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.

We are here to support you!

Don’t forget that the Academic Skills Team will be in the Walton Library to answer questions about exams, revision, and any other questions you may have about academic skills on the following days and times:

11.05.2211:00-13:00
25.05.2211:00-13:00
08.06.2211:00-13:00

Sound and vision: introducing our new audiovisual resources guide


Where can I find pictures relating to transport which I can use in my project? How do I find out what was broadcast on British television and radio on a particular day in the 1970s? Where are the best places to find examples of digital art? I need audio clips of scary sounds for my presentation – where to start? Are there any interesting oral histories in my subject area? How do I reference a podcast? I’ve found an ideal picture online, but I don’t know where it’s from – what can I do? Is there an authoritative list of famous music plagiarism cases anywhere, including audio clips?

Screenshot of oral histories from the British Library
British Library oral histories selection

You can find the answers to these, and many more intriguing questions, on our brand new guide to finding and using audiovisual resources.

We’ve updated and expanded our old images guide, and included new databases and resources for finding films and television programmes, plus audio content such as radio programmes, sound clips, podcasts and oral histories.

We’ve also updated the original still images section, which helps you find images of all genres and subjects, such as anatomy, archaeology, architecture…. and all other letters of the alphabet!

Need more help?

Keyword searching isn’t always the best way to search for audiovisual content, so if you want to find an image which looks like another one, search by colour, or find exactly what you want on Box of Broadcasts, visit our guide.

Finally, if you’re unsure whether you’re permitted to use an audiovisual resource in your assignment, and/or how to cite it, we can help with that too. Our guide contains plenty of helpful advice on using and citing audiovisual materials, and we’ve tried to include links to collections and databases which are licensed for educational use where possible (but please do check the terms and conditions in each case).

Accessing resources beyond the Library

Photograph by Erik Odiin of somebody in a train station
Photo by Erik Odiin on Unsplash

If you’re working on a dissertation, thesis or project right now, or will be doing so next academic year, what can you do if the Library doesn’t have access to all the specialist books and other information resources you need? How can you find out about resources relating to your research topic which are held elsewhere? Can you visit other libraries and archives if you’re away from Newcastle over the vacation?

Read on to find out how you can expand your search beyond our library….

1. Search

You can search across the catalogues of over 170 UK and Irish academic and national libraries, together with other specialist and research libraries, via Library Hub Discover (formerly COPAC). The range of libraries included in Library Hub Discover is expanding all the time, and includes all UK universities, as well as the libraries of such diverse organisations as Durham Cathedral, the Institution of Civil Engineers, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Royal Horticultural Society.

Library Hub Discover logo

In response to Covid restrictions, Library Hub Discover has also made it easier for you to find Open Access resources via its catalogue: it has recently incorporated the HathiTrust Digital Library, as well as the Directories of Open Access Books and Journals to its searchable database.

For a more in-depth and up-to-date search, you can also search individual academic library catalogues online. Need to look further afield? Search library catalogues internationally via WorldCat.

If you are looking for archives elsewhere, whether in the North East or beyond, our colleagues in the Special Collections and Archives team have compiled a list of useful directories and search tools.

2. Obtain

If we haven’t got the book you want, you can ask us to consider buying or borrowing it via our Recommend a book service.

If you need a copy of a journal article to which we don’t have access, you can apply for it via our inter library loan service, which is currently free.

You can search UK doctoral theses via the national EThOS service. This has records for over 500,000 theses, dating back to the year 1800, of which over half are freely available online (do note you have to register with EThOS before being able to download: it’s a separate login process to your usual University login).

3. Visit

Photo of Special Collections Virtual Reading Room
Special Collections Virtual Reading Room

The SCONUL Access Scheme enables students to visit most other academic libraries around the country, and in some cases, borrow from them. This service has recently resumed since its suspension during the Covid pandemic, but please note that not all academic libraries are currently participating in the scheme, so do check carefully before you visit, and read the latest information on the SCONUL Access site.

You will need to register with SCONUL Access before you can visit another Library, so do allow time for your registration to be processed.

If you want to consult archives or special collections elsewhere, you’ll need to check with the organisation in question beforehand (you’ll usually need to request to consult items in advance of your visit). If you can’t visit in person, archives services may still be able to answer queries, provide access to selected digitised items, or even operate a Virtual Reading Room, so it may well be worth enquiring.

Writing an essay: step-by-step guidance from the Academic Skills Development Team

A selection of books on academic skills.

Not sure about how to start writing an essay?

One of the most frequently asked questions in the academic skills drop-ins in the Walton Library is about how to write an essay.

If you are feeling a bit overwhelmed with how to begin a piece of assessed written work, it is worthwhile thinking about writing as a process as opposed to a final product. Thinking about it in this way means that you break the task down into smaller manageable chunks, but you can also review, reflect, and edit your work as you go along which helps you to meet the marking criteria.

