Here comes the son…

It’s been a while. My apologies for not putting up a note of explanation.

My wife was pregnant and went into labour a week early, so everything stopped for that (obviously!). I’ve barely been at the computer since.

After about 26 hours of labour, my wife gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. I am now a daddy. Rowan was born (eventually) on 7 May 2008, weighing 6lbs7oz.

A Newborn Rowan

Of the 26 hours labour, I think only 20 minutes were officially classified as ‘labour’…my wife’s intense pain apparently didn’t make it official, although she would definitely argue that point!

I had a LOT of catching up to do on the Internet, blogging, higher ed, reading, etc, over this weekend. Weeks of backlog compressed into a short space of time. Fortunately, I’m nearly back up to speed. And I’ve even written a related post for the blog about the things I’ve learned from my newborn son. That’s coming right up.

Obviously the next few weeks are going to be interesting, opening another new chapter of my life. Exciting stuff! For the blog, I’ve got lots of short pieces written, so I hope to be right back to the posting, whatever gets thrown at me (virtually, as well as literally!) over the weeks.

Hello again!

Open your mind while you revise

With Christmas fast approaching, you’ve got a lot of time to explore your productivity by testing out different ways of working.

It doesn’t matter if you hate change, you may be surprised to find that incorporating some change in your life can work wonders.  And as you get used to making changes, any lack of change becomes the difficult beast.

For many of you, exams are just around the corner.  Revision covers so much ground that it’s not always clear where to start.  Do you re-read your notes, write further notes, make flash cards, read scholarly books, create mnemonics, devise weird and wonderful learning tables…?

Revision Notes - photo by jez`

In revision, I suggest you should mix the game up a bit and embrace change.  I mean several different things:

1. Use a variety of media

  • pen & pad: An oldie but a goodie.  We’re so used to working from computers now that it can be quite liberating to write things down in longhand.  You may be surprised at how differently your thinking can be when writing to how it is when you type at a keyboard.
  • word processor: If you’re working from lecture notes, it might help you to set them out electronically.  Not only can the new input on screen help your memory, but you should also be able to make the notes more concise and readable.
  • flash cards: Not always applicable, but if you can work like this with your subject, don’t forget to make the most of memory jogging flash cards.  They sound like a good idea to many students, but regularly get forgotten about.  If you can remember things this way, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t give yourself the time to create the flashcards!
  • e-mail: Sometimes it’s good to see a different screen when you’re working, even if just for 10 minutes.  Why not tap away an e-mail to yourself?  The nature of writing this way is different to writing a letter, so you may be able to fool yourself into using different parts of your brain.  Watch more ideas and memories come flooding out to help you with your revision!
  • mind maps: For a more diagramatic set of notes, mind maps work wonders.  It will also provide links that you may not have noticed if you were working from words and numbers alone.  If you’re not aware of mind maps, check Litemind, MindmappingMashable and Wikipedia for introductions, tips, and helpful software/websites.
  • tables: No matter what subject you’re studying, you may be able to create tables in Excel or similar.  Even if it’s just to note down similar concepts in a row, the shaping within tables can sometimes be quite helpful.  When you look through a magazine, the tables and pictures are usually the most striking and memorable elements.  It stands to reason that you can, therefore, make use of tables in jogging your memory rather well.
  • dictation machine: Your own voice is a powerful tool in itself.  Don’t forget that speaking out loud can help your memory greatly.  So why not speak out loud, which is a help in itself, but record those speeches at the same time?  Listening back to yourself will open up yet more parts of your mind.

2. Visit numerous places for study

  • bedroom
  • dining table
  • library
  • friend’s house
  • park
  • cafe
  • campus

Changing area regularly while you study is a boon for some.  Instead of getting bored with the same surroundings, it can keep the mind active.  It can also engage your interest if you pick areas that you haven’t been before.

If you have a number of different places to go to, you may also find it helpful to pick a different topic for revision each time, so you can think back to when you were in a particular place.  That should help the mind open up the memory banks.

