One Step at A Time

It’s certainly been an usual start to the 2020/21 academic year. There’s been a whole summer of wondering what’s going to happen and how it’s all going to work, and then, having had plenty of time to settle in over the induction period, teaching’s started in earnest.  

It’s natural to want to hit the ground running. Whether you’re just beginning your degree with us and wanting to make a good start on your new course, or a returning student who’s got a bit of experience under their belt of studying remotely and wanting to keep up and get ahead of yourself, it’s tempting to throw yourself into your studies. After all, none of us have lived and studied like this before, we’re not following in any established footsteps, and one of the best ways to beat fear of the unknown is to dive in.  

If you’re finding though that you’re feeling overwhelmed, anxious or under pressure, or just not sure where you’re going with it all and maybe getting nowhere, it might help to stop for a moment and take stock. One step at a time.

If you’re starting your degree, whether undergraduate or postgraduate, do remember that induction was only the beginning, and the process of transition continues…. well, certainly for your first term, and in many ways, your academic skills will continue to evolve throughout your degree. You’ll have had some light touch academic skills provision in the University’s online induction, but there will be more throughout the whole year, as and when you need it. Certainly no one is expecting you to be fully fledged already, with all the knowledge and skills you need. If you’re feeling behind because you don’t yet feel you know what you’re doing, that’s natural! It’ll come with time and experience. Just because an assignment or task has been set now, doesn’t mean that you already need to know how to do it – learning is scaffolded so you learn the right thing at the right time, rather than being deluged at the start. And if you’re not sure what you’re supposed to be doing yet, ask! It might not be as much as you think, or a bit of a steer might make you feel more focussed. 

Online asynchronous learning is playing a far bigger role for all of us this year than it ever has. This has shifted the way that we organise our work and manage our time, but think about whether it’s controlling you, or you’re in charge of it. Our VLE, Canvas, is structured around weeks and modules of information, packaged up into carefully designed linear chunks, but you can still decide how and when best to engage with it during your week. If several weeks’ worth of content have been released at once, you don’t need to work through it all at once – pace yourself around any synchronous teaching or assessments as your landmarks in which you will need to draw on those synchronous materials, week by week. And just because structured learning materials have been organised into a module on canvas doesn’t mean you have to keep clicking that ‘next’ button and work through it all in one go. Keep your learning active rather than passively clicking through: get an overview of the module, and decide how you’re going to break it up in a way that works with your concentration span, giving yourself time and space to take it in properly and have breaks in between or mix it up with other learning activities. If you’ve been given recommended timings to spend on each thing, remember they’re estimates and don’t feel intimidated by them. They’re just there to help you quantify how much work there is so you know roughly what’s expected and how to factor it into your schedule (as well as helping us estimate how much we’re reasonably asking of you!) – if it’s taking a bit longer or shorter, don’t worry too much.  

Time passes quickly in this first term even at the best of times, but time seems to be moving quite differently this year – speeding by and standing still all at once. Yes, deadlines approach faster than you think they will- that’s a universal truth! But a measured approach is the best, and a targetted one, once the task has become clear in good time. On a bigger scale, try and pace yourself, both to avoid burnout and to make sure that your learning is as efficient as it can be. Doing too much and too randomly at the start before you’ve got a sense of what’s needed and how to prioritise it doesn’t do much good, any more than cramming at the last minute. On a day to day level, to really sink in, learning needs to be broken down and spread out over time. It also helps to mix things up – interweave different activities or topics so you’re fresh and so you feel you’re making progress on several fronts at once. It also really helps you learn!  

And do take breaks and build in time to look after yourself. It’s really difficult at the moment, we know, and it can be tempting to throw yourself into work to feel more in control and more productive, but we all need to vary between work and play. The NCLInlcude app is a great starting point, and remember your Five Ways To Wellbeing. Days can feel very samey now we’re spending more time socially distanced indoors, but building in structured time for study and fun or self-care can be helpful – you need times when you know you’re NOT and SHOULDN’T be working, as well as times set aside for study. We’ve all got a lot of time on our hands at the moment, and work expands to fill the time available if you let it. A good balance of study and fun will help you negotiate between the extremes of burnout and lack of motivation.  

