9 Awesome WDC Resources Master’s Students Can Check Out Right Now!

Photo by Nick Morrison on Unsplash

If you’re a Master’s student, then this time of year is less about walking on sunshine and more about working to deadlines. But, if you’re busy wrangling that dissertation, worry not, for the WDC is on hand with these super helpful resources!

  1. Read All About It

Doing a dissertation involves so. Much. Reading!! Often, you’ll need to read things more than once to develop your ideas and understanding. Here at the WDC, our modest assessment of our Three Domains of Critical Reading is that it is completely and utterly brilliant, and can really help you get the most out of your reading.

2. Making Sense of It All

Once you’ve done the reading, you then need to pull it all together. What are the common themes and patterns? Where are the gaps? What does it all mean?! Our – again, we’re being modest and objective here – absolutely splendid Mapping the Literature resource can be a great way of making sense of all your reading. Perfect if you’re working on that literature review!

3. Let’s Talk it Over

Speaking of literature reviews … here we are, quite literally, speaking of literature reviews! Now, this Q&A discussion, led by WDC tutors Helen and Caroline, was filmed for a lovely group of PhD students in the SAgE faculty. However, it does contain lots of top tips that can be applied to literature reviews at Master’s level, too, such as advice on structuring and writing critically. The video is handily timestamped, too, so you don’t have to watch the whole thing. Unless you really want to …

4. It’s All Under Control

Odds-on, the dissertation is the longest piece of writing you’ve ever produced. The longer a piece of writing is, the harder it gets to stay in control of your material. Hence, trying to structure your dissertation and ensure everything makes sense might not be the most fun you’ve ever had. Luckily, the WDC is on hand with some top tips on getting everything to hang together.

5. Never Out of Style

Once you’ve got all those ideas down on paper, it’s all about polishing up your writing for your reader and presenting that academic persona that they’re looking to see. Once again, the WDC has you covered with our handy tips on academic writing style.

6. Proof it!

The last thing anybody wants to do when they’ve just finished writing a long, complex piece of work is go through it with a fine toothcomb looking for all the things they might have got wrong, Unfortunately, this really *is* the last thing we have to do, But, yes, you’ve guessed it! The WDC has a brilliant Study Guide positively brimming with handy proofreading hints!

7. Words, words, words

Student at the very start of their dissertation: I will never be able to write that many words EVER.

Student towards the end of their dissertation: How have I managed to write 2000 words more than I was supposed to?!

Is this you?! Then read this.

8. When the going gets tough

We’ve all be there: we really need to write but we can think of 2,908 things we’d rather do instead. Sounds familiar? Check out the WDC’s top tips on staying motivated and productive this summer.

9. When the going gets tougher …

Working on a Master’s dissertation isn’t easy at the best of times and, let’s face it, the summer of 2020 is *not* the best of times. We put together some time management tips for troubled times back in spring. If, quite understandably, you’re finding it difficult to focus on your work this summer, check out our advice on how to be kind to yourself and boost your productivity.

And remember, if you’d like to discuss an aspect of your work with one of our WDC tutors, they’re still here for you over the summer and are offering appointments via Zoom.

Make progress on your assignments with the WDC!

Tuesday 29th October is shaping up to be an exciting day for us all here at the Writing Development Centre as it will mark the launch of our brand new ‘…with the WDC’ workshops. What makes the launch even more exciting is that it will introduce a brand new format into our range of provision. For these are workshops with a difference. Instead of spending most of the session sitting listening to one of us speaking, you’ll be able to bring your assignments along and use the time to make progress in a supportive, distraction-free environment. We’ll be on hand to provide you with a structured session, along with strategies and techniques you can try on your own work. You will also have the chance to reflect on and discuss your approach to studying and writing with your peers.

‘…with the WDC’ workshops will take place three times a week in the Writing Development Centre (we’re on Level 2 of the Philip Robinson Library, which is, somewhat confusingly, the entrance level). The sessions will run on a first-come, first-served basis so there’s no need to book; just turn up ready to make progress with your assignments. To do this, you will need to bring your work with you on paper or a fully charged laptop or device given that the sessions will not be taking place in computer cluster.

The sessions we have on offer for you this semester are:

Kickstart Your Assignment … with the WDC!

This session is for everyone who’s ever been given an assignment title and thought: “Where do I start?!” So, yes: this session is for everyone!! We’ll help to make this stage more manageable with a set of activities that will take you through: 

  • Narrowing the question down and finding ‘an angle’ 
  •  Analysing the question/task to work out what markers are looking for 
  • Planning your reading: considering what to read and how much to read!

Bring your current question/task along and get ready to kickstart your assignment!

This session will take place on: 

  • Tuesday 29th October: 10am-12pm 
  • Thursday 7th November: 2pm-4pm 
  • Tuesday 26th November: 10am-12pm 
  • Thursday 6th December: 2pm-4pm

Top tip! You may still like to attend this session even if you’ve already started your assignment. Our strategies and techniques can help you double-check that you’re on the right track and producing the best work that you can.

Strategic Reading and Notetaking … with the WDC!

