?

Critical thinking is about more than just finding flaws. You may disagree with a source, but to decide on careful examination and thought that you agree with a source is also a critical judgement. And that isn’t necessarily a simple ‘right or wrong’ judgement, it’s also more nuanced positions, such as ‘mostly valid but with some reservations’, or perhaps ‘good as far as it goes, in certain limited contexts’ or ‘that’s one valid way of looking at it, but not the only one’. We’re also looking to see not just if it’s right/wrong, but if it’s relevant/not relevant, useful/not useful to us in our own work.

It’s like grocery shopping – you go to the supermarket and assume that what you’re buying is probably good quality- there are customer guarantees, after all. But when you select fruit and vegetables, you still just….check them to see if they are damaged, or which is the biggest, best or most appealing. When you’re buying meat or bread, you still just… check the use-by date, brand and quantity to see if it’s going to suit your needs. Sometimes supermarkets make mistakes, sometimes you just want to pick the most suitable ingredients for whatever you want to make. We try to resist being tempted into bad bargains, or things we don’t really need.

Similarly with academic reading – you’re checking to see if the information contained is good quality (how was it made?), how it compares to other information on the market (what other views are there? which do I agree with?), and, no matter what the quality is, whether it’s suitable for your own purposes (does this help me answer my own assignment question?). This involves understanding how knowledge in your subject is made – how data is gathered and interpreted, what counts as ‘evidence’, how arguments are constructed and conclusions drawn in your discipline. That’s what university study entails – not just learning the information, but learning to ‘think like a historian/medic/engineer/biologist etc’ to understand how that knowledge is created, and to begin to create knowledge yourself.

Posted by Helen