Common student questions answered

As we come to the end of the academic year and another group of social work students are set to graduate, I’ve been thinking about common questions I’ve been asked over the years. Here are some of my responses.

Diary Management
Paper diary or electronic calendar? Which is best?
By far the best option is electronic. Let’s be honest how many of us don’t have a smartphone these days. If you’re using a paper diary and you put it down somewhere and forget you’ve lost it all, but most electronic calendars are stored in the cloud so you’ve got it wherever you are and you can’t lose it. Add to that functionally. You don’t get something done one day you just move it into the next day. I use the time slots on Google Calendar for time sensitive stuff and the daily entries for stuff I hope to get done in the gaps! Start getting used to diary management now and it will be much easier when you’re in practice.

What should I be looking for in a good diary?

Let’s talk paper diaries first if you want to go in that direction! I don’t think, as a student, you can get away with anything less than a page a day. You’re going to have a lot to keep track of assignments, tutorials and lectures, never mind your social life. ‘Page a day’ means you’ve got space for the things you’re doing and room to make quick to do lists for the day. Maybe even look for something that has a diary page and a note page facing each other. Personally, you can’t go past Molskine for quality and there are similar budget versions available. As for electronic calendars – accessibility is everything. You need something that’s useable on your desktop and on your phone. My personal favourite is Google Calendar.

What sort of things should I be putting in my diary?
Easy answer! Everything! Everything that is demanding your attention should have a diary entry. Most people just use their diary for things that have an actual time attached to them; lectures, seminars – that kind of thing. You should be putting everything else in your diary – allotted time to go to the library, time to draft your assignment, time to write your plan. That way you get a sense of everything you need to do, not just when your appointments are! And I’d suggest you diary longer than you think you’ll need. Invariably we underestimate how long things will take. And when you finish a task early you can start on another one!

Proof Reading
No matter how much I proofread I’m still missing things! Help?
You probably just need to slow down. It’s easy to miss stuff when you’ve written it because you know what it needs to say so you ‘see’ what should be there not what is there. It’s often the small words that cause the problems. ‘It’ and ‘is’ are easy to miss as are missing words. You brain is very clever and will ‘see’ the word even when it’s not there. I always feel that reading it out loud is a good tactic. This makes you actually say what’s there and it’s harder then to automatically fill in the missing bits and gaps. Do you struggle with punctuation? Again reading it out loud might help you figure out where the commas go as you will often naturally pause or take a breath where a comma should be. Reading out loud will also help you spot sentences that are simply too long… you’ll run out of breath!

What’s the best approach to proof reading?
Proof reading isn’t easy and you’ll often miss common errors as your brain fools you into seeing what’s not there. What’s the best option then? Get someone else to proof read it for you. It’s even better if they don’t know much about the subject matter as they can then tell you whether it makes sense to the casual reader. Other people will more easily spot errors, as they don’t know what’s coming so are actually focussed on reading it properly more than you will be when it’s your own work. If you have to proof read yourself slow down or read it out loud.

Time Management
I keep running out of time for everything. What’s going wrong?
You’re probably not planning effectively. People who write about productivity say that you can’t plan and do at the same time. So plan then do! Start your week planning what you need to achieve this week (or even better end the previous week planning the following week) and start each day with considering what you need to achieve that day. Every so often look ahead a month and work backwards from things you need to achieve putting all of the steps into your diary. This is based on the old adage “how do you eat and elephant”? The answer… one bite at a time. When you have big tasks to complete, like an assignment, break it down into achievable steps. For example, “go to the library to get books”, “read the books”, “collate notes”, “write assignment plan”….you see how it goes. And put all of these things in your dairy. This will help you hit the end goal.

How do I manage my time to meet deadlines?
The first thing to do is to set yourself a deadline that is before the actual deadline. That way if you do hit a problem you’ve got built in capacity to give yourself that little more time. This reduces your stress response to the situation. When you are stressed you are less productive – so you need to avoid that. Break the task down into smaller steps and put these in your dairy. Always give yourself more time than you think you’ll need. As humans we have a tendency to overestimate the time small tasks take so we put them off, and underestimate big tasks so always end up running out of time. Apply the two minute rule for small tasks. If it’s going to take less than two minutes just get on and do it. If you need to diary it for later diary up to 50% more time than you think you need.

What’s the best strategy to make the best use of my weekends!?
Plan! And not just your academic or work stuff but also your household and social stuff. There’s sound evidence that if you plan something and put it your calendar you are more likely to do it. If you get up on a Saturday morning without a plan I guarantee you’ll get to Saturday afternoon having achieved nothing. Focus on your home and social life in the same way as you would your study or work life. Make sure there’s something in there for you. You can’t work and study all of the time. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy – as the saying goes.

Effective communication
Should my emails to my tutor be formal or informal?
I would generally err on the side of formal. Also, make sure the email is useful and clearly sets out what you are after. Don’t just email and say, “can I have a tutorial please”. Email and say “Can I have a tutorial please to look at the assignment that’s due in on 17th December. It would be useful to meet next week and I’m available on…….” With all of that information one email back from the tutor might be enough rather than it taking lots of emails. Your tutor will be busy so anything you can do to help with your request will improve the chances of a helpful response. Start ‘Hello Stephen” and end ‘Thanks Debbie Jones, First Year BA”. This is really helpful as if your course is big the tutor may not know who just ‘Debbie’ is and may well teach into more than one programme. Let clarity be your watchword!

