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.

Expansive Learning Is Your Friend

You live and learn. Or so the saying goes.

When you finish a course module, do you put it behind you, or do you keep hold of the ideas, knowledge and possibilities that you built up over that time?

Unlike at school, your degree gives you more opportunity to take a holistic approach to learning. A discovery in one area of work can change your perceptions in other areas.

Make use of multiple connections as you learn (photo by identity chris is)

Make use of multiple connections as you learn (photo by identity chris is)

At university, you must take knowledge as a whole. The bigger picture matters. What you learn in one class may be relevant to another class. What you discovered in the first year is still often relevant in the second year and beyond.

Joelle Fanghanel quoted an academic in her book, Being An Academic, suggesting that compartments of learning are worryingly favoured over the expansion of knowledge as a whole:

“If you ask [students] a question which perhaps involves some knowledge that they have learnt in some other part of the course, they get indignant with us saying ‘well we haven’t done that with you, we have done that with somebody else in a different course’…There is very much this feeling that you do the work, you are tested, and that’s the end of it, you close the door on that piece of work.” [p.56]

Rather than close doors, make your bigger picture even bigger:

  • Use links to your advantage – The academic above stated that students can get annoyed when they find or discuss a link between one course and another. Instead, see it as a gift. Links like this help you not only strengthen the bonds between different strands of knowledge, but also build upon what you already knew in one easy step.
  • Keep your notes and quotes – Over the years, you’re expected to search deeper in your field of study. By ignoring your past work, you risk having to remind yourself further down the line. Worse, you may even be starting from scratch for no reason. I used to resent the need to study Milton’s Paradise Lost on about four occasions at school and uni, because I didn’t enjoy it much. But by the final time I was working on it, I realised how much reading and research I had already done on it. As a consequence, I made much better use of my time and past work than before. It saved me a lot of time and bother.
  • Take your own initiative – So what if you weren’t told about something in class itself? If you’ve stumbled across it in a different tutor’s lecture, let it add to your overall learning. Use your initiative and make the reference where you see fit. It’s no different to doing your own research in books. Treat all your discoveries as equally relevant, however you found them.

There will be times when you spot links that make you shout “Of course!” (not always literally…) and realise that your life has been made so much easier because of it.

Keep your mind open to expansive learning and you should get many more of these “Of course!” moments coming your way.

original photo by farleyj

original photo by farleyj

Last-minute Essays: Should you REALLY be pulling an all-nighter?

In the early days of TheUniversityBlog, I wrote a popular piece about pulling all-nighters and writing essays at the last possible minute. And I wasn’t very complimentary about the process.

To see my friends in a fiddle and my peers in a panic was frustrating, because some of them clearly didn’t respond well to this regular ritual.

The one time I didn’t focus enough until it was too late…was my dissertation. Yes, I know, it annoyed me at the time too. Even worse, I’d been enjoying the research and writing at first and then simply stopped doing enough to make the project as scholarly (and awesome) as I could have done. Sucked to be me. 😉

So I knew that the last-minute wasn’t for me. By all means get close, but never get TOO close.

But can the all-nighter essay work for some students? Is it really the best way to get the right words flowing?

Rachel Toor, an assistant professor of creative writing, says this:

“What I’ve learned about writing and intellectual work is that there’s no right way to get things done, no ritual or routine that is effective unless it’s effective for you…If the products are coming out in ways that you’re not happy with, by all means, try to make a change in your work style. But…if you need the guillotine hanging over you to get that paper done, let it dangle. There’s no “right” way.”

My personal preference is to use the time given and aim to finish with time to spare if necessary. More often than not, it’s not necessary. I’ll set my own deadline in advance of the actual requirement, so I’m not tempted to run over for some reason.

I do it this way because I prefer to work when it suits me, often in small doses. It depends what I’m working on, but I generally feel comfortable, so see no reason to change.

And that’s the big deal. I see no reason to change.

Just as Rachel Toor explains, pulling an all-nighter is fine if that’s what makes you tick.

Unfortunately, I get the impression that it’s not what makes many last-minuters tick. It’s just what they’ve got used to.

I recommend you to do a little experiment to find out whether or not there’s another way for you. A better way. Take the time to work on a few assignments earlier than usual. Mix things up and see what happens when you spend more time on an essay.

If the slow approach doesn’t work for you, I have another thought. Pull an all-nighter and finish your assignment the way you normally would. But do it a week or two before the real deadline. Treat it seriously and do it as if there will be no more time left after this night. That may be hard to believe, but give it a go.

Because once you’ve got your last-minute attempt, you’ll still have time to revisit it in a couple of days and see if you truly think it’s the best darn paper you could possibly hand in.

Make an effort to explore new ways, rather than doing it once and not bothering again. Toor suggests three months of working differently, but you may be comfortable with something else. Just so long as you take it seriously, otherwise it’s not worth trying in the first place.

After that, if you’re still not convinced, maybe the all-nighter approach is the best way for you after all. The stress, the adrenalin, the pressure…I doubt it works for all the people that experience it, but a few will still find it’s the only way to greatness. In Toor’s words:

“See if it makes your life better. If it doesn’t, then I would say there isn’t a problem. Accept that you are a last-minute person and realize this: Writing is hard, no matter when you do it. Thinking that there’s a better, easier way is just silly.”

The difference will be that you tried and you understood. For others, the difference will be that they tried and they realised the wonders of a somewhat calmer approach. What works for you?

No matter which direction you take, at least you can now be certain!

Right Revision & Perfect Preparation: 23 Pre-Exam Tips

Exams have never been that high on my list of things I love to do. But I know they need to happen from time to time.

