This website was created to help new students cope successfully with academic life at university.

The study advice on this website will benefit all students who are interested in doing well in their studies.

You can also view the Juta Academic Survival Kit here

  

Topics

  1. Being prepared for your first day
  2. Learning environments
  3. How to establish a healthy learning environment
  4. How to create a study timetable
  5. Drawing up your timetable
  6. Dealing with procrastination
  7. More study tips
  8. How to establish good study habits
  9. Study skills: Learning strategies and techniques
  10. Exam preparation
  11. Writing exams
  12. Writing skills at university
  13. Preparing for presentations
  14. Using learning resources

Being prepared for your first day

Your first day at university can be overwhelming and stressful. It is therefore a good idea to be as prepared as possible. Below is a checklist of what you should take with you to lectures:

  1. Exam pad or a large empty notebook
  2. A few pens
  3. Highlighters
  4. Textbooks for relevant subjects
  5. Diary (or use the calendar function on your cell phone)

Learning environments

You need to create a learning environment that is beneficial to your physical and mental well-being and that will enable you to receive the most from your university education.

The list below contains some characteristics of an inadequate learning environment that may have been a hindrance to your learning experience and education at high school. They may have prevented you from achieving your best:

  1. Noisy classroom environment
  2. No access to library
  3. Few resources
  4. No study timetable
  5. No place to study at home
  6. Noisy home environment

These ‘physical aspects’ add up to an unhealthy learning environment. If you have experienced some of these situations at one point or another in your high school career you need to make some changes in order to perform well at university.

TAKE NOTE

The word ‘environment’ as used here means your entire learning situation, including all the conditions that make it a good or bad place in which you can learn and study.


How to establish a healthy learning environment

Below is a list of helpful tips to enable you to create a healthy learning environment:

  1. Remove all distractions from your place of study, for example cell phone, TV, radio, etc.
  2. Before you start a study session, set out everything you need: notes, textbooks, dictionary, pens, paper, and a kitchen timer or alarm clock (see the section ‘Dealing with procrastination’). You can also keep a plastic bottle of water at hand if you get thirsty. This will prevent you from going to the kitchen in the middle of your study session.
  3. Try to make sure you are not constantly interrupted.
  4. Your place of study should be quiet.
  5. Don’t surround yourself with temptations that will distract you from studying. This includes computers, games, cell phones and food.
  6. Make sure you have enough space at your study area.
  7. Make sure you have a comfortable chair that supports your back.
  8. You should be studying in good light.
  9. You need to feel comfortable in your place of study so that you are not tempted to escape and take too many breaks.

How to create a study timetable

A study timetable is crucial for establishing a regular study routine. Creating such a timetable and following it right from the start will help you to prepare successfully for your exams. It will make you aware of the time available to you and will help you manage that time wisely.

Click here to download a PDF of the study timetable

  Mon. Tue. Wed. Thu. Fri. Sat. Sun.
6:00 a.m.              
7:00              
8:00              
9:00              
10:00              
11:00              
12:00              
1:00 p.m.              
2:00              
3:00              
4:00              
5:00              
6:00              
7:00              
8:00              
9:00              
10:00              
11:00              
12:00              
Total Study Hours              

Drawing up your timetable

When drawing up your timetable it is important to take note of the following:

  1. No week is exactly the same. Create different study timetables for different weeks when necessary.
  2. Try to fit in study time of one and a half hour (90 minutes) after lectures. (Also see the section ‘Dealing with procrastination’ below.)
  3. Try to establish regular study times. This creates consistency so that those hours of study become a habit.
  4. In addition to the time you spend studying material that has already been covered in lectures, you should also set aside time on your timetable to read through the material that the lecturer will cover before the lecture takes place. This will help you to understand the subject more fully and will enable you to ask questions if there are aspects that you do not understand.

TAKE NOTE

It is easier for your brain to absorb new information if it can make connections to already learned knowledge. This helps to store information in your long-term memory. If you go through material before your lecture your brain will be able to make connections more quickly during the lecture and store the information in your long-term memory. Without this extra step you will quickly forget what the lecturer said in the lecture. To go the extra mile, also spend a couple of minutes to read through your notes from the lecture after the lecture, perhaps during a break or lunchtime.


Dealing with procrastination

When your study session approaches, you may often find that you suddenly want to do something else. You may want to start cleaning your room, or make some tea, or ‘just quickly’ phone or SMS a friend. This is called procrastination. You are trying to avoid starting to study. To combat procrastination, do the following:

  1. Write down the thing or things that you suddenly find you want to do. Tell yourself you will make time for them afterwards.
  2. Remove all distractions before you start.
  3. Collect all your study materials and arrange them on your desk before your session starts.
  4. Use a kitchen timer. Set it for 15 minutes. Anyone can concentrate for just 15 minutes, right? Study for this period until the timer goes off.
  5. Take a 5-minute break and give yourself a small reward. The reward can be to make a cup of tea, do a couple of stretches or have a small snack. Always get up from your chair. But remember, your reward should not take up more than 5 minutes.
  6. Now set your timer for 20 minutes. After that take another 5-minute break.
  7. Set your timer for 25 minutes. This time you may take a 10-minute break.
  8. Set your timer for 30 minutes. When your timer goes off, congratulate yourself and relax – you have managed to study for one and a half hours! (110 minutes including your breaks.)

More study tips

Your most difficult subject

When studying your various subjects spend the most time on your most difficult subject. It is best to tackle this subject when your concentration and focus are more readily available. Establish when your best time of study is – for some people this is early in the morning, for others it may be late afternoon or early evening.

Be aware of your limitations

Different people can study for different lengths of time in one stretch. Be aware of what your limits are. If you need regular breaks in a study session keep them to a maximum of 10 minutes. Try to have a study session of at least an hour and a half. See the section ‘Dealing with procrastination’ on how to divide up your study session if you tend to procrastinate or have trouble concentrating for a long time. Simple exercise, such as stretching or taking a quick walk, can clear your head and help you cope with the next section of studying.

