The One Hour Writing Challenge

Image of hands writing in a notebook. On the desk in front of them are a cup of coffee, some glasses, a laptop, some books and photographs.
Image from: ThoughtCatalog

Are you tired of spending all day writing away only to feel like you haven’t made any progress? Maybe you’ve been rewriting the same paragraph (or sentence!) for hours on end or putting off writing altogether because you have no idea where to start. If so, give our one hour writing challenge a go!

The one hour writing challenge is a structured hour of activities designed to improve your focus and motivation and, most importantly, help you get some writing done:

Step One: Goal setting (5mins)

Setting a realistic goal for your writing before you gets started helps make sure you stay focussed on the task ahead (and that the task isn’t too overwhelming or unmanageable). It also ensures you get a nice dopamine hit when you achieve your goal and can tick ‘writing’ off your list for the day.

When it comes to goals, the less vague the better – the SMART approach can help you pin down and clearly define your task:

Specific: the specific idea I will write/section/paragraph I will work on is ….

Measurable: I will write _____ words

Achievable: this will be a rough draft/quick bullet points for me to work up later/polished final version/edited final draft

Relevant: where this section will fit in is …

Time- bound: I will write for 40 minutes.

Bear in mind that there may be some days when 40 minutes of writing is just too much. It’s fine to decide that 30 minutes or even 15 minutes is all that you can manage today. On the other hand, you may find that you want to write for longer! Goal setting is therefore a useful way to check-in with yourself and decide what’s realistic for you today.

Step Two: Freewriting (8mins)

Freewriting is like a warm up for your writing muscles, helping ease you into the task and giving you some time to think your ideas through before you try to communicate them to your reader.

It’s a great strategy for helping with writer’s block and procrastination too, which often occur because we’re trying to write something ‘perfectly’ first time or are unsure what we want to say in our writing. Freewriting gives you permission to write a ‘messy’ first draft and work out your thoughts without fear that your language isn’t ‘academic’ enough or your structure doesn’t ‘flow.’

The rules of freewriting are:

  • Set a timer for 8 minutes
  • Start writing whatever comes to mind about the section you’re going to be working on.
  • Write in full sentences
  • Don’t stop writing
  • Don’t look back or edit
  • If you get stuck, write about that – why are you stuck? What would help you get unstuck?! You just might be able to untangle yourself!
  • If you don’t like what you’re writing, write about why

Step Three: Review (2mins)

Look over what you’ve just written. What points could you pull out of your freewriting that you might use in your draft?

Step Four: Write! (40mins)

Write for 40 minutes and work on your draft.

Step Five: Next Actions (2mins)

Use the final couple of minutes to leave notes to your future self about the next steps you need to take to progress this piece of writing. This helps you maintain momentum.

If you’d like to try out the One Hour Writing Challenge in the company of others and with some guidance from one of our Academic Skills tutors, sign up for our Write Here, Write Now writer’s group which will be running online every Wednesday at 10am from 2nd November to 14th December. Find out more here.

A Quick Guide to Reading and Notetaking

Reading and highlighting
Image by Raul Pacheco-Vega

Taking notes as you read helps you:

  • Engage with the material
  • Process your thoughts
  • Gather information and evidence to use in assessments

It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of taking too many notes, though, and it can be overwhelming to end up with pages and pages of notes that you don’t quite know what to do with. The key to avoiding this pitfall is to identify your purpose: if you don’t know what you’re reading for, you’ll risk turning into the ‘human photocopier’ and noting everything down.

To begin with, then, think about why you are reading and, relatedly, what you will use the resulting notes for. For instance, are you:

  • Reading for background to prepare for an upcoming lecture and/or seminar
  • Reading to clarify understanding from a lecture and/or seminar
  • Reading for further knowledge for an assignment. 
  • Reading to develop an argument by evaluating existing viewpoints on a topic or synthesising current knowledge and understanding with the viewpoints of other authors
  • Or, another purpose?

If you are reading to gain background knowledge, or to clarify your understanding of a topic, these questions might be useful in helping you stay on track and avoid tangents. They’ll also help identify exactly what you might need to make notes of:

  • Are there any specific questions you’d like your reading to answer for you? Any particular gaps in your knowledge you’re looking to fill?
  • What wider context do you need to understand and why?
  • What knowledge, information or data do you need and why?
  • Do you have any articles/texts in mind that it would be useful to consult? If you are looking to construct an argument, what answers/positions/debates/arguments already exist?

Once you’ve identified your purpose for reading and notetaking, you can think about the type of reading you need to do. For instance, if your main purpose is to get a general sense of somebody’s argument, you probably don’t need to read the entire article to begin with. Reading the introduction, conclusion and first line of each paragraph could well give you what you need (and ensure your accompanying notes are concise and relevant!). If you are working on your dissertation and are looking to adapt an existing method for your own use, then focusing on the methods sections to begin with will give you what you need. Identifying your purpose thus means you can be selective when reading and notetaking, which can also help you save time. If you’d like tailored advice on reading and notetaking, feel free to book a 1-1 session with us.

