Ask the Doctor: study advice questions and answers

Hi there, “the Doctor’ here, back to offer a few more words of advice to help you with your studies. This week, I’m going to change the format a little and share some of the questions I’m most often asked as a tutor and university lecturer and the responses I give. These are all questions that I have been asked by my students and they vary from writing skills to taking good notes to how to revise. So, lets get started, shall we?

A lot of booksWhen I’m given an essay question, how should I start?

This is a question I get asked really frequently as most students are fine once they get going but making that first leap in the dark holds you back. Well, the answer is simple – you turn on the light – and you do this by following these simple rules:

  • Always look at the question carefully – many students get a low grade because they fail to answer exactly what is being asked.
  • Look for key words, these are essential and you’ll find them in every essay question. They are words like, “compare’, “contrast’, “discuss’, “examine’, “identify’, “analyse’ … there are many more! Key words are important because they tell you exactly the approach you should take.
  • Next, think about your research. Don’t write your essay and then find evidence, find evidence first.
  • Make an essay plan and stick to it, even if it’s only brief. Dickens wrote notes for each part of his novels on one sheet of paper folded in half and look how well he did!

I never know how to make proper notes, I always write too much or too little: how do I know when to stop?

This is quite a difficult one because it really depends on the length of the work you’re compiling as well as the particular discipline you’re following. Anyway, here are a few tips:

  • Don’t write in sentences; write key words that will remind you what was important.
  • If you’re taking a direct quote, though, be precise, and even when you are paraphrasing make sure that you make a careful reference of your source – including the page number.
  • Try to keep your notes short. You won’t remember them as well if they are lengthy (that goes for revision notes, too).
  • Don’t overuse one source. Every topic and/or discipline has authors and/or critics that must be included so use those texts first; then use less well known authors, from academic journals etc.

A university libraryWhat’s the best way of revising?

This is very much a question of what suits you best. Everyone has their own method of revising but there are a couple of things that I always suggest to students who are struggling:

  • Pace yourself. This is the best advice you can give anyone doing any work but it is particularly important in revision.
  • This doesn’t mean starting months ahead or working 18 hours a day. In fact, pacing yourself avoids both of these very common pitfalls and it allows you free time which is essential.
  • If you are going to be examined by means of writing essays, then get some practice papers, revise the topics on the paper and write a few timed essays from memory. If you ask nicely your tutor might even grade them for you and give you some useful feedback!
  • Even if you’re not working in a discipline that requires essays, get some practice papers and try them. Again, you might be lucky enough to find a kindly tutor to mark them.
  • Be realistic about how much information you can retain. This is a trade secret but no one really expects you to revise everything you have been taught and most tutors will help you with “question spotting’ i.e. looking for questions that are likely to come up.
  • A good rule of thumb is to be very sure of two thirds of your work and fairly sure of the rest. This is because even if the topic you have revised comes up, it might be couched in a question you wouldn’t dream of doing. That’s why you need a back-up of a few topics that you know reasonably well and could answer if you got the right question.

So, there you are – a few questions and answers that I have come across over the years. I’ll be back soon, so don’t forget to check in regularly!

Leave a comment