General study skills

There are lots of new learning methods and styles you'll come across when you come to university and what you get out of lectures depends on what you put in. Read over this section to learn what you need to do to be a great student, from taking useful notes to staying awake in lectures!

Effective note-taking

What is the point?

Your lecture notes are essential when it comes to writing an assignment or revising for an exam. Taking notes keeps you motivated and concentrated while you work and study.

Note-taking techniques

Everyone has different ways for making notes depending on which method suits them best. Note-taking is usually done in two stages; first of all writing down all the main points, then summarising and condensing them later. Don’t try to copy down everything as you’ll never keep up with the lecture.

Skeleton prose

This is a very common method to use. Notes are structured into bullet/numbered lists and paragraphs with headings and indentations. This method is very useful when reading an article or journal as evidence begins to stack up, however, if you don’t leave enough room between points/arguments, making amendments can be difficult and it becomes tricky to indicate relationships between things. To avoid this, double space your notes and leave a few lines at the end of each section to allow room for you to add in any last minute thoughts.

The Cornell note-taking system

This was developed in America and is a system that ensures you take clear notes and are able to actively engage with them afterwards. This method should help you engage with the material, transfer it from your short-term to your long-term memory and give you useful notes from which to revise, but this system does require some preparation. Click on the link below to learn more: http://lsc.cornell.edu/LSC_Resources/cornellsystem.pdf

After a lecture

  • Read through your notes. Make any amendments or additions whilst the material is still relatively fresh in your mind.
  • Summarise the main points in the space at the bottom of each page.
  • Now, in the left-hand column, note down the key ideas or words from your notes on the right. Formulate these into questions.
  • COVER UP your notes in the right-hand column, and see how well you can answer the key questions from memory.
  • Re-format your notes: highlight, clarify, expand, make connections and generally refine them.

Mind maps and spider diagrams

These are methods of taking notes by using diagrams, lines across the page and colourful sections to help you remember what was covered in the lecture. They are a handy way of seeing how points link to one central idea and they have lots of information visible right in front of you, so you can easily add new information in. They can be very useful when it comes to planning essays and condensing/summarising your notes after the lecture.

Tips for taking notes from speech

  • Arrive at your lecture on time. The beginning is when the lecturer outlines the topic and content of the lecture.
  • Try not to write too much down at the start - listen to the lecturer and only note important things down.
  • Listen intently for clues on what format the lecturer will follow; if they say ‘there are three main things’ you know to listen out for and note three main points.
  • Leave a wide margin so you can add more notes and clarification when you review your notes at a later date.
  • Read over the notes a little while after the lecture to help embed them in your memory.
  • Write down all the key words and ideas.

Tips for taking notes from written material

"Aim for clear and accurate notes that make sense to you"

  • Note the main points from a paragraph and how they link together.
  • Have a question or argument to look out for so that your reading and note-taking has a focus.
  • Write key words rather than whole sentences.
  • Highlight and underline key points.
  • Make them your own - colour and add notes, do whatever you can to make your notes personal and effective to you.
  • Aim for clear and accurate notes that make sense to you.
  • Re-read them to make sure they’re good and be critical when adding in any other points you think of as you go along.

Organising your notes

  • Use one notebook per module.
  • Have a folder divided into module sections.
  • Use headings on your notes so you can easily identify which section they belong to.
  • Number and label pages so you can re-file them easily.
  • If storing your notes electronically, arrange them into folders and use appropriate headings.

Effective reading

There is a lot of background material and resources to read and look at to supplement to the modules you study, so learning to read efficiently and elicit information is essential. There are different reading styles depending on the purpose of your reading.

Scanning content is a method used to find a specific piece of information, looking for a keyword. The introduction, the conclusion, the first and last paragraph usually give a good overview. Skim reading identifies the main points and skips all the detail. Detailed reading aims to extract information in a careful and detailed manner. Make sure it’s relevant before going through and making detailed notes. To keep your concentration levels up, make notes as you’re reading. This includes: Underlining, highlighting, keywords, headings, questions and summaries.

Alternatively, you might want to try the SQ3R study reading method which focuses on the comprehension of a text. The five-stage technique involves:

Surveying - gather the information you need and set goals and questions. Look at the book, chapter and paragraph. Read the titles and headings to give you clues on where to find the information.

Questioning - ask yourself; what are you reading for? What do you want to know? Does it support or contradict what I’m researching? Is it useful to my topic?

Reading - start off by skim reading to look for the general structure and key points of the text. Only read for the purpose of making notes on the key points and the questions you’ve raised. Reduce your speed for key passages so you ensure you understand and re-read them again if necessary.

Recalling - can you remember the key points of the text without having to go over them again? Orally summarise what you’ve just read and take notes from the text but write them in your own words, highlighting and underlining any key points.

Reviewing - check over the text again to see if you've missed out anything key. Do this again a few days later as well to really embed it in your memory.

Although this method takes a lot of self-discipline it’s an extremely effective way when used and will really help you during your study.

