Lecture / Seminar

Why proving what you can do is better than improving your qualifications

Scott Young is taking a 4-year MIT course in Computer Science. But he’s taking it in just one year. And for less than $2000.

Scott says the future of learning will be personal, rather than steeped in official qualifications. The Internet already provides learning for everyone, which is exactly how Scott is taking the MIT course himself, at his own (faster) pace.

Many top universities provide lectures and course content free online. And now startups like Udacity, Coursera, and Khan Academy have come along to provide even more academic classes for free. You can learn at no cost in the comfort of your own home, room, library, garden…whatever!

Scott won’t receive a formal degree award from MIT when he completes his class, but he doesn’t mind:

“Our society incorrectly equates knowledge with accreditation. Getting a piece of paper is great, and for many lines of work, it’s completely necessary. But the equation is made so strongly that people forget the two things are different.
“I have nothing against college. University was an amazing and worthwhile experience for me, and it could be for you as well. All I hope is that by showing an alternative, people who feel the current system doesn’t work for them can find another path.”

You have a chance to find your own route, whatever your current situation is.

Once you take this route, the key is to prove your worth in ways that don’t rely solely on the degree you’ve been awarded. Traditional methods of bettering yourself for career and job purposes rely heavily on improving your qualifications.

But that’s because many people are used to those methods. It’s ‘normal’. It’s ‘what everyone does’.

And, of course, it doesn’t have to be that way. Taking your own route can be so valuable. For a start, you automatically stand out. Hopefully for all the right reasons!

Formal routes are sometimes necessary for legal purposes or compliance reasons. Not everything can be bypassed without another thought. And that’s fine. Make it part of your route and do your own thing where you can.

Like Scott, I also have a lot of time for university. I’m sure you guessed that. The name of this blog is a clue… And if you need further proof, I’m called @universityboy on Twitter. I’m not about to give up on the wonders of university.

With all this in mind, what is more valuable: experience or a degree?

This question was asked over at The Student Room. My take is that both experience and degree are useful for different reasons and in different circumstances. A direct comparison is unhelpful.

One person gave a good explanation to the comparison problem:

“…it’s like saying which is more valuable, lungs or a stomach.”

Think of your experience and your degree as a set of situations about YOU. Translate these situations into what you’ve managed to get out of them. Sell yourself, not your grades. Talk about a range of experiences with purpose, so you can include what happened at university alongside everything else.

When you take this view, remember these two things:

  1. Tailor your approach each time you reach out to others – Why? Because perspective changes. Both yours and theirs. Consider things like this: Why are you reaching out to them? What are they looking for? How can you help them? What are the variables in this situation?
  2. Embrace failure – Why? Because no matter how much you prove what you can do, the context is taken out of your hands every time you interact with someone else. There are numerous stories of now famous authors who struggled to find a publisher. They had to submit their first book to many different publishers before one of them said ‘yes’. Imagine if all those authors had given up after the first try.

Jane Artess is director of research for the Higher Education Careers Services Unit. Speaking in the Guardian, she said:

“…one student’s stretch is another student’s yawn; one employer’s view of what constitutes talent may be written off as simply average by another.”

Put simply, no specific route is guaranteed. That’s why your own route is valid and why you must be careful before comparing things that don’t need a comparison.

Your route should include a mixture of traditional methods and unique ones. Find what works for you and not what seemed to work for someone else. Do take their advice and find clues, but don’t bother emulating the same successes, because it’s already been done.

You may or may not have aced a whole bunch of exams and studied to within an inch of your life. What does it truly make you? Shape your qualifications around your own narrative and unlock the story of you.

It’s not the grades that stand out, it’s the individual.

photo by HikingArtist.com

photo by HikingArtist.com

Essential Study Skills – Reviewed

[The people at Sage have sent me a copy of the latest edition of “Essential Study Skills: The Complete Guide to Success at University” by Tom Burns and Sandra Sinfield. This is my personal review of the book.]

Sometimes you need a place to start in order to start organising your thoughts. Sometimes you need a place that’ll give you some thoughts to start off with. “Essential Study Skills” attempts to do that.

The authors are keen to make their book as easy to digest as possible. The first chapter guides you through the layout of the book and how to use it effectively.

With more than 450 pages, Essential Study Skills —which they call ESS3 for short— is not designed as a fast read to be digested in one go. Rather, the book covers many aspects of your learning and also advises on various other aspects of uni life that you’re likely to encounter.

Each chapter starts with aims and learning outcomes, then ends with review points. Within each chapter are many additional tips to help you on your way. Even at a glance, you can see this is a feature-packed book.

ESS3 is written with a focus on students who are the first in their family to go to university, so it doesn’t assume you have any prior knowledge or guidance. And there is still plenty to chew on, no matter how many generations of your family have attended uni.

