Reading / Research

Online Search: Be the 2%

In the book Positive Linking, Paul Ormerod says that the top 3 items on a Google search account for 98% of clicks. The top 1 item, the top result that comes back, accounts for 60% of clicks.

If almost every click occurs in the first three results, Google could go as far as leaving just 4 results on a page and almost nobody would notice. There may even be a slight upward trend in users clicking that fourth link, “just in case”.

Four results to a page may even become a reality. SERoundTable reported that Google are testing that four result option, among other combinations.

One reason why so many clicks are on the first result is because many people search for a site through Google when they know the web address anyway. For instance, a Google search for Facebook is done a lot of the time instead of actually typing facebook.com in a web browser.

When logged in to Google, you have the option to ask for more results per page. Check the preferences page to alter what comes through. I currently have Google set to give me 50 results to a page. If Google took that option away and only allowed four results to a page, I’d be hugely frustrated.

What if Google made every first search a 4-result page and made each subsequent page a 50-result page (or whatever you preferred)? I’d probably still be frustrated, because many of my searches rely on more than the first few results. I’d probably learn to live with it though.

Phil Bradley wonders if Google are looking to get more advertising coverage with fewer results to a page. Whether or not this is the case, this will impact power users than average users.

Keep on searching (photo by gerlos)

Keep on searching (photo by gerlos)

As a student, you should be a power user as often as possible. Go beyond the first few results. Be the 2%.

Try out different searches if the first one doesn’t help. I’ve been known to make subtle changes to a search, yet get wildly different results.

Learn some of the tricks to help you get a serious search on.

And, importantly, don’t rely on Google alone. Other search engines exist. And specialist searches help you find photos, social media, Creative Commons content, people, TV broadcasts, education resources, books, among other things.

Keep on searching. Don’t be too quick to give up. You never know what’s just around the corner.

Need a Basic Overview? Choose Simple!

Some of the big lifehacking and technology websites have reported a Wikipedia wonder that I’ve recommended for years now.

It’s Simple Wikipedia. When you need a really basic overview of a topic, some Wiki entries are too complex. As TheNextWeb says, just swap “en” in the web address to “simple” and load the new page. All of a sudden, you’re given an article that’s easy to follow and just right to get a basic grasp of.

I suggest Simple Wikipedia to Freshers, especially before they’ve started uni. It’s an easy way to read up on major concepts without getting bogged down with the detail that will come your way soon enough anyway.

With an introduction to the main topics, you’ll be prepared for the juicy details far better than if you were being fed everything at once.

So check out simple.wikipedia.org and get the lowdown on all the stuff you were afraid to tackle!

15 Ways to Get a Fresh Perspective On an Old Topic

How do you give yourself a fresh pair of eyes when you’ve seen it all before?

I pondered this after the announcement that David Eastwood–someone deeply involved in HE–had been made Chair of Russell Group.

In a time of difficulty for the sector, it is obvious that a top role needs someone with a lot of experience and influence in order to be heard and to make a further mark.

To show the extent to which Eastwood knows the sector, here are just some of his current roles:

  • Vice Chancellor of the University of Birmingham;
  • on the advisory board of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI);
  • a member of the QAA board;
  • Chair of the UCAS Board.

What, you want more? Fine. Eastwood’s past experience includes having been head of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), chief executive of the Arts & Humanities Research Board, and he was on the panel of the Browne review of HE.

Let’s just say he knows a bit about HE…

Having loads of experience sounds great, but it’s just as important to look at each situation from a fresh perspective. Without new ideas, you face getting set in your ways.

You can’t forget what you know and become a novice again, so you need another way to look at things differently.

"I've Seen It All Before..." (photo by ZeroOne)

“I’ve Seen It All Before…” (photo by ZeroOne)

Below, I’ve got fifteen tips for getting new views. They aren’t designed to change your opinion (although they might!). These tips will help you to see further, to understand why not everyone sees things from your point of view, and to give you greater strength in your own views.

  1. Read stuff that you don’t agree with – It may not change your own opinion, but it will help you see how other people view the situation.
  2. Think about the issues you don’t know so well – Learning never ends; it just gets more specific. Look beyond what you already know and keep discovering even more.
  3. Ask for other opinions/options/ideas and work with those you hadn’t considered or acted upon before – I often say that you should listen to advice, and then choose whether or not to make use of it.  Over on Twitter, @Mandlovesgeeks recognises how tough this can be. Mand suggests that you should “ask for feedback from someone else – & try to listen to it, even when it’s painful”.
  4. Play ‘what if…?’ and see how your view changes – When faced with alternatives, it’s easy to dismiss them out of hand without considering them. They sound wrong and that’s the end of that.
    Instead, think ‘what if…?’ and work out some pros and cons to different ideas. You may find something positive after all, or you may have a useful list of cons to use in future discussions.
  5. Imagine what it’s like to be an outsider looking in for the first time – When you don’t have all that experience, what does the start look like? If you had to explain things to a child, how easy would it be?
  6. Imagine what it’s like for an insider in a very different position to your own – People are great at working together, but they regularly take on very different roles. You may be working toward the same goal, but is everybody travelling toward the goal in the same way?
  7. Play devil’s advocate on your own long-term opinions – After years of sticking to your guns, it’s worth nudging yourself once in a while and arguing with your own opinion. Pick great holes in your well-worn perspective and argue back with just as much conviction.
  8. Don’t take anything for granted. ANYTHING. – It’s easy to forget that you know so much about the topic and that you have no doubt developed lots of short cuts and assumptions. Scrap them. Start afresh. If you haven’t done something the long way round for a while, it’s worth reminding yourself.
  9. Go somewhere else. Do something new – A new perspective on other things around you will get you thinking in new ways. Use this to your advantage. If you can’t get away from your physical surroundings, listen to some music you wouldn’t usually choose.
  10. View from a different medium – Used to doing everything on a screen? Print it out. Tired of text? Try an infographic. Bored of the same textbook? Find a new book on the same subject.
  11. Sit on it – When you’ve been over-thinking, fresh thoughts are hard to come by. Put it down for an hour, a day, a week, a month…whatever. Come back to it when you’re no longer obsessing over things.
  12. Stay curious – Auto-pilot is dangerous. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but can boost your career
  13. Write about it (mega credit to @emmielouli) – Get words out on the page and your view may look different to the shorthand version in your head. If your view stays the same, you may notice gaps in your knowledge and questions you can’t quite answer. These aren’t reasons to be ashamed. These are areas to explore!
  14. Look across different sectors/subjects (mega credit to @helencurtis) – You don’t have to stay on your own turf. Find out what happens elsewhere. See what’s different. How could it work in your context?
  15. You tell me… – I need a fresh perspective. What do you do to get a fresh view of something? Let me know in the comments!

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.