It is important to remember that although we call it a process, you are likely to move back and forward between stages reviewing, evaluating, revising, and editing as you go along.

A student in the Law Library.

The first stage in the process is planning, this includes looking over the marking scheme as well as the questions, this will give you a clear idea of what the marker is looking for, you can then begin generating ideas, this will lead you to begin the research process.  It is worth reading broadly at first to get an overall picture of your topic, here you’ll use the materials you’ve been taught in lectures, look at your reading list as well as other resources you’ve been directed to. At this stage (and throughout your work) it is a good idea to have the assignment question to hand so that you can refer to it, this will help you keep focussed on the task you’ve been set. You’ll then be in a position to decide how you want to respond to the assignment question, this will then help you source more detailed texts. Deciding on your position at the planning stage will help make your writing focussed and coherent. Once you’ve decided on your position, you can begin to map out a rough plan.

It is important to have a plan because this gives you a clear overview of what you’ll write about, it will guide you as you work through the assignment and will help you ensure that you’ve included everything and addressed the task fully. The plan doesn’t need to be detailed, even a list of headings and subheadings can be helpful to guide you. Regardless of how you plan your work out, this process will enable you to organise your argument and the evidence you’ll use to support this, you can also establish connections between points. It will also help you read with a clear purpose, as you’ll be looking for material to support your point, as opposed to summarising relevant texts and adding them to your work.

Image courtesy of Glenn Carstens-Peters

After the planning stage you’ll move onto the composition of the assignment. Here you’ll use the rough plan as a guide, and you’ll begin formatting ideas and incorporating references to support your points.  You’ll think about how to structure and the composition of each paragraph and add the appropriate references. Remember it is important to integrate sources when you are writing, not simply summarise one text per idea.

Then you’ll go over what you’ve written and review it, you should evaluate what you’ve written thinking about the evidence you’ve found and your argument throughout the essay, and as you look through your work you are likely to revise and edit what you’ve got. This process will continue until you have completed your assignment.

Reviewing, evaluating, revising, and editing your work is likely to occur in several cycles. Eventually you’ll have a completed draft. At this stage it is worth ensuring that you read the whole piece of work to ensure flow throughout, you can also check for any language, structural, referencing, style or grammar issues. If possible, take a break from writing so that when you do your final checks you are looking at your work with fresh eyes and therefore will be more likely to spot any potential errors.

Our video illustrates this process and can help get you started on tackling a piece of work you’ve been given. Don’t forget that we’ll be able to answer your questions about essay writing and much more when we visit the Walton Library for our drop-ins, the next one is scheduled for Wednesday 16th from 11:00-13:00.
We’ll add more dates after the Easter break, however, in the meantime if you’ve got any academic skills queries, we’ve now got a Live Chat widget on all the Academic Skills Kit pages, it’s live from 12:00-16:00 Monday to Friday.

We always love to hear from students, if you’ve got any feedback or questions about our support or resources please get in touch! AcademicSkills@newcastle.ac.uk

International Women’s Day 2022 – Medicine in Literature

To celebrate International Women’s Day 2022 Walton Library’s Medicine in Literature team have created a Box of Broadcasts watch list to showcase films with a female story at their centre. The selection contains tales about women and their relationships to health, medicine and science. From Frida to Gravity to Suffragette the collection looks at both fictional and non-fictional accounts of the strength it takes to navigate the world as a woman. We hope you enjoy watching!

We are also celebrating International Women’s Day in the Walton Library with a display highlighting the achievements of female graduates from the Faculty of Medical Sciences. These are shown alongside books written by, or about, women who are making an impact in the world of medicine and breaking the gender bias in the process.

Celebrating female graduates of the Faculty of Medical Sciences.

Box of Broadcasts is a TV and radio streaming database that can be accessed via Library Search (UK access only, Login required). Take a look at the list of films selected for International Women’s Day 2022 or browse all of our public playlists by searching ‘Medicine in Literature Newcastle University’.

Is there a book that you think should be on our shelves, or a film to add to a playlist? Is there a subject you think would make a good BoB playlist? Then get in touch.

https://libguides.ncl.ac.uk/medicineinliterature

Get more out of Box of Broadcasts!

Have you met BoB? Box of Broadcasts is a fantastic resource for all subject areas: an archive of over two million radio and television broadcasts from over 75 free-to-air channels, including all BBC channels, ITV and Channel 4, plus some international channels. New programmes are added to BoB as they are broadcast each day.

We know it’s a very popular resource, but are you getting the best out of it? Here are some quick tips for newbies and experienced users alike!

