Study

How To Read Your Set Texts, Even When You Don’t Want To

Read Set Texts, Even When You Don't Want To

This has probably happened to you. It’s certainly happened to me.

You love your course. But there’s a book you’re meant to read.

Most books are fine. But this one…Oh, this one is a stinker.

You try, you fail, you try again, you fail again, you fear the book, you eventually stop trying.

Because not all books are fun to read.

And the more you put off reading the text, the less time you have to consume it.

Then you’ve only got a day left to read it.

Lifehacker has an article to help you read a book in a single day. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to wait until the day before a seminar to read the book you’re meant to be working on. Especially if you’re not engaging with the way it’s written.

So you’re worried about it, or bored by it. And as soon as you feel like that, you break out in a rash of procrastination. It happens to all of us!

What you need are new tactics. Methods that you don’t normally use when reading. But now it’s time to bring out the big guns. If you don’t, you’ll just panic and end up not reading the book at all.

That’s no good for your class and it’s definitely no good for you.

No matter how long you’ve got left, it’s time to tackle the reading.

Here’s what to do:

  • Work out how much time you’ve got left and in your schedule;
  • Break the text down into sections, so you don’t have to read in one go. This could be divided into something like equal numbers of pages per day, or chapters per session;
  • Put those chunks into your schedule, spaced out between now and when you need to have finished.

You can vary your methods, depending on how long you’ve got to do the reading. Hopefully you’ve still got several days, if not weeks, to do the reading. Even if you don’t have that luxury, there’s some advice below.

When you have several days/weeks to do the reading…

The earlier you start, the more time you have to space out the reading. You can casually read a small amount each day without much hassle.

Imagine you have two 50-page documents to read for a seminar in a week. That’s 7 days and 100 pages.

Maybe you don’t want to read on each of those seven days. We can make it five days instead. 100 pages spread equally over five days is…drum roll…20 pages a day. Much better than 100 pages in a single session.

A focus on fewer pages will also keep you in the mood to make notes and comments as you go through the writing. You may also get so involved that you’ll want to carry on reading.

Better than anything, though, is that you’ll find the challenge of 100 pages less scary when you space it out in smaller chunks.

You may be tempted to do the reading in a single session, but that’s where most people fall. Five pages in, you realise how huge the task in front of you really is. Without a backup plan, you add further stress to the mix. One hundred pages only works in a single session if you’re truly engaged in the reading.

I understand why it’s so tempting to get the reading done in one go. Your brain convinces you that one session of work is better than five sessions.

But as soon as you set yourself smaller doses, the task feels easier. You’ll be more open to spacing the work out as opposed to slogging through an exhausting marathon. Little and often trumps the overwhelm every time.

When you only have a day or two to do the reading…

You’ll never do yourself justice, but there are ways of cushioning the blow. Once in a while, you can probably get away with it. All the time, however…That’s a different story.

When time has got the better of you, here’s the drill:

  • First off, read the Lifehacker article. It covers most of what you need.
    In short, it’s about location, the right kind of noise (or silence), intervals with short breaks in between, making notes, the right food and drink, and using physical books where possible.
  • Know what you’re reading for. Is this for general seminar discussion, a major set text for a module, due to be part of a future exam or piece of coursework, for an overview or to discuss a specific point in the text? The reasons make a difference.
  • If the text is for discussion now, but is most important for an exam or an essay further down the line, you’ve already bought yourself more time. You won’t be able to work so well in a seminar session, but at least you can properly schedule reading time before it’s time to complete the marked coursework.
    Get a good overview (consult a cheat-sheet summary or synopsis first if you must…just don’t rely on it ongoing!), find answers/discussions for any set questions you’ve already been given, and concentrate on the major points expected.
  • If the text forms part of a module that’s about to start, you may have a little more time than you think.
    Sure, the first lecture is up tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean you’ve only got one day to get through the entire text. Instead, get that overview, at least start reading the text, and schedule more realistic reading sessions as discussed in the section above when you have several days to get the reading done.

The more time you have, the more you can space out the reading. It’s less daunting. You just need to develop the habit of committing to a bit every day. Yes, it feels strange at first, but you get used to it. Spacing out the work is preferable to doing all the reading in one go.