Take time off

Studying can be physically and mentally draining. Therefore you need to make time to relax and take your mind off your work for a while. Exercise helps you relax and benefits your body as well as your mind.

Changes to your schedule

Be prepared to change your schedule in case something comes up and clashes with your scheduled study time. Never miss a study session completely; rather work around the other events of your day and try to allocate a different time for your studying. If you can’t fit in an entire session elsewhere in your schedule, remember that it is always better to have a short study session than having no study session!

Your personal best study time

Everybody has a time when it is best for them to study and that works well for them. Try to study during those hours to ensure that you perform at your best.

Sleep

The most important way of maintaining a healthy lifestyle and keeping up with your academic work is to get enough sleep. According to research the optimal length of time that a person should sleep is 7–8 hours per day. Too little or too much sleep can negatively affect mental performance. This is particularly important during exams as you need to be alert and focused.


How to establish good study habits

Preparing a study timetable is only the start to establishing good, healthy study habits. Take note of the tips below to ensure you pass your academic year.

Don’t miss out – Pay attention

Even when you feel bored by a lecturer you still need to pay attention to what he or she says as much as possible. Lecturers may give explanations and examples that are not in the textbook. They may also give hints or advice on what is important, or how to approach certain questions. If you’re chatting to your friends or drifting away you’ll miss out. Try to sit close enough to the front of the lecture hall so that you are able to see and hear everything clearly.

Don’t be scared – Ask questions

It can be very daunting to put up your hand and ask a lecturer a question, especially if it is in front of hundreds of other students that you don’t know. If you feel shy to ask a question in class, or if there is something that you are unsure about or do not understand, you can approach lecturers after class during their office hours. Lecturers are helpful and will be supportive if you engage with them. If you are not keen to approach the lecturer ask a fellow student for help. It is often helpful to discuss the topics covered in the lecture with other students who may have a better understanding.

Don’t be distracted by student life – Get enough sleep

The life of a student can be filled with exciting social events and as a first-year you may be tempted to party all night long or stay up watching TV or using the Internet. When making plans to go out for social events, ensure that you have finished your most important work first. The best time for socialising is over the weekends when you don’t have to get up early to attend morning lectures. It is vital that you maintain a consistent and healthy amount of sleep throughout the week, especially on Sunday nights. You want to be well rested on Monday mornings in order to tackle the week ahead of you. Weekends are for fun and social activities, but can also be used to catch up on work. By Sunday evening you should start preparing for the week ahead.

Don’t fall asleep at your desk – Stay awake

When you are studying and finding it difficult to concentrate, you may feel yourself dozing off. When this happens, set your kitchen timer or alarm for shorter periods than usual, for example 10 minutes. Once it goes off, take a short 5-minute break by stretching your legs and sipping some fruit juice. This will help keep you alert for the next 10 minutes.

Don’t panic – Stay calm

An advantage of establishing good study habits early on in the year, is that it helps you to stay calm in the face of overwhelming work (for example, when you have multiple assignment deadlines for the same day). If you have been keeping up with your academic work by studying regularly, you will be less likely to panic, and will be able to focus on one task at a time.

Don’t forget your responsibilities – Become an adult

Most first-year students are at an age where they are not quite adults yet, but they aren’t teenagers either. There are certain responsibilities that come along with becoming an adult. One of these involves taking responsibility for your education. You no longer have teachers or parents constantly reminding you to do your work or finish an assignment. It is your own choice to study and you must take full responsibility for your learning experience. No one is going to remind you about deadlines for your assignments, test dates and so on. It is up to you to remind yourself when your work needs to be handed in, and when you have to write tests and exams.

Don’t create problems for yourself – Be organised

You don’t have to be a perfectionist, but try to keep your work neat and easily accessible. Make sure you date all your work so that you can keep it in the correct order. Allocate a separate file for each of your subjects.

In addition to keeping your work in order, you should also order your living environment in a way that will cater for your academic needs. Keep your study materials, stationery, notes and textbooks in a clearly defined space. It is difficult to study to your best ability if your room is messy. You don’t have to be obsessive about it, but try to keep your room reasonably clean and tidy. An organised and uncluttered work space encourages an organised and uncluttered mind.

Learn to organise for emergencies. For example, keep a spare light bulb for your desk lamp to avoid the unpleasant situation of a burnt-out bulb on the night before a test or exam. Also keep spare pens and paper handy.


Study skills: Learning strategies and techniques

The strategies that are given below are ways of holding onto information and recalling information.

 

The bar graph illustrated above displays learning strategies in increasing order of effectiveness, from top to bottom. The top bar, Listening, is the least effective strategy. The bottom bar shows the strategy that is most effective in helping your brain to retain and later recall information. This does not mean that the other strategies should be discarded completely. Each of these strategies plays a part in helping you to understand, absorb and recall information.

When studying, it is best to use a variety of techniques. We shall elaborate on a few of the techniques in more detail below.

TAKE NOTE

When you apply these techniques, you are taking full responsibility for your learning.

Study technique 1 – Teaching others

When you explain a section of academic work to other students, you yourself benefit the most from the exercise. You have to understand something really well to be able to teach it to others. If you have trouble explaining a concept to another student, it probably means that you do not understand it well enough, and that you have to go back and revise the topic. Because you have to prepare thoroughly and really think about concepts to be able to impart your knowledge to others, this technique is an excellent preparation for when you write tests or exams.

Advantages

  1. It enables you to better understand the subject yourself.
  2. It enables you to clarify and explain the subject in a concise and logical way.
  3. It enables you to answer questions in detail.
  4. It enables you to make connections that may not have been visible before.
  5. It enables you to summarise information in an academic fashion.

