Most people, when asked, can recount an experience that undermined their confidence in their own learning. Negative comments when we are young can have a very long-term effect upon our view of ourselves as bright, capable learners. However, self-confidence has a major impact upon our ability to perform well.
What kind of message were you given about your abilities to study when you were at school or college?
Are these messages helpful to you now?
What attitudes would be most useful to you succeeding at your studies now?
We can improve the conditions for learning by being aware of some of the ways the brain works. Although we do not need to know a great deal about the brain, understanding some basics can help us to make the most of our minds. Some of the optimal conditions for learning are common sense and good for our general health.
For further information, see chapter 2, 3 and 4 of The Study Skills Handbook by Stella Cottrell.
Spending long hours studying is not necessarily productive. It is possible to gain better marks by studying more effectively rather than for longer. Most of this resource looks at ways of studying in more effective ways. To study effectively, you can:
Study assignment titles carefully. Work out exactly what is required for assignments. This saves time in re-writing assignments later. Time spent in preparation is well spent.
Set yourself clear goals and work towards these.
Look for 'the meaning' or how things work, rather than focusing on remembering information. Work with the material, looking at how it fits together and applies to different circumstances. If you develop your understanding of the subject, it will help you to take in future material more easily. This makes reading easier. It also improves your memory for the subject.
Be active in searching out links between different aspects of the programme. Look also for links between what you are learning and the wider world. This helps to develop understanding and memory.
Work with other students so that you share ideas and gain mutual support. You may be able to share some research tasks and clarify your lecture notes. Studying with others makes study more interesting, as you gain a different set of perspectives.
Look for reasonable short-cuts that do not compromise your studies. For example:
avoid unnecessary tasks such as writing notes out neatly
use abbreviations in your notes
write assignments onto a computer if possible rather than writing them out by hand and then typing them up
focus your notes around themes and questions rather than making long notes that you do not really need.
Most assignments have a word limit. Use this as a guide to how much you need to read and how many examples you can include. Plan out in advance how you will divide up the words available to you. Often, you need to be very concise about each topic. This means you may not be able to include very much of what you have read if you have undertaken a great deal of reading or made very extensive notes.
Take rests when you are tired. Study takes longer and the brain is less effective when you are tired or stressed. Plan your time so that you get breaks. A change of scene stimulates the brain and helps creative thinking.
There is no magical formula for getting good marks. Each lecturer will look for different things, depending on the subject and the nature of the assignment. However, there are steps you can take to increase your chances of good marks.
These usually contain a question that the assignment must address. You will only get marks for answering that question. Other information just uses up your limited word allowance.
Each subject works to a set of conventions or 'rules'. These will apply to such matters as the methodology to use, what counts as 'evidence' and the style of writing to use. Spend time finding out what these are. Guidance may be given in the programme handbook or web pages. Otherwise, look at the language and style used in books you are recommended. You will have a clearer idea of what is expected if you look at material from a different subject and see the contrast. Some subjects prefer creative or subjective approaches; others prefer objective and logical thinking; some require both.
Make sure that you follow the basic conventions for writing reports, essays or case studies. Ensure that readers can follow a clear line of reasoning and can see how every example and piece of information contributes to that line of reasoning.
Avoid opinions and feelings unless these are backed up with evidence available from sources open to others (books, journals, internet, etc.). Choose good examples that illustrate the point rather than loading the reader with too much detail or too many examples.
Make references to source materials (books, journals, paintings, web-pages, etc) within your own work. Write a list of all references at the end of the work, following the conventions required by your programme.
Proof your work for typing errors. Read it aloud to check that it makes sense. Listen carefully as you read it aloud. Check that the computer hasn't accidentally swallowed half of a sentence or some paragraphs you though were there.
Feedback is your main form of support from tutors. It is your best guide about what to do to improve your marks and your work more generally.
For further information please see Chapters 5 and 8 of The Study Skills Handbook by Stella Cottrell.
Lectures are an opportunity to find out how one lecturer makes sense of the wealth of information and research that has been undertaken on a topic. A good lecturer will use the lecture to give you an overview of the main themes, develop your understanding of the issues, guide you on how to find out more about the subject and the reading you need to undertake. You may also gain details of relevant current issues, explanations of complex material or questions to answer that develop your own thinking and research. The aim is not usually to give you a definitive and comprehensive set of 'facts' on the subject. You are expected to supplement the lecture with reading and interpretations of your own.
The finer details of the subject should be available in lecture hand-outs, web-pages or in the recommended reading. This should mean that you do not have to spend the time in the lecture making detailed notes. If you have lecturers like this, your best strategy is:
Some lecturers will use the lecture to bombard you with information and expect you to take this in at speed. If so, most people will find it difficult to listen and take detailed notes, and it is unlikely that anybody will have a complete set of lecture notes. If you have lecturers like this, your best strategy is:
The amount of support available from teaching staff will vary a great deal. Usually this is much less than people are used to from school or college. There may be more help available where programme numbers are small or where the work is based mostly in a studio or laboratory. However, in general, you are expected to take the lead in:
Lecturers provide information and guidance in Handbooks, in their feedback on your assignments and in handouts. They expect you to consult this before coming to ask for additional help.
Lecturers may not work full time at the university. Some of these lecturers will not be available to give extra help, as they may work at other jobs when they are not teaching you.
Other lecturers will have only a small amount of time to offer to any one student. They will not be able to go through your work with you in the detail you may have received at college. In order to make best use of the short time they can offer you:
Universities offer a range of support services. Find out what is available and make use of these if you need them. It is better to ask for help early on if you are experiencing difficulty. It is more difficult to find a good solution if you let a difficulty run on without seeking help. Most services are confidential. The Student Union usually has support or welfare officers that can offer advice.
It is expected that students will develop their own support networks. There are innumerable ways of doing this. For example, you could set up:
This content has been written by Stella Cottrell, author of The Study Skills Handbook.