Student perspective: How to read academic articles without getting overwhelmed

Helen, the author of the blog postby Helen March, English and History student and Bristol Futures Advocate

When I first started my degree as an English and history student, I found the prospect of reading academic articles incredibly daunting. I struggled for a long time to get to grips with the language used, and learning what parts of an article were important to note down, wasting time writing every point the academic made. However, after two years of study, I have picked up some habits which will hopefully help you avoid the same pitfalls and allow you to take the most important information from an article.

So here are my top five tips to avoid getting lost in academic articles:

1. Read the conclusion after the introduction and before the rest of the article

This will help you to navigate your way through the writer’s argument. Although sometimes mentioned in the introduction, the general argument may not be clear throughout the whole article. However, reading the end means you can better understand the direction of an author’s argument before knowing exactly how they get there. If you understand the point an academic is trying to make, you can interrogate it more effectively in your work. Understanding the main argument is key when reading academic work!

Bonus tip! – The academic will sometimes note their key points in their conclusion, helpful for making subtitles to categorise your notes.

2. Read the first and last sentence of a paragraph before diving into the body of it

More often than not, this will give you a good idea of the point being made and whether it is relevant to the research you are doing. Sometimes only a small part of an article will be useful to your research, so sifting through irrelevant information will save you time in the long run.

3. Don’t get bogged down by jargon

Academic language can be complex and the sophistication of language within an article can be overwhelming. For key words you don’t understand, look them up, the oxford english dictionary is your friend! The university has a subscription (oed.com). However, don’t let yourself be entirely consumed by understanding every word within an article, generally only a few will be important. So long as you understand the general gist of a sentence, you will probably be ok! If you are too concerned with understanding every word, it becomes easy to forget the article’s main argument.

4. Just because something sounds sophisticated doesn’t mean it is

Although a quote might look appealing, it may lack actual substance. It’s better to quote and analyse something worded simply but effectively, allowing you to interrogate it in closer detail in your writing.

4. Most importantly, practice!

You won’t learn how to read an article overnight. Although the advice I have given here has hopefully made the prospect of reading academic writing less daunting, it won’t solve all your issues! Academic writing is difficult to understand and the more of it you read the more you learn how to systematically work your way through complex pieces of writing.

Have you got any useful tips for reading articles? Let us know in the comments below!

Student perspective: Staying motivated after receiving feedback

Steph, the author of the blog postby Steph Hook, French and Spanish student and Bristol Futures Advocate

We’ve all worked so hard on essay and exam preparation, but what happens afterwards? Receiving feedback can be both rewarding and helpful. However sometimes, it’s tricky not to feel disheartened if you receive feedback that you weren’t expecting. This happens to many of us at one point or another over the course of higher education, but it is important to stay motivated. The main thing from feedback is how we grow as learners.

 

1. Be kind to yourself

‘Be kind’ is something that has, rightly, been seen more over recent years. However, we often don’t offer ourselves the same courtesy of kindness that we would to others. I’m one of those people that reaches for a cup of tea in any situation, so personally I find myself putting the kettle on the moment that a mark has been released. That won’t work for everyone, it’s important to find your own cup of tea- if you can excuse the pun.

2. Look at the feedback comments, what do they mean?

It can be very easy after receiving a mark to close Blackboard and never look at the work again. However, the point of feedback is to help us grow as learners, which is what we are at university to do. Constructive feedback can be really helpful if you know how to use it. By accurately identifying what you need to improve on, you can increase the mark you receive on your next piece of work.

3. Focus on what went well too!

Human nature often means that we home in on the things that require improvement. A key feature of staying motivated is to focus on the positives too! Positive feedback is just as important as constructive comments, as it shows us what we should keep on doing. It’s also an acknowledgment for all the hard work that goes into a degree, which can be used as a boost for tackling future assignments.

4. Plan your next steps

To truly make use of feedback effectively, it’s not enough to simply read the comments. Think about what you’re going to do to give yourself the best chance of improvement in future pieces of work. Think about who you can talk to. Often, tutors will have office hours where you can speak to them. I’ve used this time before to ask specific questions on what I can do differently to gain more marks in the future. Do you have a friend on your course that you would feel comfortable talking to about the work? For more general advice, the Study Skills team have an array of tools which you can use independently to help yourself, from the Stepwise guide to writing essays, to Understanding essay verbs. It’s a resource on Blackboard that’s definitely worth a quick look at.

These are just a few things which help me to stay motivated after receiving feedback. Hopefully at least one of them will help you too.

