Birkbeck Study Skills: play to win

Sal Campbell, a Learning Development Tutor at Birkbeck explains what Learning Development Tutors do and how students can use the resources available to them.

What if I told you I knew how you could work a little less on your degree and get better results?

Imagine someone wants you to bake them a cake. You know about cakes, having eaten many of them and you’ve been given all the basic ingredients – but not a recipe, because they thought you already have one. You don’t, but you know it involves mixing everything together and there’s an oven involved. Beyond that, it’s pure guesswork. You assume that it must be straightforward because other people seem to know what they’re doing and you’re not going to admit you don’t know the method, because how hard can baking a cake be? So you give it a go, but it’s all a bit stressful and the result is… well, cake-like, but it’s not the best cake you could have baked, compared to if you’d had the recipe in the first place.

Birkbeck isn’t a bakery, but we do expect you to produce essays and assignments with all the ‘ingredients’ – the knowledge and skills we are trying to teach you on your courses – to prove your abilities. This can be a stressful and frustrating process if you’re not familiar with how to go about it, or it’s been a while since your first degree and sometimes this means your ideas and understanding – which is really what your lecturers are interested in – don’t shine through as much as they could.

Across all subject assignments, as well as assessing your understanding of the content of your courses, lecturers are also assessing how well you can perform various academic skills such as how to structure an essay, your use of correct academic English, correct referencing and citation, evidence of critical thinking and so on. We want to know that you can read and understand; that you can think critically; we want to know how well you can articulate and substantiate your own arguments and how well you can write.

These are not personal qualities you either do or don’t have – they are skills that can be learned and the fundamentals can be learned easily and quickly. As a Learning Development Tutor, I think it’s a tragedy when students are clearly motivated, hardworking, diligent and able – in short, they have all the ingredients they need to reach their potential but they don’t know how to go about it. As a result, their efforts miss the mark and they don’t get the grade they are capable of. The only thing missing is a kind of ‘academic capital’; it is freely available information.

Students often mistakenly believe that coming to study skills workshops is what you do if you need ‘support’ and you are not independently able to do your degree – whereas nothing could be further from the truth. Study skills tutors are academic specialists, the methodologists of academia. We are the equivalent of personal trainers for your studies and our whole purpose is to show you how to optimise the quality of your work. Your course lecturers are experts in the content of your degree – they teach you what. We are the experts in how to do your degree – we can show you how to do it to a higher standard and in less time than you can work it out for yourself.

Studying at university is hard work, and it is expensive – so play to win. Use the resources and services available to you to maximise your chances of doing the best you can. Don’t sweat in the library hour after hour trying to work out how to do your assignment, when you can come to a workshop, meet with a tutor, or look at the huge wealth of online resources available to find out what you need to know right now.

Our resources, workshops and tutorials are freely available. Take a look at the Birkbeck Study Skills webpage and Moodle module, the Study Skills workshop timetable and just see what’s available.

So many students I meet don’t realise how much it can help, or how easily and quickly they can access it. Do yourself a favour – just invest a little time in investigating what is available and if it looks helpful, pick three things to look at in more detail. Read what the lecturer feedback says on your essays and assignments and choose one or two things to improve on your next assignment, and look for resources to help with that.

As Birkbeck students, we know you are as busy as you are dedicated, and we want to help ensure that your hard work and dedication pays off. Let’s do this right: the information is there and it works – all you have to do is take a look.

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Finding the balance between work and study

Sports Management 2017 graduate Bethan Taylor reflects on her time at Birkbeck and shares her top tips on how to find a balance between your job and your studies.

Image: Anna Rachel Photography

I studied MSc Sports Management at Birkbeck from 2015-2017, taking a special interest in women in endurance sport. I’m a civil servant working in the Ministry of Justice, and I also write for a range of publications including my own blog A Pretty Place To Play which features my new podcast The Mental Health Podcast. When I’m not working or writing, I like to run and am currently training for my first ultra-marathon – 56 miles from London to Brighton next year.

There are lots of reasons why I decided to go back and study for an MSc – I’d been working in financial services for around five years and while I loved my job, I wasn’t finding it that intellectually stimulating. At the same time, I’d become really involved in running and was writing for various print and digital publications on the topic of women in sport, which really peaked my curiosity. I decided that I wanted to be able to talk with authority on the social issues in sport, and in my mind, the best way to do that was through postgraduate study.

The whole experience at Birkbeck was amazing! I loved that I was able to study an academically rigorous and challenging course while still progressing my career. The academics I worked with in Birkbeck Sports Business Centre were really open and supportive, encouraging us to question everything and to challenge each other, which I really enjoyed.

Being able to work while I studied meant I could pay my course fees without worrying about debt. Academically, it was great studying over two years – it meant that I could really take advantage of everything Birkbeck had to offer, simply because I was there longer! It also meant I had more time to think about what I wanted to research for my dissertation, which meant I got to dig deep into issues that really fascinated me.

There were challenges, of course, one of the biggest being that I felt like I was constantly saying no to social events and letting people down. That was really hard. Thankfully my friends and family were all really supportive and totally understood when I had to decline a dinner invite again, or sloped off home after one drink to study!