Need to avoid getting swamped by your reading? Don’t fancy becoming a human photocopier? Want to read more critically? This is the session for you, with a set of activities that will take you through: 

  • Identifying your purpose – what are you reading for? – and the strategy to achieve it  Experimenting with critical reading techniques 
  • Reviewing your current notetaking strategy and experimenting with new ones
  • Remember to bring some of the reading for your current assignment! This session will take place on: 
  • Thursday 31st October: 2pm-4pm 
  • Tuesday 5th November: 10am-12pm 
  • Tuesday 12th November: 10am-12pm 
  • Thursday 28th November: 2pm-4pm

Write Here, Write Now! … with the WDC

Our regular writers’ group is here to: 

  • Provide you with a supportive, structured, distraction-free environment in which to get some work done 
  • Help you work towards a clearly defined writing goal for the session – such as drafting a particular section or achieving a specific word count 
  • Encourage you to reflect on your existing writing process and discuss your practice with peers
  • Highlight techniques and strategies that you can use to maintain your writing momentum – and help beat procrastination and writers’ block – beyond the session

You can use Write Here, Write Now! for any writing-related activity, including planning or outlining and editing and revising. Remember to bring your assignment materials and/or devices with you! These sessions will take place every Wednesday from 10am-12pm from 30th October to 11th December.

Editing Your Work … with the WDC!

You’ve got your thoughts down on paper and it all makes sense to you. But could someone else follow your argument? Does the structure flow? Are your points clear? Our editing session comprises a series of activities that will take you through: 

  • Writing for a reader 
  • Structuring paragraphs 
  • Transition and cohesion 
  • Ensuring relevance: need to know or just nice to know?! 
  • Unpacking and developing your points

Bring your current assignment and get ready to make it as good as it can be! These sessions will take place on: 

  • Thursday 14th November: 2pm-4pm 
  • Tuesday 19th November: 10am-12pm 
  • Thursday 21st November: 2pm-4pm

Refresh Your Revision Strategies … with the WDC!

How much am I expected to remember?! What are markers really looking for? Why isn’t it going in?! We’ve all been there. Take some of the stress out of exam season with our workshop, which features a set of activities that will take you through:

  • Establishing what exams are really testing
  • Selecting: what should be in your ‘Store Cupboard of Knowledge’?! (Don’t worry; we’ll explain!)
  • Memorising: evaluating your current approaches and considering new ones
  • Discussing and comparing revision strategies with peers

Bring your current revision notes along with you!

These sessions will run on: 

  • Tuesday 10th December: 10am-12pm 
  • Thursday 12th December: 2pm-4pm.  We’ll be running more revision sessions in January, along with sessions for Dissertation students throughout Semester 2.

Keep an eye on our website for further details. We’re really looking forward to launching these workshops and to welcoming you all along. If you have any questions about ‘..with the WDC’ or if you have any suggestions for future workshops you’d like to attend, don’t hesitate to drop us an email at wdc@ncl.ac.uk.

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


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

Editing: Clarifying your Reasoning

One of the trickiest things I find about being both the author and the editor of your own work is knowing whether you’ve explained your thinking clearly enough. When I’m writing, my argument is obvious enough to me, of course! How can I tell if I’ve spelled out my reasoning clearly enough for the reader, though? Have I skipped stages of my argument, assuming they’re obvious? Or perhaps I’ve gone the other way and patronised and bored them by over-explaining every little obvious thing at great length.

Argument, reasoning, analysis – these are some of the highest level thinking skills, and they’re what lecturers will be looking for above all in your university work. But to check whether or not they’re apparent to the reader, I turn not to university but to primary school for help. Small children are some of the most critical thinkers I know – most of us know some small children and certainly all of us have been children at some point. So I channel that inner three year old to help me check if I’ve layed out my argument clearly enough.
I don’t mean write as if for a child – I mean read your own work with that same persistent use of very simple but powerful questions:

  • Why? (the most powerful question of all)
  • What’s that? (am I defining my terms?)
  • How does that work? (am I explaining cause and effect, or analysing something enough?)
  • What does that mean? (am I defining my terms, or explaining the significance of a point?)
  • What’s that for? (why I am telling the reader this?)
  • Where does that come from? (Have I explained the context enough, or traced the course of a process or argument?)
  • What happens if…? (am I thinking creatively enough – could there be other conclusions to draw?)
  • What’s that made of? (am I analysing enough?)

You can also, as my colleague Alex suggests, channel your inner sulky teenager:

  • So what? (what role does this play in my argument? What’s its relevance or significance?)
  • Says who? (what authority do I have backing up my point?)
  • How do YOU know? (if I don’t have an authority to back up my point, am I explaining my evidence and how I reach that conclusion?)

As you read through your work, pause at the end of each sentence and see which of these questions apply. Have you answered them, either in that sentence or the one just after? If not, would answering them help to unpack your thinking a bit more for the reader?
Of course, there comes a point when even the most patient grownup has to resort to the response ‘Because it just IS, ok?’ And this raises the question of what general knowledge and shared understanding you can assume on behalf of your reader. At what point can you start to feel that you don’t have to explain everything? That some things are just generally known and accepted, and you don’t need to completely unpack every statement you make? This will depend very much on your subject and the level you’re studying at, so it’s hard to give a straightforward answer. But remember that it’s the higher level thinking that your lecturer is mostly looking for, your ability to use and interpret evidence to reach an informed conclusion via sound reasoning. It’s that chain of reasoning that they need to be able to see. These questions can help you make sure you make that thinking stand out.


Posted by Helen