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Last week, I was lucky enough to go on a writing skills course. If you read this blog, you will know that I started this to give me an opportunity to practise writing more often and I hoped this course would help me focus and get to an end product for an article I’ve been trying to write for the past year or so.  The tutor was Trevor Day, who is a Royal Literary Fund Fellow here at Bath, and he has a lot of experience in writing and education, and was one of the best prepared trainers I’ve seen.

The course was very creative, despite being aimed at work-related writing, but Trevor assured us that scientists and engineers also found the techniques useful, and encouraged us to try them out.  I find I don’t have too much trouble producing words, but for me, the research and planning stage is troublesome, as I’m a very poor planner of writing, but I love researching, so I tend to read far too much and then ramble about it.   Some of the exercises looked at the purpose and aims of my writing, while others looked at problems and barriers.

Writing to a prompt

This exercise gave the beginning of a sentence, which we were to complete.  This technique gets over the problem of the first sentence, and helps to explore what you want to achieve with your writing.  I found the exercise positive, as I was able to state quite clearly why I wanted to complete this particular piece of writing, whereas when I am trying to write it, I often feel I am going off topic.

Free Writing

Although useful, I found this task quite difficult, as I very quickly tapped into strong negative emotions.  However, it did make external my inner dialogue, and I could quickly see why it has taken so long to get going.

Space

Trevor provided us with a framework to plan a writing project, called Space (Self, Purpose, Audience, Code, Experience).  We filled in the first three sections in the session, and I found this very well suited to identifying exactly what I did and didn’t want to write about.  Certainly the purpose section was able to help me identify some aspects that may not be suitable for the project at hand, and could be written separately.  The Code section talks about the way the writing will be structured and styled, while the Experience section gives you space to explore what you still need to do to be able to begin writing.

The second part of the morning provided us with practical ways of improving our writing.  Many of these were fairly classic, such as checking appropriate use of the passive and active voices, and keeping relevant items together in a sentence.  It was helpful to have these brought together for reference.  There were also hints and tips on how to write reports and proposals, and how to write persuasively.  Finally, the different kinds of editing (e.g. for content, for style, for errors) were explained, and the information was summarized, with a little hint about using readability scores in Microsoft Word.  As most of us write for users, readability is always of high importance, and most did not know about this feature.*

Overall, I found this workshop both practical and stimulating, and I came away with a range of tools I felt able to apply to my writing.  I was immediately able to start work on my article again, and this time with a much better idea of what I want to write about and how I want to do it.  I was particularly impressed that the techniques were so flexible and applied equally well to personal writing projects as they did to professional ones.  I am also planning to try some of the techniques for my academic writing, as the research proposal in particular is somewhat intimidating.

* Incidentally, this post  has 8% passive sentences and a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level of 11.7.

Well, I did resolve to blog more often, but I am that person who writes half a post, goes away to reflect on it, then comes back and scraps the lot.

The task that was irritating me, that was in the post I scrapped, is now more exciting, and I’ve found a scenario that will work for me (I hope!).  I think the risk with this assignment will be (once again) trying to cram everything in that I know.  But every time I read about a technology, I think “ooh, I could use that”, which is fun, but not necessarily productive.  I’m reading through an interesting book (Producing for Web 2.0 by Jason Whittaker), which is currently giving me an overview of technologies – I’m planning to stop at the end of this chapter and see if I can make some decisions on what I might like to use and how.

My other resolutions are going better – I am already drafting out some sort of structure for the assignment, and I’ve only read a few articles so far.  I have also been making use of Evernote, which seems to be a good idea.

Well, the new academic year is starting soon, and although I got reasonable marks last term, there were some areas I could definitely improve on.  I thought it would be a good idea to set some new year resolutions to try and remind myself what I should be working on.

1)  Essay Planning

Although my technical work made up for them, a couple of my essays were rambling hulks.  I have been dutifully reading “How to write better essays” by Brian Greetham and some areas have stood out as tackling the problems I have with essays:

1a)  I will brainstorm the assignment before tackling the reading.  Previously, I have definitely got excited by my reading and rather neglected to note whether it was relevant or not first.  That’s not to say I won’t read the less relevant titles, but I really need to be more selective from an earlier phase.

1b) I will use Evernote to record my reading (in Harvard format) as I go along, sorting articles into potential references, further reading and not relevant.  This should save a lot of time later on, and should mean I can easily note why I thought it was useful as well.

1c) I will not try and cram my entire knowledge about a topic into the essay.  It hardly ever works.

2)  I will plan to complete my coursework the week before the deadline, as this will give me much more room for error in terms of revising the assignment and unexpected problems.

3) I will plan my study more carefully to make time for thorough planning.  This year I have been happy with the amount of time spent on reading and topic activities, but the actual assignments have not had enough preparation.

4) I will blog more regularly (once a week) and be more specific about the ideas I am exploring.  This way I should be able to capture my thoughts and ideas in a more consistent manner.

Well, I’ve been very slack in blogging this last few weeks.  This is because my workload has been huge!  Despite all my good intentions, I read too much background material.  I also didn’t know when to stop in the earlier stages of my thesaurus vocabulary collection, so I not only started the other stages later than I should, but also had more to work through in the final assignment!  Not good.  Although I think the final essay is OK, it’s not really great, and I know I won’t get a brilliant mark for it.

I am rather hoping the database module is better – I was pleased with my database, got it to do all the things I wanted it to, and it looked pretty too.

So, resolutions for next year, plan my time better so I know when my assessed work is behind schedule.  Note to self: leave at least two weeks for essay writing!

I think this term’s challenge is time management.  Last term, it was 1 topic a week, with everything available from the beginning (or at least the first couple of weeks) of the course.  This term, both modules are releasing their topics gradually, with a number of topics which doesn’t necessarily match the number of weeks.  This has made time management much more difficult.

For me, some activities are easier to complete than others – ones involving thought and a pen and paper can be done during tea breaks, while those which require use of a computer to work on (e.g. “Visit these websites and explore…”) are much harder to schedule.  Releasing topics gradually doesn’t give me a chance to plan ahead – some topics need more “non-tea-break” time to complete than others, and this is difficult to factor in when you don’t know what the activities will be.

I hadn’t anticipated the impact the different approaches would have on my feelings of progress and achievement – whereas last term I knew exactly where I had to be and when, this term I am not sure if I am behind or ahead, or both!

Well, I am getting near two of the three deadlines (three weeks to go).  On the group project, I am slightly behind, but will catch up without difficulty tonight. 

The Subject Bibliography is more problematic.  I have been picking away at it for some time, but I have a lot of work to do in finishing gathering references.  I also need to do some work on sources.  I’m finding it quite difficult to fit in evening study while Fritha isn’t sleeping so quickly, and although it doesn’t seem like I have much time to study in the evenings, that can reduce my study time by four to five hours a week.  I do have some study days booked, but I’d rather use them for writing up than doing the legwork.  I think my next task is to formally tabulate my search terms – it should help with checking I’ve covered everything.

I am also wondering if I am doing too much further reading.  I seem to have a folder full of articles to read, and every time I think I have broken the back of the reading, the pile grows again.  I think it’s a definite disadvantage being really interested in the subject you are studying! ;o)

So, at work yesterday, I attended a Time Management course.  It was very practical (although the mind map of my life was somewhat scary!) and I have already felt the benefits of some small changes to my To Do list.

One technique which looked useful for planning my studies was the “bottom up” estimating method.  This means breaking the task (in this case, probably each module) into smaller chunks until each task is small enough to estimate.  Then add up each segment and that will give the total time needed for the whole task.  I think I will try this with the first modules and see what happens.

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