Critical thinking

"Remember to ask questions when reading and think critically about the material"

Along with always bearing in mind what information you’re reading for, you should also think about challenging the author’s views. Their work reflects their stance on the subject so don’t be afraid to tackle this and remember no author has total authority over a subject. Remember to ask questions when reading and think critically about the material. Here are some examples as a starting point:

  • What is the topic of the book or article?
  • What issues are addressed?
  • What conclusion does the author reach about the issue(s)?
  • What are the author's reasons for his or her statements or belief?
  • When was it written? Does it reflect the views of its time in any way?
  • Is the author using facts, theory, opinion or faith? Facts can be proven. Theory is to be proved and should not be confused with fact. Opinions may or may not be based on sound reasoning. Faith is not subject to proof by its nature.
  • Has the author used neutral words or emotional words? Critical readers look beyond the language to see if the reasons are clear.
  • What intellectual standpoint is it written from? Many books make certain assumptions. Sometimes these are spelled out in the Introduction. They may be conservative, liberal, Whig, Marxist, nationalist, feminist...
  • What does it leave out? All books make selections in their treatment of a topic. Which of the following aspects are omitted: religious, economic, intellectual, social, cultural, etc? Whose experiences and attitudes are not considered?
  • What do the reviews say? Reviews of important books can be found in prominent historical journals about a year after the book's date of publication. Reviews are published more immediately in literary and educational journals, such as The Times Higher Education Supplement, The Times Literary Supplement, and The London Review of Books. These will give you an idea of the reception the book received when it was published. 
  • Be aware of why you do, or do not, accept arguments of the author.

For more information on critical thinking, see the University of Manchester website.  

Writing an essay

An essay is a form of assessment that demonstrates your ability to bring together thoughts and views and present them in a systematic and structured way. Every essay requires these four components: a definition, advantages, problems and your opinion. Make sure you also know the deadline, word count, style requirements and method of referencing.
 

Read the question – what does it ask for?

  • ‘Discuss’ means you are required to present a for and against case with a statement on your own opinion in the conclusion.
  • ‘Compare’ means making an extended list of similarities between two or more subjects.
  • ‘Contrast’ is when you are required to list points of difference between two or more subjects.
  • ‘Consider’ or ‘evaluate’ means you need to describe the subject and say how effective you think it is.
  • ‘Summarise’ requires you to put together everything you know about the topic.
  • If you have a general title then it requires the same four components as any other essay.

Researching the question

Once you’ve understood the question, you’re ready to start the background reading. Keep the question in mind at all times. Use your lecture notes and any materials your teacher may have given you. Look in your module handbook or on your reading list to find good places to start when looking for additional reading materials. Use reliable and high quality research material that will be more relevant in university essays.

Planning your essay

There are three effective ways to plan your essay so you produce a well-structured and sequential piece of work: Mind-mapping is a great method for visual learners and helps you organise your ideas. An advantages and disadvantages table is another method that lists both positive and negative sides of the question. Index cards is the third method whereby you write key words on each card and then use the space below to write any evidence to support it when you come across it in your reading.

Writing a plan

This is the next stage in writing your essay; assembling all the points you want to make in a structured way.

  • List the main points you want to make along with any secondary points that support your main one.
  • Introduction - this sets out your topic and introduces what you intend to explore in your essay.
  • Main part - present your main points in paragraphs with the supporting evidence.
  • Conclude - draw all your points together and go back to your original questions, your findings should now answer it if you’ve stayed on track.

Writing your essay

Now you’re ready to start writing and bring all your evidence and arguments into one concise logical structure. Some people like to start at the end with their conclusion; loosely planning what to write there can help keep you on track for the main body of your essay.

Backing-up your work

Make sure you back-up your work. Another good solution is saving your work regularly as a series of drafts and emailing each one to yourself so they’re securely stored and if anything does go wrong you have another recent version to edit rather than starting the whole thing again.

First draft

When writing your paragraphs think of the format; statement, reasons, evidence. This will give your essay a clear, logical structure. If you feel something doesn’t quite fit then leave it out. Make sure you reference and acknowledge any sources you’ve quoted from or used ideas as you go along to avoid plagiarism. Be careful not to go quote crazy - they are there to support what you’re saying, not to fill up entire paragraphs!

Don’t worry about relevancy or writing too much, at the moment the focus is on getting words on the page. Try not to get distracted by all the ‘have-to-be-done-right-this-minute’ tasks that pop into your head; keep a notepad by your side to write them down and come back to them later.

Writer’s block

This happens to us all, so when you’re lost for words here are some tips on getting the creative stream flowing again:

  • Take a break, have a drink or something to eat and get some fresh air to clear your head.
  • Re-read what you’ve already done to refresh your memory and give you some inspiration.
  • Go over your notes and plan.
  • Talk it through with a friend.
  • Have a change of scenery - go to the library or move to a different desk.