This technique is an especially good way of keeping the information in your long-term memory, making it easier to recollect the information when you need it. Studying with another student or in a group can be beneficial, but remember to stay focused. Do not get distracted by non-academic discussions.

Study technique 2 – The continuous review method

This technique is useful if you prefer to study by yourself or when your other study partners are unavailable. When new information is given to you in the lectures, go through the material every day or as often as possible. This cements the information in your long-term memory, and helps prepare you for a test or exam.

When applying this technique, do not read through the material in an unfocused way. This is ineffective and a waste of time. Keep yourself alert and interested by testing yourself as you read through the material. Ask yourself questions about what you are reading, and answer your questions. This will help you concentrate and will also help you understand the content better.

Study technique 3 – Study-cover-recall-check

When reading through your notes or any other material that the lecturer has set for you, you can use this technique to help your brain remember and store the information. This technique isn’t new and is still one of the most effective techniques for storing information into long-term memory.

Study: Go through the material and make sure you understand the content by making brief summaries and/or drawing simple mind maps.

Cover: Cover up the work that you have just read and understood.

Recall: Try to remember the key information and write it down in bullet points.

Check: See if what you have written corresponds with your original notes and learning material. If you have left out some key information redo the exercise and add the missing information to your list.

Advantages

  1. If you do this daily, you will be well prepared for your exams even before you start studying for them.
  2. The summaries and mind maps you create when using this technique can be used to study for tests and exams.

Study technique 4 – The SQ3R method

This technique involves the following routine: survey, question, read, recite and review. SQ3R helps you to get an overview of the information and build a framework, in addition to helping you to hold on to the information in long-term memory.

Step 1: Survey

This is a quick scan of the reading material. Depending on the amount of material, this will take approximately 1–5 minutes. While you scan through the information you should try to understand the general theme or meaning of the chapter or section.

When scanning, look at the following closely:

  1. The title and headings first – they will give you the main framework of concepts covered
  2. The subheadings below each heading – these will give you an idea of the details that will be discussed for each concept
  3. Captions under pictures, charts, graphs or maps – they will give you an even better idea of the details covered
  4. Introductory and closing paragraphs – they will give you an idea of the logical flow of argument

TIP!

The main headings are usually in a larger font and different colour, or highlighted in bold. They will tell you what the main concepts are.

Step 2: Question

Take a couple of minutes longer than Step 1 (roughly 5–10 minutes) and take a closer look at your reading material by asking yourself questions. Ask yourself what you are trying to find out by studying the material. As you progress write down your questions on your exam pad.

TIP!

Take note of the headings and convert them into questions.

Step 3: Read

Now read slowly through the information. Make a note of everything you do not understand fully. You will have to come back to these points later and explore them in more detail, perhaps by consulting other resources. As you read, search for the answers to the questions you wrote down in Step 2. This process is known as active reading and takes concentration and focus.

TIP!

Reread the captions under pictures, graphs, etc. Take special note of the underlined, italicised and bold printed words or phrases. Examine all graphs and diagrams. These will sum up and clarify the content that you have just read.

Step 4: Recite

Summarise the information you have just read using your own words. Write down what you have summarised and say it out loud to yourself.

Step 5: Review

This means going over everything you have done by:

  1. Reading through the entire chapter or other relevant material.
  2. Looking at your recitation summaries and turning them into questions.
  3. Answering the questions without looking at the material.

TIP!

You can combine the SQ3R technique with Study technique 1 (‘Teaching others’) by adding a 6th step – tell or explain to someone what you have just read.

 

TIP!

If you are struggling to remember some of the more difficult concepts you can make flashcards, or develop mnemonics. Mnemonics are rhymes or sentences that can help you remember content. (See the section ‘Use appropriate strategies for rote learning’.)

Study technique 5 – Mind mapping

Long-term memory is more receptive to images than to words, therefore using visual aids is a powerful study technique. Although most of what you study will be given to you as written information, you can still turn the information into a visual aid.

A mind map is a visual aid that is a great way of summarising and storing information. Below is an example of what a good mind map looks like. Use colour where possible, as this creates an association that can help you to recall the information from your long-term memory.

 Mind Map

Click here to view a larger Mind Map

Look for relationships

When creating a mind map it is important to understand which sections of information relate to each other, and how they relate. Place a central idea in the middle, and relating themes and what they entail around your central theme, question or idea.

How to draw a mind map

Step 1: Pick the section of information you would like to transform into a mind map.

Step 2: Write the central idea, question or theme in the middle of the page and outline it with a shape, for example a circle or rectangle.

Step 3: Draw several branches from this central shape and give each separate branch a heading that relates to your central idea. Draw a shape around each of these headings.

Step 4: Expand each of the separate headings by adding keywords or bulleted information. You can also add further sub-branches

TIP!

Leave enough space when drawing your mind map in case you want to add information or questions later.

 

TIP!

Use capitals for your main ideas. The more prominent your information is, the easier it will be for your brain to memorise the content. Use capitals for the more important information and lower case for the less important words.

Study technique 6 – Other visual aids

Other examples of visual aids are diagrams, graphs, tables and flowcharts. Creating visual aids is a great way of learning because you have to pick the most important points. This means that you have to read the material carefully, selecting and understanding the information as you go along. You will also pick up important connections that you can display in a memorable way on your visual aid.

TIP!

When drawing any type of visual aid it can be very useful to use different colours. However, do not use colour indiscriminately – use it meaningfully, for example to group ideas together, or show the relative importance of different concepts, or to show the relationships between ideas.


Exam preparation

From your very first day at university you will be reminded that you have to write exams in order to receive a degree at the end of your studies. Lecturers will remind you throughout the semester, and may hint at what could be in the final exams. Attend all lectures and carefully read through all communications (e.g. study letters) from your lecturers to ensure that you do not miss out on something important. By doing this and by using the study techniques on this website and following a consistent timetable, you will be more than ready to tackle the exams. Below is a list of what you can do in the last few weeks before your exam that will help you to pass.

