Showing posts with label success. Show all posts
Showing posts with label success. Show all posts

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Transition from School to University

University - anxiety or liberation ?

Dear Students,

Many of you will find the transition from school to university very difficult. In a previous blog I offered an impressionistic account of some of the main reasons why students don't have a successful first year and provided some practical tips. But what about the initial transition? How will university life be different from being at school and living at home? Below, I offer a five point plan for making a successful transition.

The first point to consider is that the intensive care you have probably experienced at home and at school will not be available with the same frequency at your college. Personal tutors and welfare staff will be available to help, but they won't be monitoring your health and well-being on a daily basis. Support services are widely available in all universities, but you will need to seek them out. If you have lived a sheltered life between your school and your bedroom the personal transition to full independence can come as a big shock.

The second point to consider is that your ability to direct your own studies will be crucial, especially if you are working in the arts or social sciences. Understand that academics typically have a 550 hours annual contract for direct teaching. For you, that works out at about 12-15 hours contact time in seminars, tutorials, and lectures. The rest of the time you'll be on your own, doing your reading, doing your research, drafting and writing your assignments. Don't expect you tutor to stand over you while you spend 40 hours reading George Eliot's Middlemarch or Charles Dickens's David Copperfield.

My third point is that you should take a more active role in seeking academic support if you feel that you need it. Most universities have an academic support department that is designed to help you develop academic-level skills. These support centres should be used to improve your general level of competence. Your academic tutors will provide more focussed and more specialised support. All tutors have open office hours. Use this time to drop in, or book and appointment to discuss the plans you have made for your first assignment. When you have had your work marked and returned seek out your tutor to discuss the feedback. Ensure that you have fully understood what you need to do to improve your grade next time. In my experience as few as 15% of students (usually the brightest and the weakest) make use of this opportunity.

Don't just take the easy option, which is typically to email your lecturer saying, 'I don't know what we're supposed to do for this assignment.' Usually, all the required information will be in the module or course handbook. It's so frustrating that hundreds of hours are spent writing the course materials that students have not bothered to read.

The fourth point is to recognise that the subject you learned at school is going to be different at university. There will be a higher level of theoretical approaches, for example, rather than just explaining why you enjoyed the characters and the story. There will be strong emphasis on research and on critical reading. Remember that your seminars and lectures are just the beginning of your work; they are merely a point of departure for your journey; they are not the be-all and end-all of your academic life. If you find that the course is not what you were expecting it is often possible to switch course or turn your major subject into a minor. However, it is essential to seek help and advice early. You will generally find that the university is more flexible than you imagined if it looks like you might be dropping out. Remember that universities have a vested interest in the improvement of retention rates.

The fifth point is to participate. This means socialising and making friends. This means joining clubs and societies, doing sport, or taking part in charity work.  All of this will build your character, make you more independent and crucially more employable. Academically, participation means interacting with other students in seminars, having prepared professionally for the activities involved.

A final point to consider, as an afterthought, is that university does not suit everyone. Nor does university life  suit everyone at the age of 18. Some of the best students I've ever taught were those who came to university later in life.

I guess some of this blog will sound like a harsh diatribe and rant against the molly-coddled student. I often reminded myself that my life at college was not as difficult as my father's - down the pit (coal mine) at the age of 15. Nor did I suffer the major social and economic disadvantges of the other six billion poor people on this planet.

I have some sympathy for those of you who feel that the £9000 fees are not worth it. Indeed, the fees are not worth it, but YOU are, and it's up to YOU to make the best of the brilliant career opportunity that university affords in the luxury of the first world.

Dr Ian McCormick is the author of  

The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences (Quibble Academic, 2013) 

Also available on Kindle

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

How to ensure that First Year @ University is a success

Logic of Failure - Metaphysics of Success

Many universities are concerned about failure rates. It is not uncommon for 25% of students to fail to complete their first year successfully. 

Academics are mildy irritated that they are constantly under pressure from the management to improve success rates. Rather cruel responses might run like this:

" I'm sorry, it is really beyond my control if you break up with your girlfriend in week 3 and stop attending classes."

[But depression is a REAL problem for some students. Check out this article: Yes, you can crawl out of your first-year depression at university  | Nell Frizzell ]

"Am I responsible if you lose the power of motion because you've been living on nothing but porridge oats for the last term before the exams, having spent your parents' money on beer."

"I can recommend counselling services. Remember ... you are now deemed to be an adult; you will be expected to take responsibility for your life. Time for a reality check?"

"Is it my problem if your only relationship effort went into your Xbox/Nintendo/ipad/SKY-tv ?"

