Over the summer the Academic Skills team worked with two students to co-create some new academic skills resources thanks to the Philip Robinson Bequest scheme. After auditing the Academic Skills Kit and speaking to other students to find out what they needed, the bequest students discovered some timely topics to support students throughout their time here at Newcastle.
Nagham El Elani, a PhD student in the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape created an aminated video around managing information and mapping ideas to help with the process of essay writing. Based on real life examples from an assignment, Nagham’s video shows students how to manage that overwhelming ‘blank page’ feeling that you get at the start of an assignment.
Eszter Racz, who has just finished her MA in International Multimedia Journalism, produced a short podcast series. Eszter spoke to a diverse range of students from all stages and faculties across the university to dig deep into the most challenging aspects of academic writing and research. The resulting five episodes talk about topics such as referencing, finding sources academic writing, and accessing university support services.
The students share the strategies they used to develop as learners, as well as opening up about their journeys through UG and PG study, and the transitions they made along with way. To complement this, Eszter also spoke to a wide range of experts, both academic and professional staff who were able to provide an insight into the issues the students mentioned and also what resources and services are available at Newcastle University.
Timed writing blocks are more productive than a whole afternoon’s procrastination…
At university you’re supposed to take charge of yourself, organise your own time and study habits, in order to meet the deadlines calmly. Many of us can find this hard though, preferring to do things that seem quick and doable, that can be ticked off a to-do list in a matter of seconds, rather than tackling the (often important or crucial) things that may at first glance make us feel apprehensive. But ultimately, the fact is the assignment deadlines do not move and at some point we’ve got to get our heads down to the in-depth stuff. Dissertations can be even more of a challenge- they are a long piece of work, but the deadline can also seem a long way away… and putting it off can be too tempting!
There are a number of strategies you can use to help build up the confidence to squash this procrastinator in you, but I’m going to focus on one in particular: sometimes it can help to think of a dissertation as a process, not an end product. Breaking a writing task (however small) into chunks can really change how manageable an assignment feels. Viewing a dissertation as a compilation of little pieces, little pieces that can all be completed at different times, not all in one go, and which are then put together to make the whole, can make the process of putting together your submission remarkably less stressful if not, dare I say it, enjoyable.
The first time I tried this out, I sat in a writing group with other students where we were given space to write continuously for 30 minutes – we were timed. Having never broken my writing sessions down into timed blocks, I found the whole experience a total revelation, going from feeling really sceptical at the start, to seeing that I was able to produce just over 400 usable words in 30 minutes. What I learned from the session was that:
1) It is possible to make time for writing.
2) Half-an-hour can be lot more productive that we generally give the time credit for.
3) Using time blocks of 30 minutes, 45 minutes or 1 hour are so much more appealing than saying ‘This shall be my writing day’. This means that every day there is guaranteed other time for non-work time. Block out the distraction and focus for a just a little bit; then go enjoy.
4) Asking yourself questions like, ‘when do I start shifting in my seat?’ or ‘when do I notice my mind starting to wander?’ can really help identify how long your writing-time blocks should be. For some an hour is great; for others, 40mins might be the max time – it’s an individual thing. For me, after one hour I move into restlessness and lose focus, so that’s the time to break, rather than forcing myself to carry on trying to write brilliance that won’t come (please remember, breaks are important!).
Using your preferred timer-tool on a daily basis, set at whatever time fits your concentration span, can help you:
Produce work that is structured;
Reach your individual writing targets;
Allocate procrastination to specific time slots in the day, where it doesn’t intrude on the important studies you have to handle.
Giving short writing goals a go will not only help you identify how long it takes for your focus to drop away, but it will help you organise and shape your time much more productively in order to meet that deadline. Try a timer and you may be surprised at how much you don’t miss procrastinating…
We’re often asked to teach students how to write with an academic style. That’s quite a tricky one, as different subjects each have their own way of communicating their knowledge in an appropriate, conventional way, so there are as many academic writing styles as there are subjects. A physics paper is written in a very different style to an English Literature article. Even “rules” such as “never use the first person I” are not actually true across all subjects; social sciences subjects may favour it as it acknowledges the role of the researcher in research, and it’s necessary for reflective writing when you’re writing about yourself.
One common piece of advice is to avoid colloquialisms in your writing, elements which are more characteristic of informal speech than formal writing. In practice, I don’t often see many examples of ‘chatty’ writing; I find the real danger is going OTT and too formal, which can both obscure the meaning and come across as pompous! What’s really going on here is that there are a number of turns of phrase which can come across as colloquial as they don’t measure up to the kind of persona readers expect you to create in your work.