There will be challenges this year – some of them we can anticipate, and others will be more unexpected, but everything in its own time. If you’re not sure now how to do something, then try not to panic just yet – there will be more advice from your lecturers at the appropriate time, or the task might simply become clearer the more experience you get. And you can always contact us at the WDC for study advice!  

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 WDC will be here alongside you throughout your studies to help you develop not just your skills, but your confidence as an independent learner. Our tutor and Head of Service Helen Webster has a message for you to wish you the best as you begin your studies for real!

decorative

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.

#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

 

Frequently Asked Questions about the WDC

It’s week two already…! Teaching has started in earnest and term is really starting to get under way. Many of you are starting to think about your first assignments, and may be wondering how the WDC can help. We’ve put together a list of FAQs about the WDC- what we offer and how we work, to answer some of the common questions that we’re asked at this time of year!

What does the Writing Development Centre do?

We offer guidance on a range of academic issues to help students develop their skills and succeed as independent learners. Our service includes individual tutorials, workshops as part of our own programme and also in the context of degree programmes and modules in the Schools. We are developing our range of online resources too.

What can the Writing Development Centre help me with?

Academic writing is one of the main issues we offer guidance on, as it’s usually the focus of assessment. We can help with not only the final product (authorial voice and academic style), but also the whole process of writing, from analysing the question, planning and structuring, building an argument to pulling a draft together and editing it. However, we can also advise on a wider range of study skills which will help support your studies such as exams and revision, time management, critical reading or note-taking.

When should I come and see you?

We embed our advice in the context of work you’re actually doing, so that it’s relevant, specific to your studies and practical – based on your own experiences and study style. If you’d like to book a tutorial, it’s best to wait until a little later in the term when you have a specific assignment you’re working on which we can discuss, rather than bring general questions before you’ve really made a start on your studies. Until you’ve begun working on that first essay, you won’t know what you need to know, and it’s hard for us to know what to suggest!

We’re currently running a lot of workshops around the university, so tutorial availability is lower than it would be later in the term. Look out for our workshops – either run as part of your course, or our central programme – you may find your questions are answered there.

How does the WDC work? What happens in a tutorial?

We aren’t subject experts – our expertise is in learning, teaching and assessment. We can help you to identify areas in your work which you can develop, and explore study strategies, skills and techniques which work for you, so you can become a successful independent learner.

In a tutorial, we will discuss your query with you, look at your work or ask about your approach to study, and any feedback you’ve had on your work, to identify where you might further develop or adapt your study skills. We can explain assignment briefs, marking criteria or academic conventions to help ensure you understand your lecturers’ expectations. We can then explore and illustrate study strategies that will suit your needs and personal preferences, and discuss how you might put them into practice. We can also offer follow-up tutorials to see how you’re getting on.

Do you run classes?

We run a programme of workshops throughout the term (and sometimes in the long summer vacation) on a range of study topics. We try to anticipate the topics which are most appropriate for the majority of students, and welcome suggestions as to the timing of sessions, or new topics you’d like us to offer. Our workshops are stand-alone sessions, and may be aimed at students at different points in their studies. We also run workshops as part of degree programmes and modules in the Schools – look out for sessions in your own course. We don’t run a series of classes on writing as we feel study skills are best learned in context, rather than as a separate course.

I’m an international student and English isn’t my first language. Can you help?

We are not specialists in teaching English as a Second Language or English for Academic Purposes. If you would like help with your academic English, and have a UELA score of less than 70 in your writing, you will be best supported by INTO’s In-Sessional English programme, which offers classes and individual consultations. If you have near-native English writing skills (a UELA score of over 70 or exemption from the UELA), you are welcome to make an appointment with us.

We may be able to comment on a limited range of fundamental grammar issues, but our main role is to help you understand the expectations, assumptions and conventions of study in UK university culture, which may be very different to your own. This might include understanding how teaching, learning and assessment differ (and how you need to adapt) or how academic UK English writing conventions are used to signal things like criticality, authorial voice or structure.

I just wanted to ask a question about the WDC or my studies….