Smarter searching

BoB is a huge database, so searching by keyword may retrieve a lot of irrelevant results, especially as the default search looks for your keyword in all programme transcripts (i.e. every word spoken in a programme). Click on the Search options link just under the search bar to see various ways of making your search more precise, including searching in the programme titles only, or limiting by date. This help video gives more detail:

Playlists and clips

You can create your own playlists: really helpful if you’re researching for an assignment, or preparing to teach a module. You can also search public playlists curated by other BoB users around the UK: just select Public playlists underneath the search bar, or explore this showcase of playlists for more inspiration.

BoB curated playlists

Clips are really easy to make too:

Stop press: pre-2007 broadcasts now available

Box of Broadcasts currently only contains programmes broadcast from 2007 onwards. However, in March 2022, the BBC announced that its entire digitised archive can now be requested using the Television and Radio Index for Teaching and Learning (TRILT), which is also managed by Learning on Screen.

Need more help?

Got more BoB questions? Try their extensive FAQs or take a look at their updated collection of short video guides.

New Resource on Trial; OUP Very Short Introductions

Have you ever needed to dive into a new topic but felt overwhelmed by the amount of research? See if a Very Short Introduction can get you started!

This series offers concise introductions to a diverse range of subjects—from artificial intelligence to folk music to medical ethics—in 35,000 words or less.

Each one of these big little books provides intelligent and serious introductions written by experts who combine facts, analysis, new ideas, and enthusiasm to make even the most challenging topics highly readable.

On our catalogue, Library Search you can search by keywords like in the screenshot below so “very short introduction” and browse through or add in Oxford to add in results for that publisher.

Or visit the OUP Very Short Introductions website directly and then filter using the subject categories. Everything from Medicine, Arts, Humanities, Law, Social Sciences to name but a few.

if you are accessing off campus then once you’re on the OUP site please click “sign in” (on the left hand menu and select Newcastle University from the list to enter your Campus ID and password.)

Oxford University Press have a range of help materials for this collection, so you might want to check out their help video.

The trial ends on April 14th 2022. To help us evaluate it, please email us your feedback, or leave a reply on this blog.

We’re here to help (even when we’re not)

Christmas scene with dining table

The University may be closed for the Christmas period but if you are studying, writing assignments or revising, library resources and help are always available. We may not be in the building, but the library team can help you with your semester 2 preparation.

Use your Library Subject Guide

If you are not sure which resources are best to use for your subject or what you can access off-campus, visit your Subject Guide . The guides bring together links and help for the specialist information sources in your discipline.

Visit the Library over the vacation

The Philip Robinson Library building will be open for the majority of the Winter break (Friday 24th December 2021 – Monday 3rd January 2022) but is closed on Christmas Day (Saturday 25th December) and New Year’s Day (Saturday 1st January). All other library buildings will be closed for the entire Winter break.  If you need access to books and journals, or a quiet place to study, all you will need is to book your study space online and to bring your University smartcard to enter the building. Visit the website for the Library vacation opening hours. Please remember that it is currently mandatory to wear a face covering when moving around indoors in all university buildings (free masks are available at the Library Welcome Desk).

Have a question? Check the FAQs

We have an extensive database of frequently asked questions available on the Library website. You can search by keyword or browse by topic area and find answers to the most common questions. So whether you want to know how to access newspapers from the Library, how to book study space or get help with EndNote, check the FAQs to see if we have already answered your question.

Contact Library Help

If you need help or have a question, use Library Help to get in touch with us. You can live chat with a librarian outside of the University to get immediate answers, or send us a message and we will get back to you when the University reopens.

So remember, you can access all of our online resources, journals and e-books from the Library website and we will be back in the Library on Tuesday 4th January 2022. Enjoy the festive season!

Tips for creating your study space

If you’re away from Newcastle over the Winter break you may be studying in unfamiliar or unusual spaces, which can make it more challenging to concentrate or find your motivation. Procrastination may be a struggle and creating a space, both physical and online, in which to be your most productive is something that many of us find challenging. It may not always be possible, but creating a managed space to study in will help. So what are our tips for creating the perfect study space at home?

1. Select your space

If possible, designate a space as your study environment. It may be your room in a shared house, the kitchen table, office, dining room or a spot in the hallway. Wherever you choose, claim it and make it yours in order to reduce distractions from those you live with and to create a studying mindset.

It can be invaluable to have a ‘work space’ which is separate from the rest of your life and spaces in which you relax. Even if this is simply a cheap desk in your bedroom, having a ‘study spot’ which is dedicated to your academic work will help you create structure and routine, and feel in the studying zone. It also makes for less embarrassment when you turn your camera on in Zoom or Teams.

2. Make it comfortable

While it may be tempting to study from your bed (which we’ve all done!), sitting upright will help you stay alert. Not to mention the benefits for your shoulders, back and neck. Start with a desk or table if you can, as it will allow you to make an organised space and leave your hands free to take notes.