However, there are a few principles that can guide you in developing and editing your academic writing style. Think about the persona you’re trying to project through your writing, and what qualities this ‘voice’ needs to convey to your reader:
Formal and professional: we avoid things like contractions (e.g. isn’t, can’t) because the full version (is not, cannot) is more formal, even if it costs us another word. Not all formal alternatives are longwinded though – phrasal verbs (e.g. to think about) take two words when one word would do (e.g. to consider), and as well as being longer, they don’t sound quite so good. Other examples of the formal being more concise than the colloquial include ‘lots of’ instead of ‘many’. We’re not talking too formal though – if you’re uncomfortable with a word, don’t use it – it’s probably OTT and not going to help your message get across (technical terms excepted). We’re talking ‘business suit’ formal, not ‘top hat and tails’ formal!
Precise and unambiguous: in speech, we often try to persuade the listener using emotive tactics, by using exaggeration and vagueness to convince them of the importance of what we’re saying. Think of the way we use terms like ‘lots of’. In academic thinking, we need to be absolutely precise so the reader knows exactly what we’re talking about, and is persuaded by our logic, not our feelings about the subject. Consider the commonly used phrase “Many scholars agree….”. The writer is using ‘many’ as a way to impress on the reader that agreement on this topic is overwhelming, and therefore can’t be questioned. The academic reader, however, is thinking “lots of scholars? How many? Three? Thirty? Three hundred? What does ‘lots’ mean to you? And which scholars, exactly?” Quantify what you mean by lots”, and give references or examples that the reader can see.
Logical and objective: Similarly, think about an intensifier like ‘really’: “it is therefore really important that….”. The writer wants to stress the importance of their conclusions. The reader is thinking “ if you lay out your reasoning with evidence, conclusions drawn and implications noted, you’ll persuade me that it’s really important without having to say as much!” Absolute terms like ‘completely’ or ‘totally’ also make an academic reader suspicious – very little in academia is that black and white! It’s often better to acknowledge any nuances or complexities as a sign of your ability to self-critique, than gloss it over to impress the reader.
Impersonal: This is where the common advice comes from to avoid ‘I argue’ and use the passive ‘it is argued that’. Basically, these are ways of saying to the reader, “don’t look at me, with all my human flaws and fallibility – look at my ideas”. Avoiding ‘I’ takes us out of the picture, letting the focus fall on the quality of our thinking. It’s also redundant – if there is no reference provided to attribute the work to someone else, then of course the ideas are yours, it’s your essay! And no need to argue ‘I think that’ – just argue it, state it, and let it stand by the quality of its logic. Some subjects are less strict on avoiding ‘I’ than others though, and in some cases, the passive can make a sentence more convoluted than necessary / a sentence can be made more convoluted than necessary by the passive.
Concrete and functional: spoken language is often metaphorical, using imagery to attract attention and make a topic more lively. This is also true, of course, of literary writing, which uses metaphors to express truths in a different way to academic writing. Academic writing is very literal and functional though – no need to grab the reader’s attention – they are already invested in reading about the subject, and it’s the reasoning which will appeal to them. Metaphors like ‘in a nutshell’ or ‘crystal clear’ don’t add anything to your reasoning, and aren’t concrete – there are no actual nuts or crystals here! Spoken language often has these metaphors as common idioms, which become so ‘well worn’ (there’s a metaphor right there!) that we don’t notice them.
Above all of these qualities, however, is that of clarity. Academic writing is functional, and the reader above all wants to be able to pick up your message without wondering what you’re on about, if you mean what they think you mean, or why you think what you do. Spoken language is supplemented by body language, facial expressions, and the ability to ask for more clarification- writing has to stand by itself. Colloquialisms like the ones we’ve looked at get in the way of clarity. If you think about projecting the qualities we’ve looked at here through your writing, the style will probably take care of itself.
If you’re working on that dissertation or research project, it’s possible that about now you’re feeling as if you’re being swamped by the literature. There’s so much of it to read – how can you possibly get an overview and bring it all together into a coherent review? How do you know what you think of it all, when you’re starting to lose sight of your own project under the weight of what everyone else has ever said? So many literature reviews start to turn into more of a catalogue of the literature – “I read this, it said that, and this is what I thought. Next!”
Critical reading is hard work – if you’re finding it hard going, then be assured it’s not you! There’s a lot going on when we read critically, and it might help to unpick what that is, so you can take control of the process and feel more on top of it.
the WDC have a framework we use called the Three Domains of Critical Reading, which you can apply when you’re ploughing through all that literature for your literature review. We’ve now turned it into an online resource which walks you through three perspectives to look at each text from – Is it any good in its own right? How does it relate to other scholarship? and What use is it to me? In each domain, you’ll find critical questions you can apply when reading to find your own stance on the literature.