It is important to revise all your subjects. This means going through all your notes, summaries, assignments and visual aids for reading material on each subject. The following points are important:

  • Use your time wisely.
  • Determine your best time to learn.
  • Study creatively.
  • Understand the content.
  • Use appropriate strategies for rote learning where necessary.
  • Test yourself.
  • Work out problems.

Use your time wisely

The first thing you need to do before you begin revising is to organise all your work. Everything should be dated and in the correct order so that you can start revising from the first day of studies to your last class. Keep the work for different subjects separate. Estimate how long each subject will take you to revise, and use your exam timetable to check how much time you have left for each subject before you write the corresponding exam. Then create a special exam study timetable in which you allocate time for each of your subjects. Try to have a varied timetable (a mix of subjects per day) so you don’t get stuck focusing on only one subject.

TIP!

It is a good idea to spread out your learning. For example, spend two hours on a subject, then take a break and after that change to a different subject. Use your kitchen timer to break up the two hours into manageable sections (as described in the section ‘Dealing with procrastination’). When you come back to a previous subject try to recall what you have studied so far, before continuing.

Determine your best time to learn

When drawing up an exam study timetable you should take into consideration when you feel that you learn best. Also consider the subject that you are studying. If it’s a subject you find particularly difficult you should study it during your ‘best time’. Don’t forget to build in breaks between subjects. Use a slightly longer interval than usual (15–20 minutes) for breaks between subjects.

Study creatively

It is important that you don’t mindlessly go through all your notes without really taking in any of the information. Constantly ask yourself relevant questions on the material before you. What have I just learned? What sort of question can they ask about this in the exam? It may help you to join or start an exam study group or to study with a friend. However, try not to get distracted by chatting about non-exam related subjects.

Understand the content

Ensure that you thoroughly understand the content of the subject you are studying. You will not be able to answer certain exam questions if you do not have a clear understanding of the concepts.

  • Ask someone to explain to you. Don’t be shy to approach a classmate or your lecturer if there is something you are unsure of.
  • Try to explain the concept/content to a friend and see if you can concisely explain exactly what it is about.
  • You will understand better if you can make connections between different aspects of the subject.

Use appropriate strategies for rote-learning

Rote learning is the accurate memorisation of facts and figures. You can use the following methods:

Flash cards: Make flash cards of what you find difficult to remember. A flash card usually has a word or concept on the front, and a definition, formula or more relevant information on the back. Test yourself using your flash cards whenever you have a moment, for example while you are having breakfast. Look at the word on the front and try to recall the information on the back. Turn the card around to check if you are correct. Use bold colours and capital letters for the important words.

Post-it notes: Use Post-it notes or small pieces of paper to write important definitions, formulas or other facts and figures that you need to remember. Stick or tape them to your physical environment, for example above the kettle or on a mirror.

Mnemonics: It can be fun to design mnemonics for detailed information that you need to remember. Types of mnemonics include songs, names, expressions or words, rhymes and images. Try to create a mnemonic that contains the essential points by using a personalised memorable phrase. Here are two examples of such mnemonic phrases:

  • You can use the expression Oh, Oh, Oh! To Touch And Feel Very Good Velvet – Such Heaven! to remember the 12 cranial nerves (olfactory, optic, oculomotor, trochlear, trigeminal, abducens, facial, vestibulocochlear, glossopharyngeal, vagus, spinal, hypoglossal).
  • Another example is My Very Energetic Mother Jumps Secretly Under Noodles to remember the names of the 8 planets in correct order from the Sun (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune – remember that Pluto is left out as it is no longer considered a planet.)

Test yourself

Make sure to constantly test yourself on the work you are studying. Try to remember what you have studied by saying the information aloud to yourself. Do this before you move on to the next section in order to help cement the information in your long-term memory.

Work out problems

In some subjects, such as Mathematics, Statistics, Chemistry, Physics, Engineering and Accounting, it is not enough to go through the material by reading, summarising and trying to recall information. In these subjects you have to practise solving problems. You will have problems from your assignments, test papers and from your textbook that you can work out again. If there are worked-out problems in the material you are studying, don’t just read through them and assume that you understand how to solve the problem. Read through the solution once to see if you understand each step, then cover the solution with a piece of paper and try to solve the problem yourself. You will be surprised how often you get stuck, even though you have just read through the solution. Make sure that you are constantly testing yourself by solving problems for each topic in a particular subject. Practising solving problems is crucial to prepare yourself thoroughly for the exams in such subjects.


Writing exams

The night before the exam

  • Try to relax for at least 90 minutes before you go to sleep. Listen to calming music or chat about non-exam related stuff with your friends or family.
  • Have a relaxing warm bath or shower.
  • If your mind feels overloaded and you struggle to fall asleep try to slowly relax each limb of your body. Concentrate on taking deep, slow breaths.
  • If your mind keeps wandering back to the material that you have just studied, write out keywords on a note pad and then try going to sleep.

The morning of your exam

  • Eat a healthy breakfast (preferably eggs or other types of brain/energy foods).
  • Remember your student card, as well as stationery such as pens, highlighters and Tipp-ex. If there is no clock in the exam hall remember to take a watch so that you can keep track of time. Do not take along alarm clocks that make an audible ticking noise as this may disturb other examinees.
  • Leave for the exam hall in good time. Ensure that you arrive at least half an hour before you start writing so that you can find your seat and mentally prepare yourself for the next few hours.
  • Try not engaging with other students, especially if they look panicky and stressed. They may increase your own stress levels.
  • Don’t skim over your exam notes before you enter the hall as this may cause you to forget important information during your frantic last-minute studying.

Before writing your exam

Fill in your basic student information

It is best to fill in your student information on your exam paper before the exam begins. You do not want to waste time doing this during precious exam time.

