Student perspective: Sleepless in Bristol…memory challenged!

Photo of Tracy, the author of the blog postby Tracy Ohis, Bristol Futures Advocate

I know we do not know each other very well but I have a personal question to ask… How well have you been sleeping lately?

This blog aims to help you consider the importance of sleeping as you approach the final hurdle of summer term examinations. Previously, some friends seem to hold a badge of honour for “pulling an all-nighter” of studying, encouraged by the wings of a famous drink or two that is highly caffeine loaded, enough to probably sink the titanic all over again. Yet there are many other reasons why people are not getting enough ZZ’s at night as COVID19 and somewhat beyond has taxed our general mental capacity. Even though we may have enjoyed the novelty of taking Zoom meetings with lecturers in PJs (not guilty!), this may have led to a complacent attitude when compared to the academic vibe surroundings of the university’s esteemed walls.

Lack of sleep vs Memory recall

As we continue to navigate the discovery channel of new information, our memory may find it problematic to retain at least half a day’s worth of study material before a test with a limited supply of sleep. The medical advice states to aim for 7-8 hours of sleep and I must admit this was a struggle at times even before starting my academic journey. The physical long-distance study amongst other things triggered a spiral that I needed to address and with some help from the university Wellbeing department and smarter planning of my time, I was able to develop a solution that has been useful most of the time to suit my needs. I hastily add that any plans you create will be unique to fit into your lifestyle and adjusted with some measure of flexibility. Ideally, accounting for unfortunate circumstances beyond our control forbiddingly other lockdowns per se ‘throws a spanner in the works’. If you would like to know more on how you can incorporate planning into your routine, you could meet with a tutor from Study Skills to discuss and even attend a workshop.

The experts say

Scientifically, a view taken that academic performance based on the early to rise approach resulted in higher achievers as opposed to the total hours of sleep and other factors (Eliasson 2010). Whilst another investigation of 61 undergraduates were focused on those from 2nd year and onwards, used a diary and mathematical science to conclude that irregular sleep patterns affected academic performance negatively (Phillips 2017). Indeed, a further point is that lack of sleep if left long term could potentially develop into insomnia and other health issues, so seeking help from your GP or nurse is a thought worth some consideration. A takeaway message is to remember you are not alone and it is good to have this conversation even with a friend, you might find that there are likeminded colleagues who will be keen to develop a community to support each other as mentors as suggested by this article (Cort-Blackson 2018).

Getting back on track

In identifying a problem exists and deciding that you want to make those baby steps towards changing behaviour is indeed a feat to be encouraged. Take time to view some YouTube videos or Google on how to improve your sleep could be a good investment of your academic performance. Some suggestions that could be helpful:

  • Turning your phone or other electronics off 2 hours before bed.
  • Making your bedroom space clutter free.
  • Doing some form of exercise (aerobic or yoga) during the day.

Which one of these will you try? Do let us know. All the best in your exams and I hope this blog has been useful to you.

Letter to my undergraduate self: Alison Marshall – ‘Freewriting is liberating for people with perfectionist tendencies like me’

Inspired by the Big Issue’s regular feature Letter to My Younger Self, we’re asking staff to think back to their own experiences as a student and tell us what advice they would give to their undergraduate selves.

Next up from the Study Skills team is Alison Marshall, Study Skills Tutor.

Photo of Alison, the author of this blog post

What and where did you study?

I went to Exeter and did a BA in Ancient History and Archaeology (largely because I liked watching Time Team on the telly and thought archaeology looked like fun). After that I did an MA in Medieval Studies and a PhD in Medieval History at the University of Bristol.

Did you experience culture shock when you started university?

Various family members went to university before me, so I had the advantage of being able to visit them and experience a bit of the culture. The biggest shock for me was going from a full timetable at college to having only a handful of contact hours per week at university. I’ve always struggled with self-discipline, so I slept late a lot and watched loads of rubbish daytime telly. At the time I thought it was brilliant, but in retrospect I think I’d have been a lot happier if I’d created a routine for myself and spent some of that ‘free’ time a bit more productively.