You can find the new Three Domains resource alongside our other great resources on the ASK website, along with printable PDFs to use in your own reading!
The purpose of feedback is to feed forward. It doesn’t just outline what you did well or not so well in your assignment. It indicates how you might develop your work and improve next time. This is why it’s so important to engage with the marker’s comments and not just take notice of the mark. Of course, this is easier said than done! It’s easy to get distracted by the mark, and often tricky to know how to interpret and make use of the feedback. Luckily, the Academic Skills Team is on hand with the 3 Ds to help you make effective use of your feedback.
Receiving feedback. It can be … emotional. Our initial response – whether it’s elation, disappointment or something in between – can often dull our objectivity. This makes it difficult to really focus on the marker’s specific points. It’s important, then, that we give ourselves a little bit of time to settle. This may be a cooling off period where we vent about a disappointing mark, or it might be time for a celebration. Set a limitation on this, though. Decide when you’re going to return to your marked work and begin the next phase of this process.
On a similar note, it can be hard not to take feedback personally. This is perfectly natural but can be another barrier to objectivity, further preventing you from responding to the comments in a productive way. If you’re experiencing this reaction, you might find it useful to change “I” statements into “my” statements. So “I didn’t use evidence well” becomes “my essay didn’t use evidence well.” This can help you separate yourself from your work and help shift your perspective from being innately bad at something to knowing you can do better next time.
The next step is to interpret or decode the feedback, which means turning it into language we understand and can work with. Feedback uses a very specific vocabulary and its meaning isn’t always immediately transparent. This can be particularly true if you have just transitioned to university or are new to UK academic culture. Often, in order to really understand markers’ comments, we need to view them as insights into tutors’ expectations at our given level and in our particular subject. For example, a marker might comment: “I would have like to have seen you develop some of these points further.” This doesn’t simply translate as “I would really have enjoyed reading more about this.” It indicates that the marker expects a better balance between depth and breadth. This would involve you taking a more focused approach and covering fewer points but in greater critical detail.
Sometimes, certain aspects of feedback are exclusive to a particular assignment. For instance, you might have misunderstood the question and that was the main reason you got a lower mark than expected. Where possible, focus on the points that could also be applied to future work: structure, criticality, style and referencing, for instance. Review your feedback for patterns, too. Do markers raise similar points? Identifying this will help your prioritise what areas to work on.
Read back through your own work once you’ve read the feedback. The marker’s comments will give you another lens through which to view your work and help shape what your editing process might look like next time around. The feedback will grant you insight and give you the awareness to start viewing your own work critically. In other words, it will give you a better idea of what to watch out for when reviewing your work ahead of submission.
It’s also worth noting that you can get in touch with the marker if you require further discussion or need any of the points to be clarified.
The final step is to make an active plan as to how you will act on your feedback. This should go beyond the vague “I’ll keep structure in mind” type of thinking and consider exactly what you will work on in your upcoming assignments. It often helps to consider that issues with the product (the completed assignment itself) can be linked back to the process. For instance, if feedback often flags up issues with structure, it might be worth reviewing your approach to planning. If markers frequently observe that your work contains a lot of irrelevant material, you might connect this with your tendency to read a lot and want to include all the information you find. Your Feedback Action Plan might then focus on streamlining your reading process and adding an extra step to the editing process to help you check for irrelevant material.
“I’ve got something to say, but I just don’t know how to say it. What if I say the wrong thing or forget what I was going to say halfway through? I probably don’t know as much as everyone else here, anyway. What does that word even mean? Should I look it up or keep listening? What am I supposed to be doing anyway?“
Let’s face it, whether they’re online or in-person, participating in seminars and tutorials can be tricky. You might find it quite unnerving or intimidating talking in front of your peers or a tutor. Or maybe you find it easy to speak, but that it’s difficult to get a conversation going. Or maybe you’ve got things that you want to say, but just don’t know how to enter the discussion.
Well, if any of this sounds familiar than the Academic Skills Team have got you covered. We’ve been working with our colleagues from the university’s Counselling Services to put together a bunch of resources, strategies and tips for effectively participating in seminars.
They key thing to remember is that seminar participation isn’t all about talking or answering questions, there’s lots of different ways to valuably contribute to a seminar. You can ask a question about something you didn’t quite understand, provide space and support for others to express their ideas, build on something someone else said or even just express agreement or disagreement.