What are the most important things when it comes to communication?
Well, that depends on the communication activity. If we are talking about in writing then brevity and clarity are important. When emailing in a professional context, to your tutor for example, they will have a lot of emails to get through. My guess is they will read the first line or two and then if it’s a long email just scan to the end. So, put the important stuff at the start, but also keep it short, as that will mean there’s more chance of the recipient actually reading to the end! Sometimes if I’m asking for support from someone and I’m not sure if they will have the time to read a lot I give them a brief outline and suggest that I can give them more detail if they feel we can progress things. In face-to-face communication body language is important. Various pieces of research say that it’s the primary way we communicate. So how you present yourself is just as important as what you say. Make time for the face-to-face communication so that you are not distracted. Maybe think through in advance what you want to say so you get the words right and get the tone right.

How to I communicate effectively in emails?
You need to make the email effective for the person on the other end. Be clear about what you are after and offer a solution or a range of options to the person you are sending it to. If you want to meet, tell them what you want to meet about and what timescale you want to work to. Tell people the dates you are available. If you want a response to something from the person that’s time sensitive for you then tell the person when you need a response by. Personally I’d tell them a date a couple of days before you actually need it to account for slippage. Be clear and succinct. No waffle! People get hundreds of emails and often don’t read all the way to the bottom of long emails.

Working in groups
When we work in a group at university one person always dominates. What can I do about it?
I’m assuming you’ve been given a task like a presentation to prepare and deliver as a group. Group work is not easy as personalities are powerful things! I would formulate the group in a formal way with someone acting as Chair who facilitates the group. They are not in charge they just steer things. I’d also have someone taking notes so you know what has been agreed. People who dominate often just want their view validated so it’s helpful to listen and acknowledge what’s been said positively then ask the others to contribute. If it gets difficult start the meeting by saying we’ll go around the group and feedback where we are up to. Or, we’ll go around the group and make suggestions before deciding. This is also a useful tactic for including quiet members.

When we work in groups one person never pulls their weight. What can I do about it?
You can try and tackle this yourself by discussing it with the person but I suspect you’ve already done that! I would alert the module leader of your concerns in a timely fashion. It’s not much use telling the module leader just before you need to present whatever the group have been doing. When working in the group take notes with clear timescales identified. Even if the person not pulling their weight isn’t there identify tasks for them and email the notes and tasks. Ask them to respond to say they’ve got the email. Keep including them because if the module leader is to do anything they will need evidence that you’ve tried to include the person. If the work you are preparing is to be graded as a group you may have to just ‘bite the bullet’ while the module leader deals with the situation, as you don’t want to compromise the group mark.

Struggling academically
How do I make the best use of my tutor?
Make sure you take up all of the tutorials you are entitled to. Prepare for them. Your university will probably have tutor guidance telling you what you can expect from your tutor, so, within those parameters figure out what you might want to ask for guidance on. Always have something to ask so that you engage the tutor or they may think you are not interested and draw the tutorial to a close. If the tutorial is about something specific, like an assignment, then again the important thing is to prepare. Have a list of what you have read, prepare an outline of what you are going to write and have some questions prepared. Be clear about the learning outcomes and if you are unsure make sure you ask.

How do I plan an assignment?
The first thing to do is read! Have you read the set reading? You need to do this to at least have an overview of the subject in question. Make notes as you go. Make sure you note where you have written it down directly from the book or where you have paraphrased so you know how you need to reference it if you use it. Keep a reference list as you go. Then and only then you should start with the learning outcomes and the task. There’ll also be a question to consider probably! Break the question or task down into its parts and consider what you are being asked to do. Consider words like ‘describe’ and ‘critique’ as they require different things. Where you are asked to describe you are simply going to provide an overview or a narrative. Where you are asked to critique you will need to start by explaining one position and offering alternatives, all from academic literature, to show there is more than one opinion. Once you’ve broken down the question consider what you will write and construct a plan. Your plan is probably going to follow the task if the assignment sets one out. Once you’ve created your plan then look at each learning outcome in turn and make sure that there is an element in your plan that covers each learning outcome. If you miss a learning outcome the assignment will not pass so this is a crucial step.

How do I make sure I’m doing what I need to do in assignments?
There are a few things you can do to be sure. Firstly listen in class. Tutors will often guide you to teaching that is relevant to assignments. Then make sure you read the set reading or chapters referenced by the lecturer. Then you need to plan clearly. Make sure your plan addresses the task and the learning outcomes. Make use of tutorials to ensure you are on the right path. Then, stick to your plan. Don’t go off at a tangent and, if the subject matter is emotive or has personal resonance, don’t make it personal. In a sense your view isn’t important. What’s important is that you understand the view, or range of views, in the literature. Penultimately proof read effectively… then proof read it again… then get someone else to proof read it. Then! Go back over the learning outcomes and task and make sure you have absolutely addressed all things!

How much reading is enough!?
Read as much as you can. Then read more. Then read more! You can’t read enough. The reality is that the students that do the best are the students that read the most. Your module guides will direct you as to the key texts but also read around the subject to get different views. Delve into journal articles on your subject matter as this will give you the absolute latest in terms of thinking and research. Use the Internet carefully. Make sure the sources of the information you are using are legitimate and ideally peer reviewed or you risk using sites that have a bias. This is particularly important if you are going to reference it in assignments. Reading widely will improve your vocabulary and therefore your writing.

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