The other thing I found difficult to adjust to was suddenly being surrounded by lots and lots of people I didn’t know. Obviously I knew that was part and parcel of going to university, but I was excruciatingly shy and the thought of not knowing anyone was really daunting, so I buried my head in the sand. I wish I’d spent some time thinking about how I was going to make friends and settle in before I started – joining a few more societies (and actually going along to them) would have been a really good idea.

What was your biggest failure and what did you learn from it?

My biggest failure happened just before I started university: I messed up my A-levels and missed out on my first-choice university due to an unfortunate combination of laziness, stupidity and bad luck. I tend not to let go of things quickly, so I beat myself up about it for a good few years afterwards. With the benefit of hindsight, though, I can see it all worked out for the best. I mean, what’s so good about Oxford anyway? I’d have had to work really hard, and knowing me that probably wouldn’t have gone very well! I ended up having a great time at Exeter and I loved my degree course. I also met my husband there – we’ve been together for 22 years and have three beautiful children – so you could argue that messing up my A-levels was the best thing I ever did. In essence, what I learnt is that every cloud has a silver lining: you might not see it for a while or sometimes you might have to look really hard, but it’s there.

What are you most proud of about your time at university?

Well, I survived an archaeological dig which involved camping on a wet and muddy hillside in Wales for four weeks. There was a copious amount of rain, boozing, late nights, early mornings and digging very big trenches with a mattock whilst still hungover. I fell down the spoil heap several times, accompanied by the wheelbarrow. It was character-building, but the word ‘camping’ brings me out in a cold sweat even now.

Ultimately, though, I’m most proud that I came away from university with a First. I wish I could say that I’d learnt from my A-levels and put in a huge amount of hard work, but that would be a lie. I left every essay until the last minute and had some horrible cramming sessions before exams. I made it much more difficult for myself than it needed to be! Thankfully, luck was on my side when it came to my final exams. I’m really proud of my degree result (if not, perhaps, the way I went about achieving it) and it helped put a few demons to rest.

What was the best bit of feedback you received?

I ashamed to say that I can’t remember. I liked getting positive feedback because it made me feel pleasantly smug for a while. But most of the time I don’t think I really understood the feedback I was getting, and I was too shy to ask the lecturers to explain it to me. We didn’t have a study skills team to talk things through with, so I mostly just forgot about it.

What advice would you give to your undergraduate self?

It would be tempting to go all mumsy and give myself a lecture about boys and booze, but nobody appreciates that sort of advice, so instead I’d probably tell myself to look into something called freewriting. I used to find academic writing completely agonising because I’d put pressure on myself to get every sentence perfect straight away. As a consequence I’d procrastinate, which led to lots of stressful last-minute essays. With freewriting you just splurge out a very rough first draft, then spend lots of time editing later on. It’s really liberating for people with perfectionist tendencies like me!


Letter to my undergraduate self: Lewis Coyne – ‘I learned to actually listen to the feedback I was getting’

Inspired by the Big Issue’s regular feature Letter to My Younger Self, we’re asking staff to think back to their own experiences as a student and tell us what advice they would give to their undergraduate selves.

This month we hear from Lewis Coyne, Study Skills Tutor.

Photograph of Lewis, the author of the post

What and where did you study? 

I first studied at Cardiff University for a BA in Philosophy and English Literature, followed by an MA in Analytic and Modern European Philosophy. Then I switched to the University of Exeter, where I got an MRes in Science and Technology Studies and a PhD in social philosophy.

Did you experience culture shock when you started university? 

Yes – but I didn’t think so at the time. I had an elder brother at university, so broadly knew what to expect, and had travelled around Australasia on a gap year with friends, so thought I could look after myself. But on reflection I wasn’t fully comfortable with taking charge of and being accountable for my actions, as I had a terrible work ethic, appalling diet, and complete inability to get out of bed before 10am. This was amplified by the fact that, as a humanities student, I only had about two contact hours a day – meaning that my work was almost entirely self-directed and the structure of my day self-imposed. I really struggled to adjust to that, and as a result most of my first year was a mess! 

What was your biggest failure and what did you learn from it? 

My biggest failure was probably all of my first term: I didn’t do much reading (a major problem when you’re studying English Literature!), which led to not going to seminars very often, which in turn led to some shocking last-minute essays that thoroughly deserved the low marks they received. (Just thinking about the poor people who had to mark them makes me cringe, even now.)