Finally, don’t make things too complicated. It’s just reading. Some stuff is a slog to get through. I know, I’ve been there. Despite all the Shakespeare I did for GCSEs and A-levels, I still found the process of reading it tough at university.

What type of reading bothers you the most?

When Academia and Pokémon Collide

academia & pokemon

Pointless can be serious. You can go a long way with pointless.

Look at Pokémon Go. It’s a game.

But it’s a game that sent Nintendo’s market value up to nearly double what it was a week before. It passed Sony’s market value, which wouldn’t have been expected before the Pokémon craze hit.

Pointless can be serious. You can go a long way with pointless.

Even if it starts off as a joke.

Pokémon Go started off as an April Fool, when Google put a video out about a Pokémon Challenge.

Earlier this year, a Durham student submitted a dissertation about the Kardashian family.

It started off as a bit of a laugh too.

Eliza Cummings said, “I wanted to pick [a topic] I would never get bored of”.

And despite having some detractors, Cummings ran with it and took it seriously. Serious fun.

Now she has graduated from Durham… With a first class honours.

None of this is as crazy as it sounds. If you pick a topic that won’t bore you, it’s much easier to find new angles, to keep pushing on with the work, and taking pride in what you do.

Not so pointless now. You can go a long way with pointless.

Understanding the dissertation is serious work, but adding fun and interest is similar to how some academics would view their work. They take matters seriously, yet enjoy what they do. It’s easy to find academics who are enthusiastic about their subject and the specialisms they’re looking into.

I once submitted an essay about writers who viewed the industrial revolution negatively, but instead gave an argument that they were likely in favour of the industrial revolution.

Why?

Because it was fun.

I had to put effort in, because the argument had to make sense. I needed to show the working behind it.

So before you see nothing more than a story about ridiculous dissertations, consider the further possibility behind the subject.

If someone happened to write about the Kardashians for a laugh, they might get bored anyway. The academic side would become a drain.

Cummings may have seen the funny side, but she clearly saw the serious side too.

When I studied postcolonialism, the class were allowed to choose one text to study. I asked if we could study South Park: The Movie. It had recently come out and I thought it would be fun AND relevant AND topical.

So our tutor said yes. Half the class were delighted and had fun with it. The other half thought we were being ridiculous.

All I know is that I was happy to have a laugh, because I knew there was a good reason to take it seriously.

Learning requires emotion. If there’s no fun involved, you may be missing out. Get emotional with your study!

Where could you choose to have some fun with your work today?

Why Students Must Keep Consumer Attitudes Away From Day-to-Day Academic Work

keep-consumer-attitudes-away

Jim Dickinson asked on Twitter why it’s so difficult for some “to imagine that students can both be customers AND learners”. A binary is so often assumed between students as consumers and students as producers. Why can’t people be both at the same time? After all, we see matters on a multitude of levels. Why should this be any different?

I agree. That said, I worry about the way in which some people use the consumer mindset. It’s easy to have good intentions, yet drift off toward a limiting conclusion.

Dickinson explains why the binary attitude doesn’t work:

“[Students are] usually pragmatic, complex, practical people that are bright enough to know that their outcomes need some personal effort, but increasingly hacked off enough to demand redress when the institutions they’re mortgaging their future on let them down.”

The ability to seek redress when something goes wrong is important. What’s difficult is keeping consumerist attitudes away from day-to-day academic work.

In a post on Quite Irregular, Jem Bloomfield refers to a paper which found that students with a more consumer mindset would achieve lower grades:

“The authors studied students from a range of British universities, and asked them to indicate their level of agreement or disagreement with a range of statements intended to identify their attitudes, including their “learner identity” as someone who was engaged in intellectual development, and their “consumer orientation” as someone who was purchasing a product from the university. They also asked for the students’ most recent mark for assessed work.”

The paper concludes that “a lower learner identity was associated with a higher consumer orientation, and in turn with lower academic performance“.

Traditional school leaving students are already overwhelmed by the sheer number of changes and new considerations upon arriving at university. By introducing an additional layer of complexity that compels some students to look at value for money, there are potential dangers.

degree-as-mvp-while-you-innovate

Instead of coming to university with an open mind to enjoy and experience a wide range of what’s on offer, some students see the huge investment they’re making and keep their focus on only what they consider they are paying for. They break down contact hours from lectures and seminars into divisible chunks. Divide the annual tuition fee by the number of contact hours per year and *that* is how much it costs to attend a session.