A while back, I chose to do what I could to enjoy the exam experience as much as possible. Rather than panic, I figured, why not make the best of a bad thing? After all, the better the results, the happier the outcome.

photo by starlights_
photo by starlights_

You can do plenty to ease the way and make sure you don’t stress yourself out on the day:

  1. Get the boring admin out of the way as soon as you can – Work out the where, when, what, requirements, and so on. Don’t leave it to chance and don’t leave it for the last minute. You don’t want to stress yourself out five minutes before the exam’s meant to start because you don’t know where you’re meant to be.
  2. Get your gear in place the day before (or even sooner) – Organise your equipment, papers, reading, ID, etc. Again, you’ll hate last minute scrambles for stuff you can’t find.
  3. Remember spare pens/pencils – You don’t need an insane number of spares, but take more than your single ‘lucky’ pen. It won’t be that lucky if it runs out…
  4. Make your write right – In other words, choose good pens. In ‘The Smarter Student‘, I found a great tip that I’d never really considered before:
    “Might you be wasting time by trying to write too neatly or using a type of pen that slows you down? Ballpoint and liquid gel pens are probably the fastest.”
    They are right. Some pens are easier to use than others. Use one that flows smoothly and works well for you.
  5. Revise with good time – Pulling an all-nighter is bad enough for essay writing. Don’t do the same thing when it comes to exams!
  6. Get your technique sorted – Read more from me on effective technique on passing exams before, during and after the event.
  7. Speak the positive speak and give yourself personal lifts – Life is too short. Take a positive approach to your revision. Don’t beat yourself up as you go along. If you put yourself down, you’re not going in with an attitude to understand. Always remember, you’re not stupid… You’re learning!
  8. Have variation as you revise – Don’t rely on any single revision method. Read notes, attempt practice questions, use different locations to learn different concepts, and so on. Find what works for you. What works in one instance will be different in another. Don’t stop exploring.
  9. Sleep, eat, relax, enjoy yourself…LIVE YOUR LIFE! – It’s easy to forget to do the simple, everyday things while you’re in revision mode. This is a mistake. Do what you usually do otherwise you’ll be less motivated to revise.
  10. Don’t talk with others just before exams – Hanging around with a bunch of nervous people isn’t helpful. Neither is speaking to students who are pretending they haven’t done any revision and are going to wing the exam. It’s all nonsense. You’re taking that exam for YOU. Not anybody else. Just you. Ignore the voices around you. They will only serve to put you off the task at hand.
  11. Find out what’s going to be covered in an exam – You don’t need to learn everything verbatim. Higher education is an opportunity to explore in ways that should interest you. Use this to your benefit. You won’t be told the questions in advance, but you will be given pointers toward the type of content.
    Also, past exam papers are bound to be available unless you’re on a brand new course. These past papers are a great resource.
  12. Explain concepts to yourself until you understand them – As you revise, outline what you’re learning as if you’re explaining things to a young child or someone with no knowledge of the topic whatsoever.
    I suggest you check out Scott Young’s video on learning faster with the Feynman Technique.
  13. Use the library – It’s not just for essays. There’s plenty you can read up on while you revise. If one book doesn’t speak to you, find other books to explain the same concepts for you.
  14. Use the Internet – If the texts are confusing, don’t forget to search for simple explanations and Wikipedia articles. Better still, search other places such as YouTube for video tutorials and fun explanations.
  15. Create links between concepts and ideas – The bigger picture is just as important as the finer detail. Treat concepts as a map or a jigsaw puzzle and have all the pieces lock together so you have a visual representation in your mind that can move from one place to another. That way, you’ll be able to fit everything in context, rather than just another thing to remember.
  16. Use mnemonics to remember stuff you have to memoriseMnemonics provide a quick and easy way to pick up on hard to remember detail.
  17. Work alone – Interruptions are a time sink, they take your mind off your revision, and they stop you from doing exactly what you want.
  18. Work with others – Working alone is fine, but the occasional get together helps when you want to bat ideas back and forth. What you’re stuck with, a classmate may have a massive understanding of, which you can make use of. When the classmate is stuck on something you understand, you can help them too, and solidify your own knowledge as you’re going.
  19. Practice questions in your own time – Get a good idea of how best to answer questions by ignoring time constraints. Just get confident in the first instance.
  20. Practice questions to a time limit – Once you’re confident, then time yourself. Are you answering too quickly, or have you only finished half the answer when the time runs out?
  21. Read through the questions and instructions before you start answering anything – Your exam preparation continues even as you turn the paper over. Don’t get carried away when the clock starts ticking. You’ve waited this long. A few extra minutes of preparation is factored in, so stay calm and focus on understanding the questions.
  22. Breathe – Who’d think it’s easy to forget steady breathing, eh? It’s a whole lot easier to forget about your breathing when you’re under exam pressure. It only takes a couple of moments to focus on your breathing again, so it’s time well spent. Close your eyes and focus on taking a deep breath of air through your nose so it fills your lungs. Hold it for a moment and let the air go through your nose or mouth, whatever feels most relaxing for you.
    Do this a couple of times. If you’re still feeling the stress, try this quick fix from ‘Coping with Stress at University‘:
    “Place your elbows on your desk and put your face into your hands, cupping the palms over the eyes so the face is gently supported. Relax your shoulders and let go of any tension that you may be holding in your body. Even ten seconds like this is likely to make a difference.”
  23. Read. The. Questions. – Remember point 21 above? Seriously, this is important. I can’t emphasise this enough. Make sure you understand what’s required of you.
photo by fanz
photo by fanz