Why you CAN go to university AND do better than anyone thought you could!

This blog is written by Professor Patrick Tissington, Head of Birkbeck’s Department of Organizational Psychology. It is aimed at de-mystifying the process of getting a degree. He, in common with the vast majority of undergraduates, found it really hard to figure out exactly what he needed to do in order to pass. Many postgraduate students experience the same feelings as they have frequently been away from education for some time.

I wasn’t in any way ready to go to university aged 18 and went out into the world with terrible A-level results but with a sense of adventure that took me to Africa, around Europe, the Army and eventually into a sales job. I finally plucked up the courage to continue my education aged 29. I had done nothing educational between leaving school and my arrival at university, which meant I had literally no clue as to how to do well.

Study Skills for Business and Management

Worse still, my previous experience of education had left me believing that I was frankly not all that clever. I suspect this will be a familiar state of affairs to many Birkbeck applicants! Over the next three years, slowly I eventually worked out how to get through the degree. But it only really clicked into place in my final year – worryingly close to my final exams.

I am well aware that the world has changed since I was at university so I paired up with a recent business graduate (Christos Orthodoxou) to research these issues. Our findings inspired us to write a book which takes students step by step through the things you need to do in order to do well at university. But here is a taster:

1. Make best use of your lecturers

Your teachers will be experts in the topics they teach and leading researchers in that area – at least they are at Birkbeck! That means they respond well to students who are also fascinated by their subject and you can get a lot more out of your time with them by understanding their motivations. For example, at a research intensive university like Birkbeck, teaching is only part of what lecturers do so don’t expect to be able to find them in their office when ever you want to talk to them. Make an appointment and prepare properly for the meeting with all your questions written down (even the nicest academic can appear intimidating to a student). If you can’t do a piece of coursework, make an attempt and bring it with you – even if it is virtually nothing. You need to show where you are.

2. Learn how to Mind Map

I was SO sceptical about this technique – until I tried it! They are sometimes called Spider Diagrams or Concept Maps. If you don’t know how to do them, there is a great deal about them on the web (and in our book!). You can use them to make notes in lectures, sketch out presentations and in revision they are massively helpful. We found a significant impact of this technique on degree grades – those with higher grades were more likely to have used them than those with lower grades. I think this is because Mind Mapping is a great way of summarising information in a way that you can easily make sense of even complicated information.

3. Reading at university is different to ordinary reading and you need to learn how to do it

This sounds a bit weird at first but it is so important. When you read normally, you will read every word, start at the beginning and carry on to the end. With academic reading, you need to skim through very large amounts of text to find the pieces you need to concentrate on. And then you will usually find the writing is so dense it can take a very long time to read even a short piece. But, if it is the right piece for your essay or coursework, it will be worth it. But it is rarely useful to read entire textbooks – certainly in business subjects.

4. Learn the rules of writing essays, making academic presentations and how other forms of coursework work.

Whilst you are at university to learn (at least you should be!), you are also there to get the best grade you can. These days, employers really scrutinise how you have performed in all subjects so your grades are important. There is always a certain amount of what used to be called “exam technique” involved in getting good marks and you need to know how the system works in order to maximise your potential. Perhaps the most important thing I can pass on sounds apparently inane but believe me, is the single largest error I see: answer the question set. You will only score marks for answering the EXACT question set. You need to know what format the lecturer has specified and you need to know precisely what this is and follow it to the letter. Never go over (or under) word limits, get references in EXACTLY the right format, the right font etc.

5. Learn how to pass exams

Exams are perhaps the most stressful parts of your university career. You never quite know what they are going to be like and you have to wait for ages to find out how you have done. On top of this, my experience is that it is virtually impossible to know how well you have done – before you get the marks that is. You need to be relentless in getting to know the rules of the game. After checking whether the assessment is the same as previous years, find all the previous exam papers you can, pump the lecturer for clues (in a nice way!). Then look at the topics included in the course and selectively revise. Be focussed on learning the topics in a general sense but commit the key theories to memory. Some lecturers insist on having the dates completely right, others are less concerned with this. Find out what your markers are looking for and give it to them! Revise creatively – write out the key theories many times over. Use different coloured paper, paper your room with lining paper and write the important things up there. As the exam approaches, distill all your revision down onto smaller and smaller pages until you have your entire revision for an exam on one or two postcards.

I hope these give a taste of the sorts of skills that we have seen to be effective in helping students achieve the best results at university. To learn more, “Study Skills for Business and Management: How to Succeed at University and Beyond” published by Sage is now available at Waterstones, Amazon etc.

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