We don’t currently offer a drop-in service – tutorials are by appointment only. Our tutorials are confidential and student-centred, and we try to ensure that when you book an appointment with us, we can focus on your questions without being disturbed, and ask that you extend this courtesy to others. At busy times we operate a waiting list for appointments, and ask that students don’t try to ‘jump the queue’ by dropping in. If you have a question you’d like to discuss with us, please book an appointment. If it’s a quick question or is about the WDC service, you can check our website or email us WDC@ncl.ac.uk

Can I make an appointment?

You’re welcome to book a tutorial with us – appointments are made online. As we don’t have a reception desk, our booking process is handled by the Library Admin team, we aren’t able to book appointments or answer questions about bookings from the WDC offices. You can book a tutorial on our website: http://www.ncl.ac.uk/students/wdc/students/tutorials/ If you have a question about booking, please email us on WDC@ncl.ac.uk.

How can I contact the Writing Development Centre?

Our website is the main source of information about the service: http://www.ncl.ac.uk/students/wdc/ You can also email us WDC@ncl.ac.uk or tweet us @NCL_WDC. As we use our offices for teaching, we don’t offer a drop-in or phone service.

My Top Tips for Freshers: If I’d known then what I know now …

A very warm WDC welcome to all of our brand new undergraduates! I hope you’re getting settled in and that you’ll enjoy your time in Newcastle. Your arrival had me casting my mind back to when I was a new undergraduate. In particular, I started thinking about the advice I wish I’d been given right at the beginning of my degree course.

After some thought, these are the three ‘pearls of wisdom’ I came up with. Everyone’s experience of starting university is different of course, but these are perhaps the three most common issues. Hopefully, this post will help you make the transition more easily than I did!

1/ Give yourself time to adjust: Fully expecting to get a First in my first assignment, since I’d done so well at school, I was rather stunned when I got a low 2:2 instead. Not only was this a dreadful shock, it seemed to transform my whole identity overnight: I was no longer the high achiever I had been at school, so who was I? I had been considered ‘clever’ once: what was I now? Perhaps some time over the long summer holidays I had lost whatever it was I had at GCSE and ‘A’ Level.

If I could go back in time and tell my younger self anything, it would be this: things have got harder, you haven’t suddenly become more stupid! You need to give yourself time to adjust to a new learning environment. The game looks similar – you still have to write essays, for instance, – but the rules and the expectations are different.

Another thing I might mention to that bewildered 18-year-old is this: you rarely learn when things are going well. Getting a lower mark than you expected is never pleasant, but it hopefully gives you an indication of where the problems lie and how you might set about fixing them.

2/ Know what you are aiming for: So there I was desperately trying to get a First without having a single clue what a First-class essay looked like. What do Firsts do that 2:2s don’t? What skills do you need to demonstrate in order to get the mark you want? I had no idea. I just presumed that, since I’d never had a problem writing a decent essay at school, I’d have no problem doing more of the same at university.

Again, if I could have a conversation with my younger self, I’d stress the naivety of this. How can you aim for a target if you don’t know what the target is? I would suggest that this early 00s version of me familiarised themselves with the marking criteria and looked at sample essays if they could. After all, it is useful to get a clearer sense of what your tutors expect from you. Another way of establishing this is by actually talking to tutors, of course – something the younger me was a little terrified of. I would encourage Younger Me to ask more questions, particularly if I wasn’t sure what a specific assignment required of me. Especially since experience has taught me that lecturers value initiative and engagement.

3/ Review your approach to learning: Another thing I didn’t realise when I arrived at university was that my approach to studying might need to be altered. As my lower-than-desired mark indicated, the ‘more of the same’ approach wasn’t really working. At school I had been able to dash an essay off the night before the deadline and still get a reasonable mark. On the opposite end of the scale, I had also been able to spend an inordinate amount of time painstakingly working on one piece because it was the only assignment I had been set over the holidays. Neither approach worked for me in the land of higher expectations and multiple deadlines. I wish I’d realised this earlier on so that I could have gone about reviewing and developing my study skills sooner rather than later.

If you want to avoid these pitfalls, why not book a one-to-one appointment with the WDC for further advice and more tips? You can find out more about what we do and book online at: http://www.ncl.ac.uk/students/wdc/support/book.htm.

Best of luck in your studies!

Posted by Caroline