Study Support Blog

A skill worth learning

Once upon a time, there was a nurse…

This was how I might as well have started my initial attempts at academic writing. In my undergraduate teaching and nursing days, I had no idea on what the lecturers meant by their feedback that addressed my lack of sentence and paragraph structure, my lack of focus, and my lack of answering the assigned essay question.

Unlike the advice in my last post, I didn’t ask any questions, not because I lacked the confidence to do so, but because I genuinely thought I had this assignment business under control. It wasn’t until I received low passes (and some very low passes), that I questioned the amount of research and effort I was putting into this work, versus my low return (low marks). Didn’t they realise that I was working hard on this essay, from the day that it was set? My peers, who pulled something together the last couple of days before it was due, were gaining Credits and Distinctions.

Something was not right here. I sat down with one lecturer, going through all that I had not addressed and finally breaking down when I didn’t understand what he was talking about. No one had ever mentioned topic sentences, stuff about my argument or my ‘voice’, before. What was this all about? I can’t have slept through every English class! In fact, I know I didn’t, as I had always achieved A’s and been commended for my creativity and expression.

Thankfully, this happened early in my academic career. The lecturer above handed me a tissue and on the corner of my paper gave me a little tutorial about essay structure, which helped to take me from barely passing to doing very well. Honestly! I carried that torn off piece of paper with me, in my pencil case (this was last century, remember), got it out for every assignment, and never looked back.

Well, to be really honest, I probably missed the mark on occasions, but at least I missed it with style and with great topic sentences, a clear argument and my own voice!

Today, there is so much information to make this a much less painful experience for you. Thousands of experts, websites, blog posts and YouTube videos, are out there to make sure you get this all right from the beginning. So why are so many still struggling?

Well, part of the reason is that there are many like me, who have returned to study in a new century and found that what we were once rewarded for – for example, creativity and expression – was no longer enough. If you are starting University study, be prepared to start learning all over again.

Thankfully though, there are these resources available, and it is only a matter of finding the one that resonates with you best so that you too can turn those grades around so that they match the passion and effort you are putting into those papers.

I have three tips.

The first tip is that you have to want to learn how to do it in the first place. After some years spent helping others, I have realised that not every student has the time, or inclination to put into learning what it takes to produce a good paper. Not every paper will get the mark that you think it deserves, but taking the time to learn some of the basics, will make those grades more achievable, and achievable more often.

The next tip is to learn what is required. Probably the most straightforward way to start, if you struggle with the basics of essay writing, is to have a guide next to you when you start thinking about having to start this paper. Widely acknowledged as being a great student resource is the Purdue Online Writing Lab (Purdue OWL) available at https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/section/1/2/.

One of my favourite resources that I work through with students, and send students to, is the Macquarie University Guide, available at https://www.students.mq.edu.au/public/download.jsp?id=201003.

These guides will take you by the hand and lead you through the main elements that will allow you to learn what is needed to produce a paper that 1) you can be proud of, and 2) that will satisfy your lecturers. While there is still no guarantee of success, at least you will be much closer to gaining those higher marks than you were without it.

The final tip is to find an academic paper that you enjoyed reading (maybe ‘enjoyed’ is rather strong, but one that you almost enjoyed will do). Hopefully, this paper is from an area close to your study area, but it doesn’t matter if it isn’t. It must be a paper which you can read and understand. This is important. You must be able to understand the message/story the writer is trying to get across. You need to enjoy reading it. If you can’t, put it aside and find another one.

If it is in your broad study area (it really can be on absolutely any topic at all), and you find it easy to read and enjoy reading it – this is your treasured friend and your new mentor. For the next few essays, you write, have this paper next to you every time you sit down. I want you to write your paper, using the same format as your treasured friend. Remember it can be on any topic at all. My treasured friend was a nursing paper on Cardiogenic Shock. I never had a paper on this topic, but I used the same format that this paper used, for all my subsequent nursing papers and together with following an essay structure template, I changed the way I wrote. I had topic sentences – because the editor ensured that my treasured friend had great topic sentences. I found my voice – because I utilised the same approach they had. I learnt to incorporate my references – I finally understood that I needed to support my points. I (mostly) stayed on topic – because my treasured friend stayed on topic. I was focused – because my treasured friend stayed focussed. I started receiving high marks – because I was following the structure of a published paper. I had uncovered the holy grail of academic papers. It was hard work (and still is), but together with encouragement from my greatest cheerleader (my husband), I finally understood this assignment and academic writing business.

If you have any specific questions, I am only too willing to help. I’m not an expert, but I am willing to help and guide you. Although every lecturer and university may require slightly different things, mastering the basics will help you. Remember that I said, anyone can learn these skills. This includes you. So take some time to find one or two suitable resources and then a bit more time to write your next paper with these next to you. Good luck.

Cheers for now,

Susanne.x

 

 

Study Support Blog

Instructions – please read

One of the comments I continually make on student papers is, “please read the task instructions and ensure all components of your assignment are on the topic”.

The most frustrating part of this though, is that I often have to say this again on the next assignment, and in some cases, on the one after that, too. I know there are many reasons students fail to act on or even read, feedback, but please try really hard not to be one of these students. We aim to help you improve – celebrating when you do well, and patiently steering you along a more correct path when you trip up. Acting on this feedback will help you improve your writing and academic success.