On a more serious note, the most common reasons for dropping out or failing your first year are

- inability to adjust to life away from the safety, ease and security of homelife

- lack of independent revision skills

- acquisition of a drink or drug habit
- homesickness

- a disastrous and traumatic first year relationship

- pregnancy or serious illness

- lack of motivated study, planning and work skills

- failure to adapt to the new level of work expected in academia

- lethargy, indolence, incompetence

- doing a job full time rather than working on your degree

- having made the wrong choice of location, or university

- loneliness, depression, mental breakdown

- starvation or malnutrition; inability to cook

- failure to attend classes and exams

- poverty, poor financial planning and bankruptcy

- family bereavement or other crisis

- not understanding the requirements of the degree syllabus

- over-indulgence in leisure activities, especially solo

Play is a reward - not a replacement - for academic work achieved

Clearly there are both academic and socio-psychological-personal reasons for failure.

Students seldom drop out or fail because they are judged not to be brainy enough! Most hard-working students will have a very successful and enjoyable first year. So keep a sense of balance and maintain a sense of proportion. If you start to feel excessively pressured or anxious seek help early from tutors or from student services.

Generally the bar is set quite low in all but the most elite universities and in all but the most competitive subjects. In fact, you would be surprised how poor some of the academic work is that gains a pass. In my opinion some of it is GCSE standard. Having said that, will you be employable with a third class degree (=40%) ? By taking your first year seriously you establish strong skills that will be a firm foundation for your future progress.

The answer is probably yes if you have excelled in your extra-curricular activities and in your networking. I'm told that sport, volunteering and drama are recommended for character-building, confidence and leadership.

The good news, however, is that the pass rates for second and third year are typically 95%.

But there are also some other issues that require further explanation. 

For instance, across the US, the drop-out rate averages 25%, but you are twice as like to drop out if you are Hispanic, Black, or American Indian, compared to being a White student, research suggests. Why does this happen? 


Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(2013) and 
11+ English  (2015). Also available on Kindle, or to download.

The English Exam and the Skills Deficit

The Place to find Exam Skills at work

I hope that your exams (and your results day) have not been as traumatic as mine were at school. I still have minor nightmares about that day!

In this blog, I take a look at the reasons behind exam success and failure.

If you are coming to this blog having faced disappointment, do not despair. Help is at hand. There is a lot that you can learn in order to improve your performance. This blog will help you to start that journey

I will be sharing my pesonal experiences, but you will also find that the research is informed by professional experience, rather than irrelevant educational theories.

In my experience of 30 years of teaching English in Schools and in the University sector,  these are the most common reasons for poor results:

1.    Anxiety based on lack of confidence, poor planning and fear of the unknown

2.    Lack of familiarity with past exam questions

3.    Poor memory skills

4.    Failure to produce model answers in exam conditions

5.    Revision that does not edit and select key points

6.    Revision that does not tailor knowledge to the exam

7.    Answers which are too short, or too long.

8.    Poor awareness of what the examiners are looking for

9.    Not answering the question

10.    Not explaining your thinking processes

11.    Poor range of evidence

12.    Weak communication skills

13.    Not understanding how to plan and structure your answer effectively

14.    Too much time wasted on opening and closing paragraphs.

15.    Running out of sufficient time to complete the required number of well-rounded answers.

The good news is that each of these issues can be addressed.

By reflecting on them and by taking action you will significantly improve your exam performance.

You might even learn to enjoy the experience, and become an advocate for examinations.

If you would like to receive further examination tips and advice please drop me a line.

Let the journey begin!

Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(Quibble Academic, 2013)

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Strategies to avoid exam stress and anxiety

As we have noted in earlier blogs on this site, exam stress and anxiety is built into this mode of assessment. That's partly because the exam is typically a two or three hour endurance test in which you are deprived of home comforts and familiar supports. For many students exams present an image of clinical discipline and dehumanisation. Sitting exams may also cause you to revisit similar occasions in the past that involved a traumatic sense of disempowerment, defeat and failure.

But despite the huge potential downside of exams presented in these terms they do mimic real life experiences where you may have to work under pressure, use your wits, or demonstrate that you can plan and manage your time. Exams are here to stay!

Nonetheless, it will be helpful to recognise that there are some common anxieties that exam candidates experience. They may fear that there isn't a question that they can answer, or they may fear being seized with writer's block as they stare at a blank page. In other common cases, students often fear that they have not written enough, or that they failed to complete a section of the exam.

If this type of situation has affected you it is essential to practise your timing, and to write model answers. You can also practise opening and closing paragraphs for essays. Familiarity with key words and phrases also helps to speed up writinng.  These techniques will save you a lot of time.