What I learned was that I had to take university seriously, and as part of that re-discover how to properly apply myself to my education. I hadn’t enjoyed school a great deal, and from the age of 14 tended to do just enough to get by without excessively disappointing my parents. This carried on through to the beginning of my undergraduate degree. But by the end of my first year I’d found, for the first time I could remember, that learning could be immensely enriching – even enjoyable. That late discovery probably explains why I carried on all the way to PhD level! I should note that I didn’t make that switch in isolation, though: I was helped enormously by the positive influence of my then-girlfriend, now wife, who is a far more diligent, switched-on, and all-round better person than me.

What are you most proud of about your time at university? 

From those inauspicious beginnings I went on to win a departmental prize for the highest-performing undergraduate in Philosophy. (Needless to say, I wouldn’t have won it if first-year marks counted toward the final degree classification!) It was quite the turnaround, and I’m still proud of that now.

What was the best bit of feedback you received? 

I used to find getting feedback on anything I’d written a horrible experience, regardless of whether it was broadly positive or negative, in-person or in writing. I knew in the abstract that feedback was a useful, even necessary part of learning, but I just found receiving it excruciating. Over time, though, I learned to get over that anxiety and actually listen to the feedback I was getting, and this only came through the process of being given it repeatedly. For that reason I wouldn’t say there was a single best bit of feedback I received – it was nearly always useful in training me to be more comfortable with it. 

What advice would you give to your undergraduate self? 

The thing is, when I arrived at university I was such an arrogant twerp that I probably wouldn’t have listened to any advice, even from my future self. So what I would do instead is just talk to younger-me, explore what I enjoyed about the subjects I was studying, point out that it was a more stimulating form of education than school had ever been, and basically just try to gently encourage the process of self-development that my undergraduate years ended up being.

Student perspective: Maintaining an asynchronous routine for synchronous students

Note: This post was written during the covid-19 pandemic. While university teaching is no longer 100% online, online learning is here to stay… whether in the form of online lectures or simply a quick Teams/ Zoom/ Skype call with your project group. So we think this blog post is just as relevant as ever! Now read on…

Photo of Claudia, the author of the post


by Claudia Raymond-Hayling, Second year Theatre and English (BA) student and Bristol Futures Advocate.

During this very strange year, working from home or university accommodation is something we all are adjusting to. Since starting the first teaching block, I have learnt a few things about staying organised and keeping that daily routine in check.

1. Regularity with your timings of the day

Make sure you get up at a good time (before 10am). This will allow you to spread out your tasks across the day, so you use your time efficiently and effectively. Also, having a rough idea of the timings you eat your meals will make it easier to schedule your work around the break you might want to have at mealtimes. Exercise is a great way to help your mental and physical wellbeing, so you may also find it helpful to schedule this at regular times during the week.

2. Make a list of the work you need to do at the start of the week.

Writing down the things you need to get done can help so much in terms of visualising your goals. It can make tasks feel much more manageable and accomplishable. Even things that aren’t university-related, put them onto your list.

3. At the start of each day, choose things from your to-do list and make a schedule.

Making a daily schedule might seem excessive, but it allows you to organise your day and prioritise the things that need to be completed more urgently. It also can help you to feel motivated by having a smaller, more manageable list each day, rather than being daunted by your weekly to-do list. If you make a daily schedule, it will also mean that you can organise your tasks around other plans you might have – as unexpected things often come up!

4. Make your daily goals realistic.

It’s easy to overestimate the work you can achieve in a day, and how much time each task will take you. Sometimes 30-minute lectures can take up to 2 hours, simply because of the difficulty of the concepts being taught. Make sure your daily goals are realistic, as it can really help with your time management, but also your mindset and attitude towards a day’s work.

5. Vary the environment you’re working in.

Try working in a different room – ask your flatmate to swap rooms for the afternoon or maybe go to the library. You’d be surprised how much a change of scene can alter your approach and attitude towards your work.

