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!

 

Student perspective: Obliterating procrastination

Photo of Iskandar, the author of the postby Iskandar Bin Suhaimi, Bristol Futures Advocate

Every time I slip up and spend hours on YouTube or Tik Tok instead of studying, I would chide myself and promise to do better next time. Did I actually do better? Not quite.

As opposed to taking a well-deserved break at the end of the day, procrastination is not at all fun – it’s just easy. If you’re struggling with this issue as well, especially with distance learning, I have found that setting up structures to promote productivity greatly reduces the chance of procrastinating. Here’s what I found useful:

Pile of papers, with the top one headed 'To do list'
Photo: Breakingpic/ Pexels
  1. Set clear sub-goals when breaking down bigger tasks.

Most of us know that breaking down large tasks (i.e. preparing for a workshop, doing your final year research project, etc) into smaller, more manageable subtasks will make it much easier. Not only does it make the work less daunting, but the endorphins you get when finishing a subtask can motivate you to continue working.

While this will likely make your work less unpleasant and therefore reduce the chance that you’d just give up entirely and binge-watch The Crown, I would encourage you to take it a step further and set goals for your subtasks. Having clear goals have been proven to lead to better outcomes (Locke et al 1981) and having subgoals was proven in a study by Bandura and Simon (1977) to increase the quality of the intended result.

So hopefully when you try this and find that your work is less intimidating and you’re actually obtaining clear results, you’d be less likely to procrastinate and enjoy studying more!

Student looking at phone
Source: Andrea Picquadio/ Pexels
  1. Obliterate distractions

Distractions disrupt your focus and can easily lead you off course, so obliterating -because eliminate is too timid a word for such a serious assault on your productivity – distractions should be a priority.

Phones

Android users have the Focus Mode (DownTime for iPhone users) which allows you to customise which apps can operate. This instantly blocks out notifications from apps that distract your attention, although I would suggest muting your phone as well. To reinforce this barrier against using my phone, I also use the Forest app to plant a tree for however long I want to focus. This prevents me from using my phone while the tree grows, lest I want to be a monster and kill the little thing.

Chores

If you’re like me, the various tasks you juggle daily would gnaw at the periphery of your thoughts and prevent you from staying focused. To prevent this, if you have work for later, write them down in your planner (or anywhere) so you can keep them off your mind with the reassurance that you won’t forget them.

Notebook and computer on desk, arm pointing at computer screen
Source: Julia M Cameron/ Pexels
  1. Organise your study space

Personally, I like my window-facing study table, complete with a hanging string of pearls plant and fairy lights. But according to feng shui principles, the best study table position is when:

  • Your back is facing the wall
  • The door is in your line of sight
  • If you have a window, have it at your side rather than facing it

Other things to consider include what material and colour your study table is, and the presence of plants to affect the aura. All these components aim to address your subconscious mind and help you to focus better.

You should also start cleaning your desk. Chae & Zhu (2014) found that a disorderly environment led to a range of self-regulatory failures which for our purposes, means reduced ability to focus and less effective studying. Remove anything that is unnecessary on your study table and keep it neat to ensure your mind is not distracted by untidiness, but rather stays focused on that essay that is due tomorrow.

Four students sitting around a table with books and papers
Source: Cottonbro/ Pexels
  1. Set up study sessions with friends

The lack of scheduled hours in our current blended learning can blur our concept of time, meaning long hours of work without proper cut-off points for rest and recharge. It is all too easy to let the days flow into each other and eventually burn out.

Setting up a scheduled study session with your friend(s) can help provide a bit of a structure to your day. It gives you a small sense of accountability for showing up to the session, and you can help each other stay focused. It has definitely worked for me.

Alternatively, you can join Study Skills’ interactive Online Study Lounge. You can sign up here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/online-study-lounge-tickets-120527943323

 

Hopefully I’ve introduced you to some new things to try! I would love to hear what you think about these structures, and whether you personally have other ways of preventing procrastination. Goodluck!

Student perspective: Productivity – what does it mean to you?

by Beth Robinson, Bristol Futures Advocate

My Facebook feed over the past couple of months has been bombarded with two types of posts:

  1. The ‘Fun things to do in quarantine!’ style posts – Largely comprising of how to learn a new language and/or all the various online courses you can now take for free.
  2. The ‘Don’t worry if all you did today was get up’ posts – Making the highly relevant point that your worth isn’t determined by your productivity, especially in such trying times.

Both are good points. And of course, it’s not as black and white as ‘doing everything at once’ or ‘never doing anything.’

So, what about when it comes to studying? Recently I’ve seen people getting down about their lack of productivity – so I’d like to pose a question: What does productivity mean to you? For example, it could mean ‘working for 3 hours a day’, or ‘practicing yoga and writing 500 words of an essay every day’, or ‘taking at least one day a week off to allow for better productivity throughout the week. Because there’s no ‘gold standard’; it’s different for everyone.

Your worth isn’t dependent on your productivity, but in equal measure there are active steps you can take towards being more productive if that is something you’d like to do.

Personally, I experience 3 different types of productivity, captured nicely in the three TED talks below:

1)    Inside the mind of a master procrastinator (relatable content): https://www.ted.com/talks/tim_urban_inside_the_mind_of_a_master_procrastinator

2)    The happy secret to better work (on working smarter): https://www.ted.com/talks/shawn_achor_the_happy_secret_to_better_work

3)    How to make stress your friend (on finding a healthy relationship with stress when trying to be productive): https://www.ted.com/talks/kelly_mcgonigal_how_to_make_stress_your_friend

Give them a watch and leave your answer in the comments: What does productivity mean to you?

Student perspective: Finding the motivation to study whilst in isolation

by Beth Robinson, Bristol Futures Advocate

Hey, I’m Beth. I’m studying Neuroscience at the University of Bristol and I’ve been unapologetically living in my pj’s for the last 2 weeks. My once (sort of…) motivation to study has been shattered and honestly, it felt like a huge set back. Initially, I thought I’d swiftly slip into a new routine, but this hasn’t happened. Therefore, after an hour or so of searching, I thought I’d share my 3 favourite tips on finding new motivations to study when your old ones have been lost to a global pandemic. (Well that’s a sentence I never thought I’d never use…):

1) Try bullet journaling. This is a great tool for those who like planning, but are often met with the barrier of stress-induced procrastination. It’s a fantastic and personable goal setting tool & there’s a bunch of creative things you can do with it – the basics can be found here:  https://bulletjournal.com/


2)  Get someone to hold you accountable. Is it just me who feels like getting up and leaving the ASSL after an hour ​is a sign of defeat in the eyes of those around you? Something which has worked well for me is setting up a ‘Journal Club’ within my course, where each course mate involved will read the same paper, and then discuss it on a Zoom call. Other suggestions include asking a friend or family member to help you to revise for an hour, or signing up to an online dissertation retreat or study lounge day with the UoB Study Skills service. Utilise the collective motivations of others, because I’m sure you’re not the only one who feels like this.

3) Find some internal motivation. Being held accountable for studying is great, but what about on the days where there’s no online groups running? Think about what genuinely motivates you to study. Graduating with a good grade? Being able to apply for the PhD position you’ve always wanted? For the love of your subject? Write down three things which motivate you to study on a post it note, and stick it on your wall as a reminder. Working out why you want to do something is a surprisingly effective tool to get you started.

What are your motivations to study whilst in isolation? Leave a comment and see what everyone else has to say!