With so much information at your fingertips, you may even feel overwhelmed. Must you *really* know all this in order to study effectively? Well, no. The point of the book is to help you ease into your work and pick up important tips and techniques as you go along. It’s the type of book you would be glad to have around throughout your degree, not the day before your essay is due in.

There are times when the advice goes so far that I can’t see many students following the whole way. For instance, the chapter on working in groups has so much detail on making the team work that it ends with a group building exercise to bring everyone closer. There’s nothing wrong with the idea, but it’s an idea of how the authors clearly did not want to leave any stone unturned. If this is going to benefit one group of students, then the authors have succeeded. This type of overkill is great, unless you’re overwhelmed by so much detail, as I mentioned earlier.

But I urge that you take a deep breath and let the book work over time, as it’s designed. Here are two reasons:

  1. We are all different – One person’s potion is another person’s poison. The book gives you various alternatives and lets you explore what works best for you. ESS3 isn’t a ‘this is how to…’ book, it’s a ‘this is how you…’ book.
  2. You will find things you wouldn’t have expected – As I looked through the book, I found a list of 10 sites for creating outlines. There were sites I hadn’t heard of. Sites that I was glad to discover, such as Quicklyst.

And going back to the first point, you’re bound to find at least one outlining tool from the list of ten that works for you. That’s the beauty of having alternatives to try. If the first doesn’t suit, you’ve got nine more to try!

You will probably find yourself devouring some sections of Essential Study Skills, while merely glancing through others. You may or may not return to those chapters later. I would have spent little time on the chapter about making notes, while you may think that the most useful chapter in the book.

The book covers more than the “Essential Study Skills” that the title suggests. The book’s subtitle is “The Complete Guide to Success at University”. That’s why you’re treated to information about being a fresher, using university services, dealing with emotions, and working on your Personal Development Planning (PDP).

The final chapter on what to do once you’ve finished university is strangely brief. The authors are aware of this and explain that many of the necessary skills required to be a successful graduate are similar to those skills required to be a successful student. Precisely what the whole book is about!

While this is true enough, any student about to graduate should look for more information elsewhere for a fuller picture. In particular, only one paragraph discusses the possibility of postgraduate study and the main advice is to prepare like you would for “an especially tricky assignment”.

However, if you have bought this book in your first year (or even before you start), it will easily take you through several years of study. The brevity of the final chapter is not exactly a major issue. Think of it more as a surprise when you’re used to chapter after chapter of detailed advice on mastering your academic technique.

Essential Study Skills is a great book to keep close to you while you develop during your degree. You’re not expected to be perfect after years of practice, let alone after a single term in your fresher year. This book helps you to understand that, yet at the same time helps you strive to bring out your best at all times.

The book is available now in paperback (RRP £14.99) and hardback (RRP £56.00) editions.

How to pay attention in lectures

Lectures can get the better of you, no matter how much you want to pay attention. Actually, wait…No matter how much you need to pay attention.

Yes, at times it can feel like so much hangs on the lecture, but you still can’t manage to keep focus on the words.

photo by Tadeeej

photo by Tadeeej

Okay, so lectures aren’t quite that important (I’ll come back to that in my last point). Still, it’s useful to pay attention to them, whether or not you think they’re the best way to learn about a topic.

Here are my tips to stay switched on and in tune with your lecturer for an hour or two:

Get rid of disruptions

It’s easy to be distracted when something more enjoyable is there to entertain you. Commit to a move away from temptations. Switch off those moreish phone apps, ignore your social networks, and even move away from your mates if they take up too much of your attention in lectures. Whenever temptation is still within your grasp, you’re more likely to reach out and grab it.

Prepare beforehand

Ten minutes is all it takes to have a quick look online for a basic rundown of what you’ll probably encounter in the lecture. The lecture may end up being different, but your preparation will get you thinking about the subject in advance and help you focus on the content when you get in there.

Hopefully you’ll have a list of prior reading, handouts, and other information for you to prepare from. Once you start working with the subject matter, you’ll be less likely to switch off in the lecture.

Eat and drink wisely

If you attend a lecture too full or too hungry, you’ll suffer for it. No matter how busy you feel, find time to get the nutrients you need. Listen to your body and you’ll have a better job listening to your lecture.

Engage in your head

When you don’t get it, your brain can start to switch off. Don’t let it! Note what confuses you, write down questions you have, think whether this part of the lecture is crucial to understanding everything else.

If you’re just bored at a certain point, make sure you note the basic idea/concept down for later so you don’t miss out completely.

Get comfy!

Dress so you’re not too hot or cold in the lecture theatre. If you need to wear more/less outside, prepare for that instead of suffering in the lecture!

What if the seating arrangements are uncomfortable? Bring something to sit on, or find a different seat, or take less stuff with you, and so on. Your surroundings may not be the first thing you consider when it comes to lectures, but it can make a big difference to your attention.

