Coursework

Avoid the Trap of Consuming Everything Before You Start Creating

consume-create-tub

How much research do you do for your coursework?

Do you power through and consume as much stuff as possible before getting on with the creation bit?

The more you can create out of what you consume, the more validation you give to consuming content. You won’t use all of it, but there comes a time when you stop looking.

But what if the search doesn’t seem to end?

The more you consume without creating anything from it, the more worrying the situation gets. Snacking on information without an end in sight.

Munch, munch, munch. One book here, another paper there, and a final web search just for luck. Maybe I’ll check the library one more time.

And maybe another time after that…

And it goes on.

When you consume far more than you create, you face a bottleneck at best. The reality is likely worse.

Words like “perfectionism” and “procrastination” start to rear their ugly heads.

Consuming without getting anything valuable out of the process is wasteful. It happens to all of us on occasion, but it shouldn’t be a standard part of your research process.

And you can easily fall into that consumption trap. So watch out.

It feels productive to find lots to read in the library and online, but it merely gets in the way when you’re not using that content for your work.

Keep an eye on why you’re still researching. There are times when you need to look at far more than you’ll refer to, because you’re looking for inspiration or perspective. Or perhaps you’re considering several arguments before you put your own stamp on proceedings.

But make sure you’re not still consuming ALL THE THINGS simply because:

  • You’re scared to start creating;
  • You think you need to cover every possible angle that exists (hint: you don’t);
  • You’re putting off the next stage of your work;
  • You need to find a better research process to work with.

Reasons like those above aren’t good enough to keep you looking for more. Work with what you’ve got, or improve your process so it’s not so time-consuming.

You may have to be brutally honest with yourself. It’s not easy to admit, especially when you are afraid to start.

But when the pressure gets too much, remember that you can always start off without doing any in-depth research at all.

Work with what you’ve got. So long as you’ve had some input from lectures, seminars, set texts, and so on, you should have enough to get started.

And writing your own thoughts and ideas on the page is much better than staring at a blank screen. Or, worse, not even reaching the blank screen stage because you’re busy feeling overwhelmed by how much information is already out there.

When you do your research, go in with the aim of creating something soon. No need to get hold of all the research materials and quotations before you start your own creation.

Banish those bottlenecks. Find a flow that doesn’t involve all the writing at the very end of the process.

A drip-feed of research helps a lot of the information stay at the top of your mind. That, in turn, will get you engaging (and referring) to more of that research.

The more you practice this flow, the more you will create out of what you have consumed.

Outlines Are Not All Equal

A short essay is not the same as a long essay. A presentation is different too. So is a dissertation.

That means your preparations need to vary. How you approach each assignment is important.

Outlines are a great way to build an idea of what you want to produce. Here are some brief notes on how your outlines could differ, depending on which type of coursework you are working on.

(photo by anselm23)

Post-It Outline. One way to prepare that essay. (photo by anselm23)

Short essay

Start with bullet points of the major arguments you wish to make. If you have too many ideas, either condense them into themes or brutally remove all but the very best. Your main tasks are a clear focus and awareness of key points.

Be aware of brevity needed in such a short space and plan accordingly. There’s no need to outline with the aim to cover every possible base. Highlight your most important areas with one or two clear examples.

Work from there and continue working concisely and to the point. When you’re getting too detailed, it’s time to scale back.

Long essay

This essay contains more room to explore. Most essays tend to come under the ‘long’ description, so stay focused. It’s easy to ramble and move away from the question under discussion.

An outline allows you to stay on track and on message.

Ensure each bullet point you make is related to addressing the question. At each stage of the outlining, refer back to the question.

For every major argument you wish to tackle, give sub-headings that relate to proof, examples, counter-arguments (and how you’re dealing with them), quotations and references, and key descriptions of topics and themes.

Presentation

You’re dealing with more than text here. You’ve got your voice, use of technology and slides, interacting with an audience, and so on.

In terms of outline, you need to prepare for all these things. That means a sharp eye on admin and peripheral issues. Your initial outline must cover use of equipment, size and layout of room, handouts, software use, Internet availability, and so on. While none of this is about your actual subject, it’s all relevant to the way you’re conducting yourself. Best assess the situation early, rather than five minutes before you’re due on stage!

As for content, think like you should a short essay. Your main aim is usually to highlight major arguments and workings as effectively as possible. Alternatively, you might be discussing an experiment or some findings you’ve made. All these examples require bold points and clear detail.

If you need a vague outline to play with, pick a start, middle and ending. In other words, introduce, elaborate (tell stories), and conclude. You may also like to quote something in keeping with your presentation at the beginning in order to set the scene.

Dissertation

Assuming you have agreed a dissertation topic, the most important initial outline is the structure. In what order will you present the themes and arguments? Work out the flow of the dissertation before anything else. Each part should follow on from what has come beforehand.

Spend considerable time outlining for your dissertation. It’s worthy of a post in itself, because a dissertation outline is far more detailed than that of a single essay.

Thankfully, in finding a topic, you should have developed some form of basic outline as part of the process.

Practical work & experiments

First off, develop a plan of action and a rough order of play. What needs doing, how should you prepare, and why are you doing this?

Next, explain what comes afterwards and what you’re going to do with your results and outcomes. If you are being assessed for a written element of this work, make another outline plan for that subsequent assignment.

Seminars & weekly reading

Advance outlines work for some students. Think of it like a timetable without rigid times. The timetabling aspect can come later. What matters in your outline is getting to grips with what you want to know at the end of your week, the books and papers you have earmarked, the questions you want to cover before, during and after seminar sessions, and any problems you may encounter.

You may have a better way to prepare for your regular work. If so, great. If not, see if an outline helps get you closer to the work at hand.

For some, a list is enough. For others, a strict timetable is required. Whatever the case, you can outline anything, so give it a go no matter how small your project is.

Are you a keen outliner? Share your outlining tips in the comments below.

Less Homework, More Coursework

Homework. Whether you loved it or hated it, you couldn’t get away from it.

photo by TheAlieness GiselaGiardino
photo by TheAlieness GiselaGiardino

At university, much of your coursework is similar to homework. You do it in your own chosen time, outside of lectures/seminars/tutorials, and with particular deadlines.

New research has come to the conclusion that age and gender differences play a part in how students complete their homework. Younger students seemed to prefer working with friends and outside the home. Older students were happier on their own, in the house. Girls, regardless of age, were more stressed working on their own, preferring to work with friends. Boys, on the other hand, weren’t as interested in working with others.

At uni, you have far more flexibility over your study environment. That includes whether or not you work with other people, when you choose to study, and where you wish to do the work.

Because coursework is like an extended type of homework, it pays to examine what situations work best for you. Surrounded by quiet fields or in a loud and busy setting? With others or away from the rest of the world?

If you found homework a hassle and you’re struggling to find coursework much better, a change of setting may be all you need to alter your attitude for the better.

Not all study is equal. Be sure to set aside time to discover what study environment works best for you. Keep improving it the whole time you’re learning to make sure you don’t grow complacent.

The more you enjoy your work, the less you’ll think of it as ‘homework’.