Study in the park - photo by ortonesque

3. Go further than set texts

  • look AROUND the subject as well as within: It’s important to get a grasp of the bigger picture, even if you’re studying a niche area.  Gaining a knowledge of the basics around what you’re studying can help all the pieces of the jigsaw come together.  It’s the equivalent of finding all the corner pieces of the jigsaw first, so you know how the bigger picture is shaped.
  • research up-to-date journal articles: Academia goes far beyond your undergraduate degree, as you’re bound to know.  Professors around the world are writing their own essays to fill millions of books and journals.  That means you’d be wise to keep abreast of recent issues of journals that are relevant to your line of study.  If you can refer to new discoveries, recent theories, and up-to-date opinions in your exam answers (and your essays, of course), you’re on the way to being a cut above.
  • read book reviews on related topics: While I was at uni, I found it so useful to read book reviews.  They would give a potted explanation of the book, as well as the most important and controversial issues.  If these were brand new books, sometimes the reviews were the only place you could get word of the book’s content, unless you were willing to pay huge amounts to buy the book yourself!
  • ask knowledgeable people (from professors to librarians): If you want more info, or if you’re stuck looking for some important revision material, don’t suffer alone!  Always ask for help.  Nuff said.
  • join mailing lists & read in forums: You may be treated to brand new arguments, or you may be propelled into some mind-expanding debate between people…if you’re lucky, it’ll be scholars arguing amongst themselves, which could give you a bit of working into their ways of thinking.

Redefining Your Comfort Zone – 5 ways to make information your friend

Info (photo by afreeta)

The term ‘information’ is quite broad. My Collins English Dictionary gives a definition of information as:

a. knowledge acquired through experience or study;
b. knowledge of specific and timely events or situations.

The information you take from studying is different from what you get from, say, the Sports section from a newspaper. When you read the Sports section (or fashion, business, cartoons, gossip pages…whatever floats your boat), you take loads of information in without even thinking too much. But when it comes to your studying, many people switch right off.

This needn’t be the case. You need to redefine your comfort zone. Whatever the study situation is, you can get more out of information than you think:

1. Don’t put it off…Do it now!

A lot of information gathering is done because it’s related to our study, or because we need to find out about a particular thing. Therefore, we tend to leave the search for knowledge until the last minute.

But the longer you put off the search, the more it will weigh down on you.

If you collate all the facts as soon as possible, you won’t have the same weight to carry and you’ll be surprised how much more clearly the topic has become. Even if you don’t understand it, at least you’ll see which aspects you don’t understand.

2. Don’t underestimate yourself

Many students worry far too much about learning and memorising. There’s also a tendency to feel as if something is missing, so scrutinising a text ends up wasting valuable study time.

Until you need to focus on the finer detail of a concept or article, it’s much better to get a grasp of the bigger picture. Let the information flow at a steady pace first of all. If you bluster and pause at the outset, there will be no flow and you’ll find it infinitely more difficult to take the data in.

3. Have a focus

I’m not contradicting myself here. While you do need to see the bigger picture first, there are many instances when your mind can wander, or something else catches your eye and you lose your concentration.

An example is when I am organising the EduLinks to post on UniversityBlog. Sometimes I must remind myself what I’m doing, because one moment I’ll be bookmarking and noting relevant links, and the next moment I’ll find some articles that I could use for another project. Rather than quickly note the article and put it to one side, I might stop what I’m doing and read it. Next thing you know, I’m searching for similar information and have changed my priority by stealth.

This is a bad move and I always have words with myself when I start falling into this trap. Nobody is immune to this, because we’re all human and we naturally flit from one thing to the next unexpectedly. It’s nothing to be unhappy about, but definitely something to keep an eye on and deal with when you see it happening.

4. No interruptions!

It doesn’t matter where you are, even if it’s the quietest part of a library, you’re always liable for interruptions. A knock on your door, a friend asking for a chat, a new e-mail. It’s easy to be disturbed and it’s difficult to get back on track, especially if you don’t feel interested in what you’re doing. Distractions are very appealing when you’re working on something more difficult.

If a friend wants your attention for anything other than an emergency, get rid of them as quickly as possible. If you find the urge to procrastinate too difficult to decline when you’re studying in your room, try putting a sign up on your door when you don’t want to be disturbed. It’s unlikely you’ll need to use the sign THAT much.

Of course, you might have friends who will knock on purpose if you put up a sign. It’s either time to buy some earplugs, or disappear to that quiet library spot. It might not be foolproof, but without a tracking device, your friends are going to have more difficulty finding you.

Remember, interruptions and distractions don’t just hinder information processing on a work level. With lots of noise and fun surrounding you, it’s difficult to digest even a trashy novel. So have the will to move away from the interruptions and you’ll go far!

5. Enjoy the ride

It’s easy to forget that many of us are in Higher Education because we want to be. Whatever subject you’re studying, it’s probably something you enjoy or at least have quite an interest in.