6. Take breaks! Do things you enjoy.

Allow yourself to have breaks, don’t burn yourself out. Go for a walk with a friend, watch Netflix for an hour or do any hobby that you really enjoy. Breaks allow you to work more effectively, and if you schedule them, you’ll have a cut-off time. Sometimes, you might need to take a longer break, or have a day not working, which is also okay. It’s important to prioritise your own wellbeing during this time at home too – don’t be harsh on yourself if you need a breather. And remember, if you’re struggling to meet deadlines for this reason, extension requests are always available to you.

I’ve gradually been implementing these steps into my life and my work schedule, and my routine has felt much more structured. Different techniques work for different people, but these are what have made a profound difference to my life during lockdown. Since many aspects of life can feel so unstructured right now, taking steps to help yourself have more of a routine can be hugely beneficial in terms of wellbeing and completing those daily things that we need to do.

If you need any support in study skills, you are always welcome at the drop-in sessions run by the student advocates within each faculty. These sessions can help with the general skills that facilitate your learning in a way that can be really helpful to your academic progress, specifically through speaking to other members of your faculty – which can be very insightful! The university Study Skills also have many online resources that can be invaluable to many specific aspects of working effectively.

Wishing you all lots of luck, and perhaps have a think about the things that have helped you stay in a good routine during this time and post in the comments below!

Letter to my undergraduate self: Jenny Norris – ‘Failure isn’t the end of the world’

In a nod to the Big Issue’s regular feature Letter to My Younger Self, we’re asking staff to think back to their own experiences as a student and tell us what advice they would give to their undergraduate (or sometimes even postgraduate) selves.

First up is Jenny Norris, Study Skills Tutor.

What and where did you study?

Mathematics at Bath University.

Did you experience culture shock when you started university?

I felt very grown up when I started university because I’d taken a gap year and lived in Cape Town for 10 months. So I’d already experienced moving away from home and having to do my own cooking and laundry. Coming from south-east London via South Africa, the biggest culture shocks were the lack of cultural diversity and the fact that I could safely go out after dark on my own.

The teaching and learning culture was also very different to school. We were taught in massive lectures with 200 people, so there was very little interaction with lecturers. The most useful things were the weekly problem classes, where you went through the problem sheets in smaller groups. I think the culture has changed a lot even since I was studying. Bath now has a maths support centre and runs courses specifically for maths students transitioning to university. I think it’s much less ‘sink or swim’ than it used to be, which is definitely a good thing.

What was your biggest failure and what did you learn from it?

I once got 0% on an essay. As a maths student I managed to avoid essays completely until I took an optional unit called ‘Issues in Science Education’ in my final year, so it counted towards my overall grade. I duly handed in an essay about maths education. After much debate between the lecturers it was decided that maths didn’t count as a science, so it was deemed to be too unrelated to the course title to even be marked. I discovered afterwards that I could have gone and talked through my title with the course tutor before I wrote it and got some feedback on my essay plan. Because the culture in the maths department was just to get on with coursework on your own, it didn’t even cross my mind that that might be an option. I was pretty devastated at the time but I learnt that failure isn’t the end of the world (I still came out with a 2:1).

What are you most proud of about your time at university?

My work-life balance. I got involved with the Salsa Society and the Christian Union early on and had an absolute ball (sometimes literally). I did work hard but it never felt 24/7. I’ve lost touch with most of those people but I did come away with one or two friends for life.

What was the best bit of feedback you received?

I once got a bonus mark on a piece of computer programming coursework for “effort rather than understanding”. I’m pretty sure I didn’t know what I was doing at all so had just written down everything that could possibly be relevant.

What advice would you give to your undergraduate self?

I would tell my 19 year old self to ask for help at every opportunity, rather than trying to struggle through some pretty hefty mathematical concepts on my own. I’d tell myself not to be afraid to put my hand up in lectures to ask a really silly question (that everyone else was probably thinking) and to make a nuisance of myself by knocking on lecturer’s doors on a regular basis (because that’s that’s what they’re there for, and they probably weren’t as scary as I thought). Looking back I’m astonished that I didn’t ever make use of the careers service, or go talk to my personal tutor about module choices. I only realised after I graduated that I really enjoyed the probability side of maths and it was always my top mark. If I’d noticed sooner, maybe my career would have taken a whole different path.