Take note of the instructions

For some of your exams you will be given time to read through your question paper (roughly 15 minutes) before the exam starts. Take careful note of the instructions section. In cases where you are not given special time to read through the paper, allocate about 10 minutes to do so as soon as the exam starts. It is a good idea to highlight or mark on the paper which questions you are going to answer and alert yourself to the questions that you feel you will be able to answer best.

Use your time wisely

It is extremely important to take note of the amount of time you have available to write your questions. Look at the total exam marks and divide this into the total exam time. This will give you the amount of time you can spend per mark. For example, if the exam counts 150 marks and you are given 3 hours (180 minutes) you can spend 1 minute and 12 seconds per mark. (180 divided by 150). This means that you can spend about 24 minutes on a 20-mark question. Give yourself some time to plan longer essay-type questions before you start writing. For example, for an essay question for which you have allocated 45 minutes, use about 10 minutes for planning and 35 minutes for writing.

TIP!

There may be a compulsory question made up of multiple choice sub-questions. Generally you should spend about one minute on each multiple choice question, but this depends on the mark allocation and on the subject.

Read the questions carefully

If there are options, choose them wisely. Start with the questions you feel you can answer the best. Take your time to read the question carefully and make sure you understand exactly what the question asks of you.

Make sure you that you ANSWER THE QUESTON!

When approaching a question that you believe you can answer, do not rush straight into it. Make sure that you answer what is asked, and not just write what you know about the topic. Pick out keywords that tell you exactly what is being asked of you. Examples of these keywords are: explain, discuss, give an example, apply, contrast, compare, briefly, summarise, etc.

To answer questions appropriately, make sure that you:

  • Analyse the question. What exactly is it asking?
  • Ask yourself what information you have learnt that could apply to this question.

Essay-type questions

  • Remember to underline specific words that relate to your answer and that explain how you must answer the question.
  • Make a note of main topics, themes or concepts.
  • Pick a few arguments that could back up your answer.
  • Make a plan for the layout of your essay. For example, sketch out a mind map of your essay, giving each paragraph a link to the central idea (the question being posed or your answer to the question).
  • Use an introductory paragraph to briefly answer the question and explain your answer by referring to a number of reasons (evidence). You will give more details on these reasons in the rest of the essay.
  • Make one point or argument per paragraph and end each paragraph with a sentence that shows how it answers the question. You must always refer back to the question.
  • In your conclusion summarise the arguments and refer back to the question.

Short-answer questions

  • Keep to the time allocation, keeping in mind the ratio of marks to the number of minutes available.
  • When a question asks you to ‘briefly comment’, treat it as a mini-essay. Keep the introduction to the point and write it in two sentences only. Then select a few points to discuss with a sentence or two about each. Lastly, add a concluding sentence that sums up your overall view.

Multiple-choice questions

This exam-questioning technique is used by examiners to test your overall knowledge on what you have been taught. In some cases there is no right or wrong answer but simply the most correct answer.

Try to use the tips below to help you when answering MCQs:

  • Read the instructions very carefully before you begin.
  • Depending on the subject and the ratio of marks to time available, work out how much time you need for each question. For many subjects you have about a minute per question in an MCQ exam.
  • When you read a question, always work out what the answer is before you look at the choice of possible answers.
  • Use a ruler to make it easier to see where to enter each answer. This will help you avoid getting your answers mixed up.
  • It is best to answer the questions you are sure of first. Tackle the difficult ones afterwards.
  • Go over your answers if you have the time.
  • Try not to leave out any questions. If you’re not one hundred percent certain of the answer, it is probably better to choose the option you think is best, rather than leaving it blank. Having said this, avoid guessing if you do not know the answer at all. If negative marking is applied for an MCQ exam, you may end up worse off by guessing.

Exam DON’Ts

Avoid the following when writing an exam:

  • Don’t try to squeeze in information that you know just because you’ve spent so much time revising it. If your answer does not match the question you are wasting time and losing marks.
  • Don’t use colloquial language and slang in your answers. Keep to academic language and be professional.
  • Don’t write notes to the examiners; you may end up annoying them.

Writing skills at university

You need to develop and practise a variety of writing skills to perform well at university. The most important of these are:

  • Writing notes
  • Writing assignments, for example essays
  • Writing reports as part of research projects
  • Writing a thesis or mini-thesis in your final year of study

Writing notes

Writing notes of important points is a skill that is not taught at university. This is something students have to learn on their own. Writing notes usually takes place in three different contexts:

  • In a lecture setting, where you take notes of what a lecturer says
  • In a study setting, where you write notes to summarise information in textbooks and other material
  • In a research setting, where you need to take notes from a variety of books and articles in order to use them in a report or assignment.

Taking notes in a lecture setting

It is usually impossible to take down everything that the lecturer says. Therefore you must learn to interpret and summarise the content of the lecture by writing down the key points. You don’t have to write full sentences that are grammatically correct. It is more important that you understand what you have written. Accept that you won’t be able to get everything down. It is more important that you follow the logical argument or explanation as the lecturer speaks, and jot down keywords and phrases that will help you recall his words when you later read through your notes. Your text book and handouts will provide the full context, so don’t get anxious. Think of yourself as a sponge that absorbs the information as the lecturer speaks. A few drops of water will inevitably escape!

TIP!

Notes do not have to be neat, but ensure that you’re able to read what you have written.