I am sure that like me, many academic staff toil over task instructions and anxiously wait for the first few days of the semester (and the weekend before an assignment is due!), to see how students interpret them and begin to ask questions of clarification. This is good, so always ensure you understand each aspect of the assignment. Better to ask, than start second guessing yourself,  as the clock ticks closer to the due date.

I know, from experience, that it is sometimes difficult to pluck up the courage to ask a question, even when a grade is being dangled at the end. If you really can’t bring yourself to ask a question just yet, make sure you are one of the first into the classroom and one of the last to leave. This way you can listen to all of the other questions being asked because it is likely someone else will have similar concerns to you.

If you have online discussion boards, the same rule applies. Read every single post to ensure you are exposed to everyone’s questions and your lecturer’s response. Although some lecturers can get a bit frustrated replying to endless questions, as long as you haven’t missed her/him answering the same question above (in the discussion board posts), you need to be clear in your head what is required, so you need to ask.

Group discussions, whether online or in the classroom, are also a valuable learning opportunity. Again, if you are not confident speaking up, or not ready to while you sieve through the topic content, make sure you listen carefully to what the lecturer/tutor has to say. There will be pearls of wisdom in every conversation, it is your job to find them, note them and follow them.

Keep going back to the task instructions. Have you addressed the question, individual criteria, word counts?

I will talk more about writing your assignment in the next couple of posts, but for now, concentrate on ensuring you understand the task and have a clear picture of what you need to do. I know it is really hard sometimes, but the best thing you can do to set yourself up to be successful is to start your preparation early. However, I wouldn’t submit your assignment too early. Sometimes the best questions are asked nearer the due date as everyone starts to get their head around the topic.

You want every advantage you can, so even if you have finished, keep an eye out for those late posts or discussions. You never know what will turn up, and take your ‘I should do ok’, to ‘I think I’ve nailed it’. Yes, well, maybe you are not quite that confident, but that late adjustment might make a positive difference. Don’t get me wrong here, I am not advocating changing your mind/focus/direction, just ensure you make a considered decision before submitting a polished assignment, preferably the day before it is due just in case you have issues uploading/submitting.

Happy researching for your next assignment and please read those instructions.

Susanne.x

 

 

Study Support Blog

Beginning at the beginning

On reflection, I thought it was only fair that I honour my ‘other life’, on this site. As an academic, I work with students in order that they can accomplish their learning and study goals, primarily achieved through successfully completing their assignments.

I completed Yr 11, way back last century, left school for a couple of years due to poor career advice, and then returned to undertake Yr 12 after deciding I wanted to give University a try anyway.

I started going to TAFE when I was in Yr 10, as I wanted to learn more about animal health and husbandry, my passion for the first part of my career years. 2017, is the first year since then that I have not enrolled in some form of study. However, this doesn’t mean I am not studying. This year, my spare time is spent studying the art of fiction writing. I subscribe to several weekly podcasts, blogs, and of course spend a lot of time reading.

I am not an expert in writing. I don’t have a solid grasp of all of the rules of writing either. What I do have, is perseverance and a thirst to learn.

Even though late in my life, I have to credit my PhD for providing the greatest learning of all, and it may not be what you expect. Yes, perseverance is a requirement, and which I demonstrated in spades, as I took nine full years to complete it part-time. My greatest learning was learning to accept, no, embrace, feedback. To be honest, I would receive feedback and then hide in my room for a couple of days, and sometimes even longer. I can’t remember the actual trigger that changed my thinking regarding feedback. It was probably one of my husbands many “you can do it” talks. He is my loudest cheerleader!

So, I learnt to embrace feedback. Here was some free, expert advice, to help me to improve my writing, my arguments, and my ability to reach my goals. To be honest, there is still that brief moment of angst, but it is very brief. Now the hardest part is working to improve my writing, every single time I put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard.

Everyone can improve their writing. I don’t doubt this for a moment. You can. My current work involves providing feedback to help students learn what they can do to improve their writing. Feedback helps them to be successful in their studies and therefore achieve their goals.

For instance, sometimes the most simple things are the most effective. I often have to start my feedback with “did you read this out loud?” Reading your work out loud is one of the easiest things you can do to improve your writing. If you hesitate or stumble over a word or phrase, look at it more closely. There was a reason you stumbled over it.

Put your investigator hat on and look at the sentence more critically. Say what you want the sentence to say out loud, then look at it again and see if it does say that, not just what you think it does. If you can’t ‘see’ anything wrong with it, ask someone else to read it for you.

As you improve your writing, this will get easier, but reading your work out loud is such a vital step in doing this and something many students fail to do despite repeated advice.

Do you have Grammarly installed? If not, do it right now. The basic version is free, and it will help you improve your writing straight away. The easier it is for someone to read you work, the more positively they will view it. Even if you have missed the point of an assignment, when marking 10, 20 or even 50+ papers on the same topic, the easier your paper is to read, the more positive our frame of mind.

Well, I think this is enough for today. I will talk to you again soon once you have installed Grammarly.

Now, time to read this out loud and make sure it sounds ok. Grammarly works in the background, so that box is ticked. J

Susanne.x