Podcasts and video resources

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. 

Eszter producing the podcast series

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.

All the episodes are available on Spotify

Keep checking as we’ll add more episodes !

Making the most of feedback

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.

The Academic Skills Team can help you interpret feedback and consider how to implement it. You can book a 1-1 with us via our website.https://www.ncl.ac.uk/academic-skills-kit/enhance-your-skills/

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.

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

Tackling essay-based exams

Exam season is almost upon us and one challenge you may find yourself facing is revising for essay-based exams. These can cause a lot of anxiety, not least because essay-based assessments are often something we are used to doing over the course of several weeks. How do you plan, structure and write an essay in the space of a couple of hours? And how on earth do you revise when you don’t know what you’ll be asked? 

Read on for our guide to effective revision and exam technique for essay-based exam questions:

What are essay exams testing?

Before you jump into your revision, it can be helpful to remember that essay exams are not just testing your memory. Instead, your lecturers are looking for evidence of how well you can apply the knowledge you have gained throughout the course to solve a problem or answer a question under timed conditions. Therefore, whilst memory is still important – you’ll need to be able to recall that knowledge in the exam – it’s only part of the story. You’ll also need to make sure you have an in-depth understanding of that knowledge and have practiced applying it to different questions, problems, and contexts.

How do I revise for essay exams?

You may be tempted to write a ‘generic’ essay on each of the topics you’re revising and memorise them so you can repeat them in the exam room. However, keep in mind that your lecturers are asking you to solve the specific problem they’ve set for you and simply ‘dumping’ everything that’s relevant won’t address the question and is unlikely to earn you good marks.

A more effective approach to revising for essay exams is incorporating strategies that develop your understanding of the topic so you can apply your knowledge to different problems effectively. Some revision strategies you might want to try for this are:

  • Questioning and interrogating the knowledge: why does this happen? How does it happen? Does it always happen this way? Is this always true? What about if we apply it to a different context? What are the implications of this?
  • Try applying the knowledge to case studies or different scenarios to get a better understanding of how theory works in practice.
  • Look at past papers or devise your own questions and either answer them in full or sketch out an essay plan under timed conditions. This will help you to test your recall and practice skills you’ll be using in the exam.
  • Compare and weigh up different approaches to the topic. Does everyone agree on this? Why? Why not? Which perspective is stronger?
  • Identify gaps in your knowledge and do some additional reading to fill them.

What about strategies for the exam itself? 

You might be used to spending hours or even days planning, writing, and editing a coursework essay and be wondering how on earth you do all of this under timed conditions. Keep in mind that your lecturers know that this is a big ask and they are not expecting the same level of sophistication in the way you construct your arguments that they would be looking for in a coursework essay. However, it’s still necessary that your lecturers can follow your answer and see clearly how it addresses the question so:

  • Spend some time at the beginning paying attention to what the question is asking you. Our video on question analysis offers some strategies for understanding essay questions: 
  • Sketch out a basic structure to follow. This needn’t be more than the main points you want to argue and the order you want to argue them in.
  • Clearly state your point or communicate your main focus at the beginning of each paragraph to help your reader get their bearings and follow your argument.
  • If you find yourself running out of time, write down a few bullet points around your remaining points – you may still pick up a few extra marks for this! 

Do I need to reference sources in an essay exam?  

While you won’t be expected to reference others to the extent you do in a coursework essay, it’s worth incorporating a few references to back up your points and show how you worked out your answer.

Try to memorise a couple of key arguments and/or debates made by others for each topic as well as the authors’ surname(s) and the year of the article so that you can cite it in the exam. Don’t worry about the details – just one or two lines summarising their main argument is enough.

What about other types of exams?

Exams exist in various formats in addition to the traditional essay-based exam type. For example, your course may also have multiple choice papers, vivas/oral presentations or exams relating to specific processes, techniques and interactions. All types of exams test your ability to recall and apply your subject knowledge, so most advice on revision and exam technique is applicable to different exam types. Effective revision trains your brain both to retain and to retrieve information; a process that’s equally useful for all exam formats. However, different types of exams can also present different challenges, and transitioning from online to in-person exams is a key change for this year. For more details on this and other exam-related issues, see our ASK Exams Collection and our calendar for upcoming workshops on revision and exam preparation.