How to take good notes

  • Notes have to reflect the information that is provided by the lecturer. These can include presentation slides and video footage that are used in the lecture.
  • Always date your notes. This keeps your notes in order and will be important later in the year when you need to study for tests and exams.
  • Give a heading to your notes for each lecture – what is the topic under discussion? This is helpful  when you later study from your notes. Aim to take down only the most important points. You can identify them by doing the following:
    • Take careful note of the difference in emphasis in a lecture: some concepts are carefully explained and examples provided, whereas other are mentioned in passing and only a brief example may be given. Make sure that you make a note of the concepts that have received most emphasis.
    • When the lecturer repeats a certain term, date or topic, make a note of it.
    • When the lecturer writes information on the board, make a note of it.
    • Look out for organising phrases when the lecturer speaks, for example: ‘There are two points of view on …’, ‘The first reason is …’, ‘The problem is …’, ‘In conclusion …’. Phrases such as these help you to write and organize your notes and also help you to listen well. (For example, listen for the two points and number them in your notes; listen for the first reason and for subsequent reasons and number them in your notes; listen and note the problem and make a note of the solution if it is given in the lecture, etc.).
    • Make a note of any summaries that the lecturer may give at the end of the lecture.
  • Don’t try to write complete sentences. Use abbreviations and personal shorthand that you understand. Examples are: e.g. (for example), NB (very important), adv & disadv (advantages and disadvantages).
  • Always try to write your notes in your own words, but the following should be copied down exactly:
    • Formulas
    • Definitions
    • Specific facts
  • If you miss a point and realise too late that it might be important, write a key word about it in your notes and mark it with a star. Continue listening and making notes of the rest of the lecture. You can always ask your friends after the lecture what the point was
  • Remember that you can always add to your notes after the lecture. Try to spend 10 minutes at some stage after the lecture to go through your notes. Add more points and more detail where necessary.

Taking notes from books and articles in study or research settings

  • When making notes from your textbook or other material in a study setting, take special note of headings and topic sentences. These will help you structure your notes.
  • When taking notes from a book or article for research purposes, always take down the title, author, the date of publication, the publisher and the page numbers from which you made notes. This is crucial when you use your notes later for assignments, as you will have to write citations and references. (See the section ‘Citing sources’.)

Writing assignments such as essays

During your university career you will be presented with a number of assignments. Assignments may take different forms, such as essays, problem-solving assignments and reports. Each of these needs to be approached in a different way.

How to illustrate your answer in your essay

One of the most common mistakes that students make when writing an essay is that they don’t answer the question. You may be able to write on the topic and may thoroughly engage with the information that you have researched, but this does not necessarily mean that you are answering the question.

To make sure you answer the question you must understand it. Read and re-read the question, taking note of specific words that tell you how to answer it. Highlight these key words. There are also other words that identify what information must be in your answer. Circle these words.

Plan what you are going to write

There is usually a large amount of material that needs to be carefully organised before you begin writing your essay. An effective way is to draw a spider diagram or a mind map of what you need to answer and the information you need to provide in your essay.

Why bother to plan?

Planning your essay ensures that you include all the information that you are required to provide. It also helps you write an essay with a clear argument and a logical structure. In addition, planning ensures that you make consistent connections throughout the essay between the information you provide and the question that was asked.

Writing your essay

Introduction

Your introduction must show how you are going to structure your information in the remainder of the essay, identifying the main points that you will address, as well as how they relate to the question.

Body

The body of the essay is divided into a number of paragraphs. Each paragraph gives a section of the information and must correspond with what you wrote in your introduction. You must provide a clear argument, backing up each of your points with the evidence that you collected. You can quote from books and other research material to emphasise a point or to explain why you are making some claim. However, use quotes sparingly. Do not fill your essay with another person’s words. Your lecturers want to know what you think, and are more interested in your own words and explanations of concepts.

Conclusion

When writing your conclusion you must briefly summarise your argument and findings. Emphasize your main ideas and how they answer the question.

TIP!

The conclusion summarises the main points and leads the reader back to the question. The conclusion should be brief and not include any new information.

Research projects

In some subjects you may be given a research project. Your lecturers will provide you with full details of what will be expected from you and how you should conduct your research and present your findings. The following is a generalized and brief description of some of the issues involved in research projects.

Collecting data

This involves gathering information yourself, and does not refer to using secondary resources. For example, data collection can involve interviewing people or doing experiments in a laboratory setting. If you need to interview people, you must design a questionnaire first. Similarly, if you need to collect data by doing experiments, you must first design your experiment. The following criteria will give you guidance in designing suitable questions for an interview:

  • Design each question carefully, thinking about what you need to find out for your research project.
  • Think about how you need to use the data collected. For example, will you need to do statistical calculations? This will help you to design good questions.
  • When you collect data, avoid personal questions or questions that will provoke an emotional response. Try keeping your questions fact driven rather than opinion-based. (However, in some subjects, such as Psychology, and depending on the research topic, this may not be possible.)
  • Don’t ask confusing questions that could be construed differently by different people.
  • Be clear and concise.
  • If you need to do statistical calculations with responses, always phrase such questions so that the response is given in numeric or coded form, rather than the respondent’s own words. For example ‘On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being Extremely Miserable, and 10 being Very Happy, how would you rate your state of mind when you fail a test?’ is a better question than ‘Describe your state of mind when you fail a test.’
  • Make sure your questions make sense and follow on from each other in a logical way.
  • Use simple language. Keep in mind that not all your respondents may be fluent in the language that you have used to compile the questionnaire or conduct the interview.

Research Reports

A written report is used to describe an investigation or enquiry, or to present the results of a research project. It should be written in a specific format – your university will have its own guidelines for writing research reports, and you should read them carefully before writing your report. A report should consist of evidence, findings and recommendations. The introduction to a research report discusses the purpose of the research (the research question), how the research was conducted and briefly indicates your findings. The body of the report explains the method of investigation, and discusses your findings in detail. Finally a conclusion states your recommendations, why they are important and how they answer or address the research question. In the conclusion you can also identify possible research that may be undertaken in future to further illuminate the research question. Be as objective as possible when writing your report.

Plagiarism

Plagiarism is copying what someone else has written or taking somebody else's ideas or words and presenting them as your own, without acknowledging the source. Even if you do not quote verbatim from a book or article, you still need to acknowledge it in your reference list if you made use of it. When you paraphrase (rewrite in your own words someone else’s ideas or thoughts) without acknowledging the source, it is still considered plagiarism. It is therefore extremely important that you always acknowledge your sources in all your work. Universities consider plagiarism in a very serious light. If you are found guilty of plagiarism you may not be allowed to continue your studies. If you are unsure whether something in your report or assignment needs to be acknowledged, check with your lecturer or tutor.