It’s also worth thinking about how you can make the space more comfortable by opening a window for fresh air every so often, and the level of natural light you can introduce. Perhaps think about studying earlier in the day so that the natural brightness helps you stay alert and boosts your mood.

3. Tidy space, tidy mind

A cluttered study space can make it more difficult to focus and introduce unwanted distractions. By filing away your notes and de-cluttering your space at the end of a day, you will be able to start the next day fresh and find the learning materials you need.

This goes for your online spaces too. Think about how and where you keep your assignments, notes and any materials you download from Canvas, to ensure you are able to access the materials as you prepare assignments or revise for exams. Set up folders in One Drive that relate to each module or project you are working on and be sure to keep track of any collaborative work, such as projects in Teams. Managing the information you collect as you study and keeping it organised in some way is an essential study skill. Visit the Managing Information Guide for more tips.

4. Gather some stationery

It’s a simple tip, but keep a pen and paper nearby so that you can make quick notes. This might be jotting down an idea or something to remind yourself about at a later date. Many of you will take your notes digitally and may have a tablet you use within your programme, but having a notebook and pen to hand is a valuable backup. If you prefer handwritten notes, make sure you have a good organisational system so that you are able to retrieve the information you need.

You’ll find lots of useful tips around notetaking on the ASK website.

5. Listen to some music

Some of you may find studying in silence works best for you, while others may need a little background noise to block out distractions. Select a soundtrack for your study that helps you concentrate, with a mixture of mood boosting tracks and songs that are a little more mellow and calming. You’ll find lots of readymade study playlists on streaming services, or you could start with our Library Spotify playlists.

6. Switch off your devices

Many of us will recognise our mobile phone as a significant source of distraction and cause of many unproductive minutes. Switch off your mobile phone, log out of social media accounts on your study device and turn off the TV. This will help you create designated study time as well as space. It will also be a step towards introducing breaks in your study routine.

7. Take breaks

Taking regular breaks and walking away from your study space will help you return feeling refreshed. Why not download the iNCLude App? It has been designed to help you take small steps to improve and maintain your wellbeing, by creating positive habits and helping you focus on more than just your academic studies.

One valuable bonus tip from the WDC about taking breaks:

When you break, take a moment to leave a ‘note to future self’ about where you got to or what you were intending to do next.

Writing Development Centre, Managing Time and Motivation
Student studying with laptop and notebook.

8. Be organised

Learning remotely is challenging when you have to manage your own time and motivation. Being organised and creating your own plan or timetable can help.

The WDC have created some great guides, podcasts and videos with tips that might help, including creating structure and routinestudying in short bursts and how to motivate yourself.

When you begin your study session make sure you have everything you need to hand so that you don’t interrupt your flow. You might want to leave your laptop charger nearby!

Our mobile apps and resources guide also includes some suggestions for apps that can help you be more organised and boost your productivity.

Visit the ASK website for more study and academic skills advice

Try the new Web of Science

Over the summer we moved to the newly revitalised Web of Science platform and the consensus amongst the Liaison Team is that it’s great! When asked the difference between Scopus and Web of Science and why you would use one database rather than the other, it is largely a question of personal preference and you when engaged in more advanced research you may need to use both databases.

If you are new to Web of Science the name may imply it is a science database, however it provides access to current and retrospective multidisciplinary information from approximately 21,000 peer-reviewed, high-quality scholarly journals published worldwide (including Open Access journals); over 205,000 conference proceedings; and over 104,000 editorially selected books within their Social Sciences Citation Index®, and Arts & Humanities Citation Index™ collections. 

Web of Science also allows cited reference searching where you can navigate forward, backward, and through the literature, searching all disciplines and time spans to uncover all the information relevant to your studies.

Where to find Web of Science

You can access Web of Science from Library Search. This will help you to access the database successfully as you will be prompted to log in with your University username and password. Simply search for it by name from the Library website.

You will also find a link to on the Journals and Databases page of your Subject Guide, which provides a list and links to the recommended databases in your discipline.

Web of Science content

As we alluded to above, Web of Science includes much more than ‘science’ information, including:

  • life sciences, biomedical sciences
  • social sciences, arts & humanities.
  • strongest coverage of natural sciences, health sciences, engineering, computer science, materials sciences.

What’s new about Web of Science?

Start with this quick introduction to the new Web of Science to find out about the improved user interface and search functionality.

Get started with Web of Science with these advanced search tips tutorial and find out how you can be use the techniques most effectively in Web of Science. 

Help with Web of Science

As the platform is new you may find that the database automatically begins with a guided tour, taking you through the main features as you begin your search. This is a great way to get to know Web of Science. There are also lots of tip sheets, videos and training resources to explore.