Letter to my undergraduate self: Genevieve Beech – ‘If something doesn’t feel right make sure you get advice and address it’

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’re hearing from one of our Library colleagues: Genevieve Beech, the early early morning Library Support Assistant at the Arts & Social Sciences Library.

Genevieve Beech, the author of the blog post

What and where did you study? 
Creative Writing with Media Studies (BA) at De Montfort University in Leicester and English and American Studies (MA) at Paderborn University in Germany. Both times I headed alone to a new city and I found that the most daunting part.
Did you experience culture shock when you started university? 
With my BA, it was definitely a shock to go from living at home to living independently, including managing my finances and cooking all my meals, in a new city with new friends. There was much more of a culture shock involved in studying abroad for my MA though. I’d been living in Germany for a couple of years before I began the course, so I hadn’t moved directly from England to study there, and that helped lessen the shock.
What was your biggest failure and what did you learn from it? 
Due to a couple of lifechanging events that happened during my first year of my BA Leicester I struggled to attend all of my classes and if I’d known about any kind of wellbeing services I would have loved to have made use of them. As that was 15 years ago, I don’t feel these services were emphasised enough. I don’t class it as a failure but I regret not seeking help when I needed it. I’m proud that I finished the course and did well throughout it, despite dealing with these big changes.
What are you most proud of about your time at university?
In my final semester in Germany I decided to take 11 classes so that I could head back to England that summer and write my thesis from there. I didn’t want to stay for another semester as I’d already been in Germany for five years. It was an intense time – and I worked part-time too – so I’m really proud I completed all the classes, including the weekly readings, quizzes, essays and end of term papers. I was definitely a lot more dedicated during my MA than my BA and really enjoyed studying even though navigating the German university system wasn’t so straightforward.
What advice would you give to your undergraduate self?
If you’re unsure, I’d recommend taking a year or two out and heading to uni when you feel more certain of the path you’d like to take, rather than feeling like you have to go straight to uni after sixth form/college. I also think that if something doesn’t feel right make sure you get advice and address it. I originally auditioned and was accepted to study Dance at De Montfort University but I switched to Creative Writing very early on, as I realised the theoretical side of the Dance degree was not something I enjoyed, and I don’t regret switching at all.

Student perspective: The art of embracing dispiriting feedback

Photo of Tala, the author of the blog postby Tala Youhana, Law student and Bristol Futures Advocate

You’ve put in the substantial cycles of work, you’re certainly no stranger to long hours and late nights at your designated study spot, and you’ve exhausted all the caffeine in your system in hopes of finally receiving spotless reassuring feedback from your tutors. Nonetheless, the threshold you’ve been working tirelessly to meet, still feels out of reach. If this is you, then here are some healthy reminders to help you cope with and defeat the initial discouragement.

1. Accepting the mark is the first checkpoint

Oftentimes, we attempt to rapidly locate the mark before anything else in the feedback form, because it feels like glowing comments are distorted without a glowing mark. In my first year, I had professors disclose their own experiences with disappointing marks and remind us that such marks are not the be all and end all. Marks only go as far as a submission goes, so don’t let that dissuade you from the fact that you’re at university, because you worked hard to be here. Therefore, accepting the mark as a fair reflection of that particular submission would be a promising first step to moving forward. Ultimately, the larger the improvement, the more to be proud of when you’re done!

2. Interrogating the comments objectively involves personal initiative

Now that you’ve accepted your mark as a fair and accurate reflection of your work, you will be well-equipped to objectively evaluate the feedback. If you identify any issues, you will be able to investigate them further by preparing some questions. After this, you can make use of the many helpful resources available to you such as booking office hours with your tutors, revisiting feedback lectures, and perhaps even swapping papers with a peer to identify key feedback patterns, and ultimately gain a holistic understanding of the feedback given. Asking for help where needed reflects strong personal initiative and is actively encouraged.

3. There’s always room for improvement

No matter how you previously performed, it is advisable to keep your targets at least as high as they were prior to the feedback, if not higher! After all, feedback is far from failure, it is as the playful saying goes, “the breakfast of champions”. By visualising your targets clearly, you are then able to create a solid and detailed plan to improve on any skill gaps which you have encountered. The key point to stress here is that asking for help where you feel any doubts, either by consulting with your tutors or by making use of Study Skills and University resources, is a very important step forward, and one which you should be proud of.

To conclude, kindly note that this method is merely a guide and certainly not the only way of embracing feedback effectively- it is just what has worked for me when I had been hesitant with feedback in the past. The silver lining here is that feedback is meant to be critical, but when used wisely, it’s a chance to start over and progress!