Record the audio on your phone/music player/dictaphone

This should be done for your own personal use only and, even then, you should probably ask the lecturer in advance if they are happy for you to record their lectures (if they aren’t already recorded for you!). I don’t recommend this method as a regular thing, because you can get caught up in listening to the lectures more than doing your own work. Use as a failsafe only.

If you do, you can listen again at higher speeds on an iPhone or software like Windows Media Player and VLC Media Player. I used to listen at 1.4-1.7 times the speed and now frequently listen to podcasts and lecture recordings at 2 times the speed. An hour long lecture in half the time? Yes please!

Focus on your own thoughts rather than the monotonous voice

No matter how interesting the topic, a monotone can send you to sleep. I found the best way to stay awake was to think about my own reactions to what was being said in the lecture. I reframed each sentence or idea in my head so it felt like I was doing a lot of the talking.

That way, I felt more in control of my own focus. If the subject was boring that was one thing, but some topics suffered more from the voice than the content. At these times, focus as if you’re in control, like when you’re reading a book or doing private research.

This took a bit of practice and it did mean I might miss a bit as I went along, but it’s better than missing the whole lecture!

photo by arctanx.tk

photo by arctanx.tk

Relax or take a nap before the lecture

We all need time to relax, to wind down, and to find calm. I love powernaps and it’s worth finding out how much time works for you. We’re all different, meaning I like about 18 minutes and you may prefer 15 or 20. It’s worth finding your personal sweet spot. Many of the people I’ve spoken to who didn’t think powernaps worked for them found that they worked a lot better when they found the right length of nap for them.

If you don’t want to nap, it’s still worth taking time out to relax. As a recent Mind/Shift article on mindfulness states:

“Recent brain imaging studies reveal that sections of our brains are highly active during down time. This has led scientists to imply that moments of not-doing are critical for connecting and synthesizing new information, ideas and experiences. Dr. Michael Rich, a professor at Harvard Medical School put it this way in a 2010 New York Times article: ‘Downtime is to the brain what sleep is to the body.'”

The lecture isn’t *that* important

If you’re worried that you need to hang on every last word of a lecture, your stress levels are bound to shoot up and your concentration levels drop to the floor. Lectures help to frame a topic, make you aware of debates, and give you some of the academic nuts and bolts on your learning journey. Lectures are not for rote learning, even if there is a necessary element of it in some sessions. You are unlikely to fail miserably for missing a single, crucial point in a lecture. If it’s so important, the information will be elsewhere and will likely be repeated again.

Some lectures are a slog, no matter what you try. Don’t beat yourself up about that. If it’s all too much, try to understand why. If it’s down to something you can change, try to make that change for next time. If it’s out of your control, either let it go or speak to someone who can help deal with the issue.

How do you cope with difficult lectures? What is the worst you’ve had to endure as you tried desperately to stay focused?

Live Life, Study Hard – Free Book

Today, I’m happy to give you my free ebook on how to get the best out of your time at university.  Live Life, Study Hard [744Kb PDF]:

Would you like to enjoy your experience at uni because of your degree work, not despite of it?  Life shouldn’t stop when you study.  If you want to enjoy the best of both worlds, then “Live Life, Study Hard” is a good starting point.

Working toward a degree needn’t be a chore.  But it’s hard to know where to start.  The first year of uni gives you plenty to think about.  And not much of that thought is necessarily on your study…

Before you know it, you’ve got a small forest of books to read, lectures to comprehend, tutorials to attend, deadlines on the horizon, and all manner of practical work to complete.

Live Life, Study Hard” is a guide to prepare you for this work and get into the right mindset without breaking into a sweat.  Part 1 helps you gear up for what’s happening and what’s ahead.  Part 2 forms the beginnings of study, giving the lowdown on lectures, writing without worrying, and getting to grips with essays.

Here’s the contents:


  • Your first year DOES count
  • Get serious about university
  • The downside to benefits of uni life
  • Five ways you don’t get the most from your degree
  • Make your own decision exactly that!
  • Achieving balance
  • The importance of paying attention
  • 20 ways to cut down & free up time
  • Study traps you need to know


  • Perfectly prepared for lectures
  • How seminars & tutorials take you beyond the lecture
  • Shifting states: Make writing work for you
  • From “Essay Hell” to “Essay Hello”
  • Escape from Essay Writer’s Block
  • Wonders of the weekend
  • Mental necessities of timetabling
  • More pushes to get you working
  • What next? Getting through your degree

The book is absolutely free to download and you’re free to share it with others.

Hope that has whet your appetite.  If you do only one thing toward your degree this weekend, do the work you need for the following week, no arguments.

If you do only two things toward your degree this weekend, make the second thing a thorough read-through of this book. 🙂