To acknowledge a source you insert a citation in the body of the text, and add a full reference in your reference list at the end of your assignment, essay or report.

Citing sources

When writing assignments, research reports or theses, you are required to find both secondary and primary sources. This involves looking for books, journal articles and websites that will give you information on the topic you are researching. These sources must be cited in your work whenever you refer to them. This includes quotations as well as paraphrasing information. It is therefore important to write down the details of a book or article when you make notes from it. This will help prevent accidentally plagiarising someone else’s work. ‘Citing’ means to refer to the author of your source, the date of publication, and where necessary the page number.

  • When using quotations, use the original words and put them in quotation marks in your text.
  • In brackets identify the author, the year the book was published and on which page(s) you found the information. See the examples below.
  • Add the full reference to the source in your reference list. This will include more details such as the title of the publication, publisher, place of publication, etc. See the example below.

TAKE NOTE

Different universities, and sometimes academic faculties within a university, may follow different formats for citing and referencing in academic writing. Check with your lecturer which type of reference style your faculty requires, and how to use it.

Examples of different reference styles

  • American Psychological Association (APA)
  • Documentary note style
  • Harvard
  • IEEE
  • Modern Language Association (MLA)
  • Vancouver

Examples of citing and referencing a source

In an assignment for Psychology, you may find the following:

  1. Animal languages can be extremely complex, as evidenced by the different calls of vervet monkeys (Diamond, 2002).

(Note that there is no direct quotation, but the information has been paraphrased and therefore the source has to be acknowledged. The page number does not have to be included because it is not a direct quotation.)

  1. He clearly states that ‘virtually every claim of animal behaviour suggesting elements of human language is greeted with scepticism by many scientists.’ (Diamond, 2002:130).

(Note that here there is a direct quotation from the source. Quotation marks are used and the author, year of publication of book, as well as the page(s) on which the quote can be found, are specified in brackets.)

In addition to the citations in the text of your assignment or report, you need to include the full reference in your reference list, which usually appears at the end. For the above examples, the full reference will be:

Diamond, J (2002). The rise and fall of the third chimpanzee. How our animal heritage affects the way we live. London: Vintage.

How to reference an Internet website

When you use information from Internet websites for an assignment, you need to include the reference in your reference list. Take note of the following:

  1. The name of the author (if known) of the article or web post
  2. The title of the article or web post
  3. The web address (URL) for the website
  4. The date on which you accessed the information

An example of a reference to the Internet:

Richardson, P W. ‘When Animals Speak’. Columbia Journal of Language Studies. Available online at http://www.coljls.org/2014/dec/when-animals-speak/. Accessed 22 Nov. 2014.


Preparing for presentations

In our digital age presentations have become very common in the workplace, and the technology available is varied and exciting. It is therefore important to practise your presentation skills during your university career. Although it is important to learn how to use the different technologies available, for example how to set up and use PowerPoint slides on a computer, the most important skill is to verbally communicate your research or argument to a large number of people.

To become an effective speaker, you need to do the following:

  • Plan the content of your presentation.
  • Use communication techniques to deliver your presentation effectively.
  • Use non-verbal cues, body language and signals appropriately.
  • Use your voice effectively.

Plan the content of your presentation

Presentations are similar to essays in that a presentation also consists of an introduction, a body and a conclusion. You should pay particular attention to the following when planning each section of your presentation:

Introduction: Give an attention-grabbing introduction. The introduction should hook your audience and make them keen to listen to the rest of the presentation.

Body: This must be well-structured, informative and logical. Your argument must be made clear in a point-by-point fashion.

Conclusion: Summarise your argument or findings. Leave the audience something to think about or present them with a challenge.

Make sure that you plan your presentation to fit comfortably into the allocated time. Establish how fast you need to speak in order to convey everything within the allocated time. Practise the pace at which you need to present. However, do not rush through your material to finish within the allocated time – rather plan properly and leave out or shorten some parts of your presentation. Decide what is most important and relevant for the audience to know before cutting your presentation.

TIP!

When planning your presentation think about audio-visual material that you can use to illustrate your points and keep your audience’s attention.

You should take the following points into account when planning your presentation, as they determine the style in which you present (casual, formal or entertaining):

  • Audience
  • Purpose
  • Context (place and/or occasion)

Communication techniques to deliver a presentation

There are a number of techniques which you can use for your presentation, depending on your style, audience, purpose and context. These techniques can help you feel more prepared and in control when you finally present.

TIP!

The most important technique to ensure delivering a successful presentation is to practise it. Repeat it until you are familiar with the content, and feel comfortable and confident.

Practising your presentation will help you become a better speaker because it:

  • Fine-tunes your presentation
  • Helps you identify what works best for your presentation
  • Helps develop your self-confidence
  • Enables you to establish timing
  • Helps you distinguish between relevant and irrelevant points
  • Helps you to be prepared for possible questions

Practising your speech in front of a friend will help you with the last two points.

Using visual aids

When using technology such as PowerPoint, it is important to use it as a visual aid only. Your presentation should not revolve around the slides. This means that the visual aid should not take the place of what you want to say, but should only be used to emphasise certain points. Below are a number of tips on how to use visual aids such as PowerPoint slides appropriately.

  • It is a good idea to start with a slide that contains the main points of your presentation. This gives the audience a framework and helps them to understand the flow and logic of your presentation.
  • Never read from your slides.
  • Have as little text on the slides as possible.
  • Try to limit the number of slides to 10. You need to spend more time speaking than flipping through slides.
  • PowerPoint slides should display images rather than text, for example diagrams and graphs. Use it to give examples of your points of discussion.
  • Always give your audience enough time to look at, read and interpret each slide.  This is especially important when you use graphs and diagrams.