Yet work and study are commonly associated with attitudes other than fun. This is a shame, because when you experience something you have an active interest in, it’s a lot easier to digest the information.

Try to make the most of your time at university by getting engrossed in the subjects you’re studying. Information really is your friend, so have a mutual relationship with it!

While you continue regarding study as boring and stressful, the information will treat you the same way. You hold the key in your mind’s attitude and all you need to do is make the decision to involve yourself more positively to the situation.

It might sound easier said than done, but I genuinely believe that a large proportion of students are specialising in a topic because they are interested. If that sounds like you, then stop kidding yourself that the work is a drag. If it’s a module that doesn’t interest you, that’s one thing, but your whole degree??? That’s nonsense.

Magnets (photo by CDWaldi)

Writing Essays – Don’t Fool Yourself

Studying Late

I’ve seen it so many times.

I’d ask my mates if they wanted to go out and do something. One would say, “I’ve got an essay due in tomorrow by 10 o’clock.”

“How much have you done so far?” I’d ask.

“Well, I’ve got some of the quotes I want to use, and I’ve photocopied half a chapter from one of the books in the library on the subject, so all I need to do is write the essay tonight.”

“So you’re going to sit down and write an essay from scratch in the 15 or so hours you’ve got before it needs to be handed in? Are you even going to get any sleep?”

“I doubt it! I’ve got an essay to do, remember!?”

I shouldn’t have always been so surprised. This type of conversation happened regularly. With lots of different people. Rather than work steadily through an essay over the time period set, they were using a dangerous ‘last minute’ method so the ‘punishment’ lasted as little time as possible.

I don’t know why this method of working won’t go away, because:

  • It’s not useful
  • Your grades will suffer as a result
  • A high dose of stress is never a good thing
  • It gets in the way of reality. Everything stops for this essay.

Don’t kid yourself that this is a good way to work. In fact, don’t kid yourself that it takes away the stress in the long run.

Say you have an essay to complete that requires approximately 1500 words. Let’s add that you have about a month before it’s due in. That’s 30 days to play with.

Here’s what you can do with that time:

  • Make a few very brief notes on what you think your answer would be. Total time shouldn’t be more than about 20 minutes. It’s just to get your mind working.
  • Get down the library just before or after a lecture (so it’s just another part of your day, rather than a forced need to be somewhere). See what books are there, take out any relevant books and photocopy any snippets you think will be helpful. Total time will depend, but you’d be doing this at some point anyway, so you might as well get it out of the way quick, while it’s fresh in your head (and before everybody else has taken the books out that you wanted…)
  • After digesting your research, see if it’s changed your viewpoint to answering the essay questions? If so, spend another 20 minutes or so roughly sketching how you would now see the finished essay.

Hopefully these elements can be done in the first few days of being given your assignment. It should already put you in a commanding position. Next:

  • Try to write an introduction and a conclusion. It doesn’t need to be perfect, because you can make any changes later down the line. Total time = 1-2 hours (possibly quicker if you already have a strong arguement/opinion in your head already).
  • Now you’ve got a clear path, take the research notes you’ve made and look for quotes, passages, names and references that can help strengthen or prove what you’re trying to argue. Total time depends on how much background research you’ve got, but it won’t be too long and you can even do it in quick bursts of 10-15 minutes when you’ve got a few free moments.
  • If necessary, go back to the library and find more good quotes and references. This is optional and you may feel you already have enough to go on.

With all this sorted, you can now work bit by bit on the last thing:


Some people work well with a word limit. Whether you set 150 words a day, or 500 words, just try a few short jabs and you should quickly be on the way to a full work.

Other people work better on time limits. Rather than spend a stressful 10-20 hours writing an essay just before it’s due in, it’s good to give yourself lots of sessions, somewhere around 30-60 minutes each time. Once you get over the worry that you’ll be obsessing over your essay all the time – exactly what you’re aiming not to do – you should realise after a few sessions that the work is naturally progressing. With your initial concern over, it shouldn’t be a problem for your future essays.

At some point, with your arguments written up and about the right word count, you’ll need to focus on making what you’ve written as good as possible.

But just think, you wouldn’t have had that chance if you only used one shot at writing the essay in a tired and hurried state.

So instead of using a huge and inappropriate 15 hour writing binge at the last minute, split it into little chunks over the whole time you’ve got.

And if your style works best when doing it all in one go, PLEASE don’t do it at the last minute. Try to make your binge much further away from the deadline. That way, you can still spend an extra hour or two ironing out the creases.

It’ll be worth it for your grades AND for your sanity!