Between working and training for a marathon and a couple of half marathons my time at Birkbeck was pretty busy, and it did mean that I didn’t get involved in any societies or clubs. However, I did have a mentor and she was fabulous – it was great to be able to sit down with someone and discuss my career and direction really frankly.

I think it’s really important for people in the sports/fitness industry to really understand the unique nature of their business, as well as the social issues that surround people’s engagement in sport (my area of interest). Courses like the MSc Sports Management are helping to develop a new generation of professional sports administrators, as well as the academics who’ll be thinking about how we can challenge ourselves and develop the industry in the future.

I think education is a life-long pursuit, and I was really lucky to have great role models in my parents who both studied while working throughout my childhood (in fact my Dad was also at Birkbeck last year!). Learning new things helps to boost your creativity, enhances your problem-solving skills and challenges your perceptions – it makes life a lot more interesting! I also believe that life shouldn’t be all about work, you need some challenges that are just for you, whether that’s studying for an MSc in a subject that fascinates you or running a marathon (or both!).

If you’re thinking of studying at Birkbeck, don’t question whether you can do it, as you absolutely can! You’ll need to be super organised both at work and with your studies, and there will be some sacrifices, but it’ll be worth it in the end.

Before you start your course it’s worth chatting to your employer about flexible working – I always kept my boss in the loop with my timetable so she knew why I was bolting out the door at 5pm. Also make sure you talk to your friends and family, as you will need their support and understanding because there will be times when things feel tough.

When I was studying, being organised was essential! You cannot over-plan when it comes to studying while working. Make sure you leave lots of contingency time, just in case something kicks off at work or you get sick.

Looking back on my time at Birkbeck, I can honestly say it’s one of the best places in the world to study sports management – but beyond that, there’s so much more! Studying while working is a great way to demonstrate to employers a whole range of desirable skills, like time management, organisation and dedication. It really illustrates how dedicated you are to your subject – you have to really want to do something if you’re going to sit through three hours of lectures after a full day at work! Beyond that, I’ve had the opportunity to carry out brand new research on a topic that hasn’t been explored much in-depth before, and I think this contribution to my subject really sets me apart.

Looking forward, I would love to become an expert in my field, specifically focusing on women in sport. The dream is to be cited as an ‘expert’ in a Runner’s World investigation. In the meantime, I am working on building my experience and thinking hard about a PhD (possibly at Birkbeck…).

Further information

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How to get your Birkbeck studies off to a flying start

Student Engagement Officer Rebecca Slegg offers top tips to new students, to help you settle into Birkbeck, get your studies off to a flying start and help you make sure you get the most out of your time here.

  1. Set up a study space at home. If possible, decide on one place where you will be able to study. Keep it free from clutter and other distractions as much as possible and make sure that your family/flat mates know that when you’re there they should avoid interrupting you, if possible.
  2. Talk to your friends and family about your course. If the people in your life know why studying is important to you and what it involves they will be able to better support you throughout your course. They’ll understand why you might not be able to go out every weekend at exam or assignment time. They’ll also be interested to hear about the new ideas and topics you’re now an expert on!
  3. Attend BBK Welcome and the Students’ Union Fresher’s Fayre on Saturday 30 September 2017. This is a great opportunity to meet fellow students, find out about life at Birkbeck and join some of the many clubs and societies open to students.
  4. Create a wall planner and use it to map out your first term. Plot on your term dates, exam dates and assignment deadlines. This will help you to know when the pressure points are so that you can plan ahead in other areas of your life to accommodate your study needs and be well prepared to meet all of your course requirements comfortably.
  5. Set up a Whats App group/Facebook group with your classmates. This will enable you to share tips and information between lectures and seminars and help you get to know each other quickly. You will probably find that your classmates quickly become a source of support and encouragement.
  6. Sign up to academic skills workshops. Birkbeck offers a wide-range of resources for students to brush up on their academic skills, whether you need a refresher on essay writing or an introduction to academic referencing – get ahead with these skills now so you’re not trying to master them at the same time as researching and writing your first assignment.
  7. Explore the campus. Get to know Bloomsbury and/or Stratford. There is a wide range of bars, restaurants, coffee shops and cultural and sporting facilities close to both our campuses.
  8. Arrange to meet your personal tutor. Your tutor is there to offer advice and support on issues that may affect your academic progress. Some of the topics you might discuss with your tutor include module choices; exam revision; meeting deadlines; any personal or professional issues that are affecting your studies.
  9. Buy some nice stationery. Investing in some nice paper and pens is a subtle reminder to yourself of the investment you have made in coming to Birkbeck and that this is something that you believe is worth doing and will help you to move ahead with your life goals.
  10. Find out about Birkbeck Talent (the in-house recruitment agency) and the Careers and Employability Service. These two services can offer advice on CV writing, interview techniques, setting up your own business and can suggest suitable short- and long-term positions to match your skills and interests.
  11. Download the Birkbeck app to view your course resources and assignments, help you prepare for the start of term, and communicate with fellow new students from your School prior to starting your course.
  12. Make sure you’ve ticked off all the items in our new student checklist, which includes all the practical details you need to have covered like enrolling on the course, paying your fees and setting up library and wifi access.

At our graduation ceremony we asked those who had made it what advice they would give new students:

If you’re a current student, why not add your own advice for those just starting out in the comments section?


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