Seminar Participation

“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.

If you want to find out more, you can follow this link to hear AST tutor Nicky talk about the Speculating, Enabling, Challenging [SEC] framework for seminar participation and how it can help you get the most out of seminars.

You can also book a 1-1 appointment with the Academic Skills Team if you’d like some more tailored guidance on seminar participation or other academic skills.

And stay tuned for more videos and study guides on seminar participation. Next up we’ll be looking at some concrete strategies for doing each of these things in a seminar.

Time Management Essentials: getting the most from an independent study session

Time Management” by RLHyde is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

We’ve all done it: set aside some time to start that assignment or get some pre-lecture reading done and … somehow got distracted instead, spending a lot of time doing very little. Often, this is because we’ve sat down to do some work without really considering what it is we’d like to achieve. Our aims are either too vague or too ambitious to fulfil within the time we have available, meaning that we lose focus and motivation fast. Setting a clear, manageable goal for each session is the key to successful independent study and we’ve put together our top goal-setting tips for you here.

Be specific and break it down

A clearly-defined goal is easier to achieve. Instead of telling yourself you’re going to work on your assignment, for example, break this into smaller, more manageable chunks. The first few tasks might be choosing a question, analysing the question, and deciding what reading you need to do. Breaking a larger task down in this way makes it easier to recognise how much the process involves, meaning you’re less likely to be caught out with the realisation that something will take longer to complete than you thought it would. Setting smaller goals also makes it easier to …

Try working in short bursts

You don’t have to work for hours at a time to be productive. Often, you can make more progress by working in shorter bursts and taking regular breaks. Work with your concentration span and not against it by setting a timer for however long you feel you can focus for but no longer than 30 minutes. You might want to start by working in 15 minute bursts and then building it up. Follow each short session with a 5-10 minutes break. It’s easy to lose motivation if you feel you have to work for long stretches without a break so this method makes working feel more manageable. It’s also a good method to use if you’re trying to break a cycle of procrastination or feel particularly anxious about starting a task: spending 15-30 minutes making a start is a gentler way of ‘breaking the ice’ than committing to hours of studying or writing. 

Setting priorities

Deciding what to work on – especially if you have multiple deadlines and lots of tasks competing for your attention – can feel overwhelming and lead to procrastination. Additionally, if you’re feeling stressed about your workload, it can be tempting to view everything as urgent, making it harder to prioritise. Using the ‘3 Ds’ at the start of the day can help with this:

Do: Think about where you need to be at the end of the day: what do you need to have made progress on today to stay on track? This will determine what you need to spend your time on

Defer: What tasks are important but not urgent? You might need to get to them this week, but not today.

Ditch: Items on your ‘ditch list’ might be on your ‘to do’ list in a week’s time, but aren’t urgent right now, meaning you can easily switch your focus to more pressing tasks.

We hope these tips help you manage your workload and make the most of your time. Remember, it’s just as important to schedule in regular breaks!

If you’d like tailored advice on managing your time and workload, feel free to book a 1-1 session with us.  

Step it up: Your Skills sessions for navigating your next level of study

Autumn is finally here – season of mists, mellow fruitfulness, and pumpkin-spiced deadline anxiety. Fortunately, we’ve designed some upcoming Your Skills sessions to help you navigate the demands of a new level of study, and help you make sure that your autumn term is more ‘Nora Ephron’ than ‘Stephen King’. Read on to find out why you need this series of sessions tailored to each stage (and see how many laboured Hallowe’en references it’s possible to fit in a single blog post).

What is the Your Skills Programme?

The Academic Skills and Liaison Librarian teams have joined forces to bring you a central programme of academic skills sessions. In addition to sessions and resources offered by individual teams, this central programme will be co-taught by staff members across the board to give you a holistic and wide-ranging series of workshops and resources. We’ll be covering everything from planning your work to editing the final draft. The programme also includes sessions on less talked-about areas of academic life. Ready to confront eldritch horrors in the vaults? Indulge your inner M.R. James with our sessions on Special Collections and Archives. Problems with The Others? Try the session on managing conflict in group work. Keep an eye on the calendar to see what’s on offer and how to book in. All slides and recordings from these sessions will be posted online afterwards – find them here along with slides from previous sessions.

How can it help you?

These sessions cover key topics and core skills at each level, including…

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”: planning and time management

  • We all know there’s nothing more likely to induce zombie-like exhaustion than the desperate, caffeine-fuelled rush to finish the work we should have started weeks ago. Make sure your Sleepless in Seattle doesn’t become Night of the Living Dead with practical strategies for managing your time and planning your work.