Eye contact

One of the most important non-verbal cues is the eye contact between the speaker and audience. Look at your audience when you are giving your speech. This shows that you are confident about your material and encourages their undivided attention. It is important to do this throughout your entire presentation, including the question time at the end. Do not fix your eyes on one person only, but let your gaze move and rest on different members of your audience. If you need to use notes, keep them to a minimum and take a quick glance at them when you change the slides or when you finish a section of your presentation.

TIP!

Establishing eye contact throughout your speech increases your credibility.

Facial expressions and gestures

When presenting to an audience, try to smile at times. This creates a friendly atmosphere which will make your audience more likely to listen and give you their attention. It is important not to remain rigid in one position – use some form of movement. This can be as simple as using your hands to show enthusiasm and emphasis, or moving your head slightly to indicate a question. Use movements that come naturally to you.

Posture and body orientation

One way of showing confidence in yourself as well as in your presentation is to stand up straight in an assured and comfortable manner. Look at your audience and avoid staring at the floor. Having good posture helps create respect from the audience. Avoid turning your back to your audience as this makes it difficult for them to hear what you say. If you have to write on a board or flip chart, finish writing first, and then turn back to the audience to explain.

Humour

Using humour as a presentation technique is a great way of connecting to your audience. It can help to create a friendly relaxed environment and an engaged audience. However, do not overdo it. Also avoid using verbal humour if this does not come naturally to you – you can always add humour with an appropriate slide.

Devices to use when speaking

The following devices can be used to communicate your ideas more effectively:

  • Pauses
  • Rhetorical questions
  • Emphasis and volume
  • Analogies
  • Repetition
  • Tempo
  • Inclusive/exclusive pronouns

Pauses

A pause is a useful way of emphasising a certain point. It also helps your audience by giving them time to process the information. Pauses can also help create anticipation and suspense. The audience will pay more attention as they will be curious to hear what you are going to say next.

Rhetorical questions

A rhetorical question is when you ask a question but you don’t expect an answer – the answer is obvious to the speaker and the audience. This is a way of encouraging your audience to agree with you.

Emphasis and volume

There are different ways in which you can emphasise a point, for example:

  • Saying a certain word or phrase in a slightly exaggerated tone
  • Pausing to emphasise a point
  • Gesturing
  • Using volume to emphasise an important point or word

Always avoid speaking in a monotone (i.e. with no change in pitch or intonation).

Analogies

An analogy is when a speaker compares the concept he (or she) is explaining with something simple that the audience can relate to. This helps the audience understand the content more clearly and easily.

Repetition

Repeating a point, term or definition during a presentation can help the audience remember it better. Repetition also emphasises that this particular point is important.

Tempo

You can use changes in tempo to emphasise certain points. Changing the tempo is also a way of making your presentation more interesting and expressive. Use a slightly faster tempo to show excitement, humour or surprise. A slightly slower pace can be used to indicate emphasis and gravity.

Using inclusive/exclusive pronouns

When preparing your presentation it is important to consider the use of pronouns, such as 'I', 'you', 'we', 'they', 'he', 'she' and 'it'. Inclusive words such as 'we' and 'our' can help the speaker connect to the audience and create a bond.


Using learning resources

There are a number of resources at your disposal at university. You should learn how to access these resources and how to pick the correct and appropriate information for assignments, research and reports. It is important that you are able to identify credible resources that are relevant to your subject and to the topic that you are researching.

Examples of resources that are available to you:

  • Books
  • Printed academic journals
  • Online journals
  • Newspapers
  • The Internet

Using the Internet as a resource

Unlike the other resources the Internet can be an unreliable source of information. Anyone can create a website and add information which may be incorrect or biased. Therefore it is important that you are able to distinguish between credible sources and unreliable ones. Here are a few tips to help you access reliable information:

  • Avoid using Wikipedia as a resource. Information on Wikipedia is not always accurate. You can use it as a starting point to find possible reliable sources or to first get a basic understanding of a topic.
  • Verify that your source is valid by checking to see who wrote the article or blog post that you want to use in your research. You should check (by using Google, for example) if the person who wrote the article is qualified and an expert on the subject.
  • If the information you find is not written by a credible author or organisation it is best not to use it in your research or assignment.

Selecting relevant information

When you first begin to research a topic you usually start with your assigned textbook or other reading material that the lecturer has provided. You read through the topic in your initial material and pick out keywords that are relevant to the topic or question that you need to research. Use these keywords to find information in other resources. Look out for the following keywords in your initial material:

  • Important names
  • Theories
  • Concept headings
  • Acronyms
  • Organisations

TIP!

The above keywords are a starting point only. You should look for more keywords that are related to the specific topic you are researching.

 

TIP!

Also look for citations and references on the topic in your textbook. These often lead to valuable material for your research.

Techniques to use when seeking relevant information

If you have access to an online library system you can use keywords in a search to find relevant books, journal articles and papers. This is a quick way of finding the appropriate resources. When reading through these resource materials you will need to do a further selection as the information presented can be vast and overwhelming.

The following two techniques can be useful:

  • Scanning
  • Skimming

Scanning

Scanning involves moving your eyes swiftly up and down and side to side across the page, while looking for specific keywords. Do not read the material or attempt to understand it, but simply scan for keywords. Also look for the author's use of ‘organisers’. Organisers include numbers, letters, steps, or words such as ‘ first’, ‘second’, or ’next’. Note words that are in bold or italic. Once you have established whether the document or section is relevant to your research, you can skim through it.

Skimming

Skimming is used once you have decided that the document will be relevant to your research. You will then skim through sections that contain certain phrases, ideas or concepts that you have identified with your keyword search. Skimming should be done faster than when you read through an entire document.

 

We hope that this study guide will help you successfully complete your qualification.

We wish you all the best in your studies.