Final draft

The content should all be relevant and well presented by now. Use checking over your final draft as the chance to correct any grammar and anything else you may have missed. When it comes to editing your final version you need to look out for:

  • Sense - does it make all the points you wanted to make and convey your ideas clearly and succinctly?
  • Language - is it clear and concise or are you being vague and rambling?
  • Style - is it interesting but also written in an academic style?
  • Structure - do the ideas follow on in a logical order?
  • Clarity - have you kept to one main point per paragraph?
  • Flow - does each paragraph lead smoothly into the next?

Grammar

There’s no easy way to learn grammar but the University of Manchester has a comprehensive guide to refer to when writing an essay. Additionally, the Guardian Style Guide is also a useful reference point.

Referencing and plagiarism

"All sources you have quotes or ideas you have referred to need to be acknowledged correctly"

All sources you have quoted or ideas you have referred to need to be acknowledged correctly. Failure to do so could lead to your mark being graded 0 and in some cases termination of your degree course; plagiarism is an extremely serious offence. The way to avoid plagiarism is to reference correctly. Universities are now using specialist software to identify those who plagiarise, this software works on a national level so your essay will be scanned against others submitted to universities all over the country.

The University of Portsmouth have a great interactive guide to referencing which is definitely a site to bookmark! If you’re still unsure of how to reference a source correctly then ask your tutor - this won’t be counted against you and will stop you committing plagiarism.

Presentations

Every student has to give at least one presentation during their degree. The guidelines for presentations differ depending on your uni so you’ll receive specific details on this but we’ve got some advice on planning, working as part of a group, choosing a subject and delivering a fantastic presentation.

Planning and researching

  • Determine your aims and objectives and try to keep to them.
  • Be extremely thorough and make a note of all references so you cite them right. Do this for diagrams, graphs and pictures too.
  • Use all the other resources available to you; PowerPoints, projectors, hand-outs, music and film.

Structure:

  • Aim for clarity
  • Introducing the areas and topics you will be covering.
  • The main body of your presentation should be organised into clear sections which logically follow on from each other.
  • Plan and rehearse your conclusion as it draws together the arguments and leaves your audience with a clear memory of the topic and information communicated.
  • Keep your presentation to time - practice beforehand to get used to the running length.
  • Practice to an audience - often if they have no knowledge of the subject they are useful for seeing how much information you communicated.

Style:

  • A presentation should be governed by subject, intention, circumstance and audience.
  • Use appropriate academic language, tone and diction. Adding occasional colloquialisms helps keep the audience’s attention.
  • Rhetoric devices are a good way of conveying key messages.
  • Don’t read from a script - make eye contact with your audience, speak slowly and clearly and put some enthusiasm into what you say.

Group presentations

If you are working in a group it is important to split up the tasks once you know which direction and shape your presentation will take. Depending on group size you may want to assign reading to one member, writing to another, or split up readings and topics between you. Try and organise regular catch-up meetings with them.

Feedback

Feedback and learning from it is key to improving the work and studying you do. Although sometimes it may seem harsh, it exists to guide you in the right direction and helps you improve on what you’ve done for next time. Feedback comes in various forms and is only useful if you take it on board and bear it in mind the next time you come to do an assignment so you know what to improve on.

Forms of feedback

  • Written comments on essays, reports or presentations.
  • Oral advice or feedback received during discussions or seminars.
  • One-to-one advice given by tutors, personal tutors and academic staff.

How to use feedback

  • Look at is as ‘constructive criticism’ and not just criticism. There are always some good points that you did well coupled with pointers on how to improve for next time.
  • Try not to take it personally but look at it as a valuable aid for personal development.
  • Read and reflect upon your feedback. Come back to it the next time you do a similar assignment so you know the areas to improve on.
  • Know what your grade or percentage mark means - then go back and re-look at the criteria to give you more of an idea what you missed out and how to improve for next time.
  • Make sure you understand your feedback and can read your tutor’s comments. If you are not sure what it says then book an appointment to see them and go through it.
  • Talk to fellow students to see what they did and the feedback they got in case they can give you some further insight into the assignment and feedback.

Time management

Managing your time while studying is vital for being effective and getting the most done as possible. Sitting down and planning what to do with your time is no waste of time at all but will help you structure your days and study effectively.

How to organise your time:

  • Set deadlines to push yourself to get tasks completed on time.
  • Decide on a structure which varies each week and semester. Make sure it gives you enough time to get everything completed and attend lectures.
  • Work out how much time is needed to complete an essay and make sure you prioritise essays that need to be done first.
  • Organise pieces of work into small, achievable tasks - don’t try to attempt a whole essay at once; split it into manageable chunks.
  • Allow yourself breaks and distraction time.
  • Have a weekly / annual diary - write in any appointments or commitments so you know to organise your work around them. Write down all assignment deadlines, exams and holiday dates.
  • Compile a list of tasks to be done and then allocate them to time frames during the week.
  • Be flexible - if you can’t get inspiration for the task in hand move onto another one and come back to it later.
  • Be strict with yourself - you don’t to go out or see friends until a task has been completed.