“What’s this? What’s this?”: searching and finding information

  • It’s easy to become overwhelmed with the sheer quantity of potentially useful sources. Before you know it, you’re struggling through piles of disparate articles like Jack the Pumpkin King skimming the baffling tat of Christmas Town. Learn how to streamline and refine the process by developing your skills in finding and managing relevant sources.
  • “What do you want from us?”: the demands of academic writing at each level

Writing at a new level can feel like trying to navigate a haunted house helped only by annoyingly cryptic messages from the resident ghosts. “Be more critical”, they intone. “Improve your academic language”. Like the unfortunate inhabitants of Hill House and 112 Ocean Avenue, we simply don’t understand what these mysterious forces are asking us to do. These sessions aim to clear away the fog and shed light on the shadowy corners to help you get a better understanding of the requirements of your new academic year.

Session dates and how to book

Book your place and find out more via our online calendar.

Step it up: academic skills for second years

  • Monday 10th October, 13.00 – 13.45

Step it up: academic skills for third and fourth years

  • Thursday 13th October, 14.00 – 14.45

Step it up: academic skills for taught postgraduates

  • Friday 14th October: 11.00 – 11.45

Welcome to the new academic year from your Academic Skills Team!


It’s autumn and the start of the new academic year and you may well have questions about the work you’ll have to do on your course and your assignments.  Luckily, the Academic Skills Team is on hand to help! We’re based in the Philip Robinson Library and are here to support you whether you are new to Newcastle University or are a returning student, whether you’re entering at stage one or doing your PhD. We have a wide range of resources and services to help you develop your academic skills throughout your time at Newcastle.

Firstly, we’re running a meet the team event from the 27th -29th September in the foyer of the Philip Robinson Library. During this event, we’ll be able to answer your questions about our services, show you some of our resources and help you book one-to-ones and workshop sessions. Plus, we’ve got some great freebies to give out!

Throughout the year we’ll be running focused clinics to help you with for example, exams and revision and completing a dissertation. You’ll also find us across Campus in a variety of locations where we’ll be able to answer your academic skills questions. You can find out when and where you can catch us at one of these events on our booking page.

We’ve also got lots of great material for you on the Academic Skills Kit, where you’ll find curated collections to help you at key points of the year. Our latest collection, New at Newcastle, contains useful resources around studying, from applying critical analysis to your work, avoiding plagiarism to time management and healthy study habits. We’ve been working with students over the summer and have created a resource around managing and planning your time, and we’ll be releasing a student led podcast over the next few weeks, where students talk about a range of academic skills issues and provide some useful contacts and advice.

Throughout the year you can make use of our one-to-one sessions, which we offer in person or online. You can book an express slot if you have a quick, focussed question such as how to get started with your work or talking about different reading strategies. If you’d like to discuss a piece of work in more depth, you can book a 50- minute appointment, which will give you the opportunity to work with one of the team and develop strategies you can apply to your work moving forward. Again, you can see all existing availability and book an appointment on our booking page.

Keep an eye out for us on your course, too, as we work with academics across the university to embed our teaching into a range of courses and Canvas sites. In addition, we contribute to the Your Skills programme, where you can sign up to our wide range of sessions run in conjunction with colleagues across the university. These sessions are interactive and focus on information and academic skills to help you reach your full potential as a student. You can find out more on the dedicated Your Skills page ( If you’d like to get in touch quickly, you can use our LiveChat service, just click on the icon on any of the Academic Skills Kit pages between 12 and 4 pm on weekdays and you’ll be able to make contact with one of the team. Lastly,  you can email us with any questions, comments or suggestions on

The Academic Skills Team wishes you all the best for the coming academic year!

How do you participate in seminars?

“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?“ 

Photo by Headway on Unsplash

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 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 Newcastle University’s Counselling Services to put together a whole lot of resources, strategies and tips for effectively participating in seminars.  

Check out the link below to hear Academic Skills Team tutor Nicky talk about the Speculating, Enabling, Challenging [SEC] framework for seminar participation and how it can help you get the most out of seminars. 

And stay tuned for more videos on seminar participation. Next up we’ll be looking at some concrete strategies for doing each of these things in a seminar. 

Dealing with Overwhelm – 7 Ways to Set Priorities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Year, First Term, First week!

it’s the first week of teaching this week, and if you’re a first year just starting your studies, you’ll have completed the university’s online induction programme Newcastle Beginnings, and be wondering what’s next…

Well, don’t worry – induction was only the beginning, just enough of a heads up to get started with. You’ll be getting real hands on experience of teaching, learning and assessment in your subject from now on, so will be able to develop your academic skills in context with real life, relevant examples – which is the best way!

These skills take time to develop and refine, and will evolve over the whole course of your studies. You’re not expected to be a fully fledged university student before your studies even start! Your first year is the time to experiment and develop and find out more about how things work in your own subject and what approaches work for you.

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