De-mystifying the process of getting a degree: Many postgraduate students experience reluctance as they have frequently been away from education for some time. Here is what Professor Patrick Tissington, Head of Birkbeck’s Department of Organizational Psychology says:
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.
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.
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.