Breaking down £9k into a per-lecture framework is sobering. And unhelpful.

The sobering effect can focus the mind on putting all effort into the academic work. It’s this added consumer element that creates a jarring effect. Students are shocked by their three dimensional life and react by putting their actions in two dimensional terms.

Bloomfield says:

“It frames a degree as something which they can just add to their existing collection of possessions. This prepares them to resist ideas which might call into question their previous assumptions, since this would reduce their already accumulated “store” of ideas, rather than adding to it. It also discourages them from taking intellectual risks, since these might damage their final mark and thus devalue the “product”, even if they might also result in personal development and new perspectives which could be useful in future.”

For decades, students in different subjects have compared their workload and structure of their degrees. One spends hours on experiments in a lab and have cosy lectures with just a few other students present. Another has a handful of lectures with a hundred others, losing much of that personal feel felt in a smaller group.

Even when the contact hours are the same, other differences are a marker of better or worse value for money.

This forces an even stronger consumer stance. It’s not about getting what you need, it’s about not being diddled. If someone else can have that level of experience for the same price, why can’t I?

Sheffield’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sir Keith Burnett, expresses his concern:

“[A powerful] but in my mind distorting, view comes from the idea that value of a course is not measured in cost or effort but simply in the quantity of contact hours. It is in the comparison between subjects that don’t involve practice and those that do that the sharpest comments arise.”

Such a focus on this limited definition of value doesn’t provide enough context. So those who want better value for money and focus on the transaction may get less value for money as a result.

pound-coins

Even students who align their consumer focus to achieving the best academic results possible aren’t setting themselves up so well for the future. They work to the detriment of everything else for a top result when they graduate, but what other qualities and achievements can they showcase? Employers won’t be interested in how many contact hours they had.

In fact, employers are already less likely to focus so hard on a person’s academic study, choosing to look more broadly at candidates.

Yet research by The Student Room and the University of Sheffield found that 68% of A-level students now plan to take a postgraduate course after they graduate. Respondents mostly want to ‘enhance their career prospects’ and many also believe that postgraduate study will give them better chances of employment and better salary.

Spot the disparity. There are many good reasons you can give for taking up postgraduate study. Is the thought of having more chance of a job a good enough reason on its own?

The transactional side of higher education feels both valuable and damaging at the same time. Gaps could be widening at a time when people think they’re being bridged.

So how can individuals keep their positive three dimensional perspective intact? One way is to stay aware of the hidden value that exists where consumer ideas haven’t yet strayed. Another is to stay focused on the bigger picture as opposed to only what you think you’re paying for.

But if you must have it in consumer terms, think of the degree as the minimum viable product and you as the innovative business. You build your business to improve the initial product.

That product may start as a degree, but thanks to you–the business–it can grow into an irresistible package that’s worth more than the sum of its parts. Synergy-licious!

What Does Revision Really Mean?

“Revision is considered as ‘revision’ by teachers and lecturers, when a lot of the time it is ‘learning for the first time and desperately trying to remember’ for students.” – Rebecca Pickavance [Source]

This is a great insight into what many students don’t understand about revision.

Revision isn’t cramming. Revision isn’t learning new stuff a night or two before a test. Revision isn’t picking up a few essentials so you can pass.

The main purpose of swotting up before exams is to remind yourself of what has gone before. You should already be familiar with the content. As you learn over time, links are made and learning takes place gradually. But some of your knowledge fades away as you spend time on other things.

Revision doesn't have to be stressful.

Revision doesn’t have to be stressful.

To get back to optimum understanding, you revise.

Revision is refreshment. You go over the learning you’ve already done and bring it back to the front of your thinking. You may not have mastered the subject back to front, but you have enough understanding to have clarity and confidence when you need to use what you have learned.

Think of it as switching on a set of lights. You don’t install the wiring and fit the bulbs every time. You’ve done the hard work once and you’re left with the simple task of switching the lights back on. You still have to get out of your seat and press the button, but that’s all. And with enough connections, you’ll only need one switch to turn all the lights on at once.

When you revise, how much is new to you? How much are you properly learning for the first time here? The less it is, the better.