Top tips for study skills

July 30, 1999

Very little account has been taken of the widespread change to semesterisation in higher education.

When I was a mature first-year undergraduate, I attended a study-skills seminar early in my course that was next to useless. Half the day was spent "learning" how to make effective lecture notes. Taking notes may help you to concentrate, but I don't think I ever wrote anything down that was worth referring to later. With teachers being encouraged to use more handouts, interactive learning and group work, taking notes is even less relevant. Students should check their notepads at the door.

After notes, revision should be next for the chop. Though exams that test factual knowledge may need some boning-up, students preparing for an essay-based exam do not need to revise. With modular courses lasting between ten and 12 weeks, taking time out of coursework and background reading to revise is counterproductive. Students should use semesterised modular courses to their advantage, forgetting the patterns of work that may have been effective under the old 30-week system. What always made me feel better about an exam was sitting down with a calculator and working out how much damage I could do to my overall result, given the weighting of the exam in question. On a ten-credit course that is 50 per cent assessed by coursework, an exam is worth less than 1.5 per cent of a 360-credit degree. Getting 50 per cent rather than, say, 65 per cent, makes very little difference.

As I approach the end of my three years of PhD research, with a first-class BA and an MA (distinction) in the bag, my top tips for study skills are as follows. Do the first two and everything else is a breeze.

* Go to all classes but take no notes

* Do all the required reading

* Spend at least one hour a day in the coffee bar talking to friends about your course and so on

* Stay away from the library, except to find books

* Do your coursework early, hand it in on time

* Instead of revising, do extra reading, even if not strictly relevant

* Watch more films, drink more water.

Outside of lectures and seminars, the time in the coffee bar is the most important. Losing your embarrassment about discussing "school work" with like-minded friends will help clarify your thinking and give you more confidence to speak up in class.

I will be happy to deliver a study skills seminar along these lines to any institution that asks.

Robert McMinn School of American and Canadian Studies, University of Nottingham

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