Time Management Tips for Troubled Times: Dealing with Overwhelm

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

Term might have got underway, but if you’re feeling behind and overwhelmed with your studies, losing motivation and generally not keeping up, that’s quite understandable. We’re all navigating a completely new way of studying, with new teaching formats to get used to, new learning strategies to adapt and all in the middle of a pandemic crisis. It’s no wonder if you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed, lacking in motivation or suffering from procrastination and uncertainty. This is the latest in our series of Time Management Tips for Troubled Times, in which we try to help you get your mojo back and find your way forward.

  • If you don’t feel ready to start a task (not done enough reading, thinking, etc) or don’t know where you are with it, jump in and start anyway – use this as a way to experiment and find out exactly what else you need to do, rather than a vague sense you’ve not done enough or aren’t sure what you’re doing. 
  • Use freewriting as a way to find a bit of focus. Set a timer for 10 mins, and write a stream-of-consciousness exploring the task you will be working on, what the sticking points are, anything you’re worried about, things that are distracting you and how you feel about it. Don’t stop, don’t edit, don’t judge – this is just you warming up and thinking aloud on paper. 
  • Break tasks down. This allows you to see exactly what needs to be done, and how long it might all take. It also makes big, vague goals into manageable, concrete tasks, where you can see progress. 
  • Build in points where you can reflect, take stock of where you need to be, and check your direction. Try and commit to a goal, even if it’s for a day, rather than switching between them in case you’re worried you’re not doing the right thing.
  • Alternatively, try interleaving – every hour, two hours or mornings and afternoons, switch task. This might help you feel that you’re keeping all the plates spinning, and actually helps you refresh your concentration. It’s also true that if you leave a problem you’re stuck with, your brain is likely to have made progress on it when you were thinking about something else. 
  • Think How, not just What. Focus on the actions you need to take, not the things you need to achieve, and make your intention to implement the goal explicit. ‘IF I am going to achieve ……., THEN I will do …..
  • Make each task as concrete as possible, to make it doable and give yourself a sense of achievement. You could frame it in SMART terms:
    • Specific: What exactly will the output be? Which section or paragraph?
    • Measurable: How many words will you write, approx?
    • Achievable: How realistic is this? How ‘finished’ does it have to be?
    • Relevant: how does this contribute to the rest of your work? How important is it?
    • Timebound: how long will you work on it?
  • Build in small, immediate, short term rewards for things where the real outcome is a longer way off. 
  • Reward yourself for a job done, or for progress made, whether you feel it is well done or not.
  • Intrinsic rewards: A sense of achievement or pride is a kind of reward, so frame your work in a way that allows you to tick things off or check how well you’re doing. 
  • Extrinsic rewards: You could also use rewards that have nothing to do with work. Rewards should be small and also framed in SMART terms so you don’t get distracted from returning to work.
  • You’re likely to put something off if you don’t think you can do it. If you aren’t sure what it is you’re supposed to achieve or how to go about it, list up the questions you have, so you can find answers – friends on the course, a peer mentor, your lecturer, a Writing Development Centre tutor. Identifying what you don’t know is the beginning of finding out.
  • If your planned time didn’t quite go to plan, write a list of ‘things achieved’ anyway – this will help you see where you’re still being productive or where you need to get back on track, without making you feel you’ve achieved nothing.
  • There is often no single right answer, or no single right way to do something at university. If  an approach isn’t working for you, try a different way rather than avoiding a task due to fear of failure or not being good enough. Find your own best way to study.

Prefer to hear it than read? Listen to Helen, one of our WDC tutors, talk you through some tips.

Dr Helen Webster, WDC
Dr Helen Webster, WDC

Best wishes from the WDC

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

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

WDC Zoom Bingo!

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

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

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

WDC provision – we’re still there for you!

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

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

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

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