Don't copy other students who write a book in the exam. My experience has often been that the students who write a 9 page essay, often filling up an entire answer book in the first hour, are typically prone to verbal diarrhoea; they are simply writing down everything that comes into their head, without any sense of structure or agument. Such answers rarely pass! A concise and well thought out response is more likely to be rewarded by an examiner who is tasked with 600 scripts to mark in less than three days.

Several years ago I attended a self-defence course in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. After several weeks of training delivered by an ex-SAS officer it became clear that what we were learning was not how to fight back using martial arts, but rather to avoid conflict situations altogether. By planning and reading the signs of danger, we would avoid actual risk of harm to ourselves. This scenario is similar to exams. The first strategy is to plan your revision early, familiarise yourself with the format of the exam by looking at past papers, and by writing model answers. If there are topics that you do not understand you can check out the solutions with your teacher, if you have begun your revision at an early stage. This approach should allow you to ensure that you have covered a sufficient range of the topics outlined in the course syllabus.

By avoiding the disastrous and always risky 'night-before-revision-stay-up-all-night' policy you will already be on the road to cutting out by far the most common and most significant source of stress that affects those students who leave everything to the last minute.

Another kind of stress exists in the exam itself. By scrutinising past papers it is far less likely that the exam will harbour unpleasant surprises. Andat this point let me also declare that the old-fashioned policy deployed by examiners that involved catching you out seldom applies these days. Rather, examiners want to find out what you have learnt, and want to see you demonstrate your knowledge and understanding. Exams are generally designed as a fair and representative examination of the syllabus.

In terms of general health it is a good idea to practise positive thinking. Remember that there is no such thing as someone who is symptomatically, characteristically, or psychological bad at exams. But there is poor technique and inadequate preparation. As my other blogs have been demonstrating, techniques consist of skills that you can work on and improve.

Another health tip is to practise breathing exercises, light physical activity, and meditation. These will help to calm your mind and body.

Immediately prior to your exam it is not sensible to make sudden life changes. Don't start a new diet or stop smoking, or start learning to bungee jump, or parachute. Stick to sensible leisure patterns, avoiding excess and getting as much sleep as you need. Sleep has a noticeable healing function.

After the exam avoid the temptation with friends to undertake a forensic diagnosis of your performance in the exam. I often experienced a vague sensation that I had not performed well in the exam. Yet the reality was more that I was simply tired, having delivered a high level of concentration for three hours. Worrying about the exam you recently sat will cause more anxiety as your next exam approaches.

Finally, keep a sense of proportion. Often there is an opportunity to re-sit a failed exam. Sometimes 'failure' is a sign that you should change direction. Also many famous and successful people have not passed some exams during their time at school, college, or university. Many academic educational specialists have also argued that exams do not test your underlying academic ability or your potential. So don't let the grade achieved brand you for the rest of your life. It is also true that those who are brilliant at exams do not always fulfil their potential in life.

Just do your best, and do it for yourself. You might even enjoy it!

Dr Ian McCormick served as Professor in the Arts at the University of Northampton. He works as a teaching advisor in educational creativity and participatory methodology. He also enjoys reading literary fiction, and writing about disability and the grotesque. His PhD was in the field of English literature and cultural history.  

Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences

(Quibble Academic, 2013) 


Tuesday, 9 July 2013

PhD Roadmap: 9 Tips for a Successful Doctoral Submission

From time to time PhDs are submitted and they are failed. Your 3 to 7 year investment does not come with any guarantee of a pass. Nor is it enough complain that the supervisory team did not tell you that you might fail, or that you are at risk. While failure is very uncommon, there are no guarantees of success.

Most examiners are looking for positive evidence of success, but they are also required to identify weaknesses and errors. Both roles comprise the work of critical scrutiny and the professional process of examination.

On one occasion when I was serving as a PhD examiner we required major corrections with a 24 month timetable as that seemed to be the alternative to a failure. But the alarm bells ought to have been clear well before submission. Multiple errors and weaknesses may result in protracted re-submission or even outright failure.

Examiners often spot weaknesses that your supervisors may not have identified or scrupulously checked. It is not uncommon for examiners to check the accuracy of all your sources, for instance. Sometimes examiners will compete to find the most errors in your work!

Cumulatively minor changes are alarming because they point to a lack of accuracy and a poor standard of professionalism. Even minor corrections many involve months of tiresome (and expensive) checking of sources in overseas research libraries, if that’s where you used unique texts...

Here are some quick fix solutions to help you avoid the dreaded F-verdict.

1. Original Contribution is the Key

Be clear about your original contribution to the body of human knowledge. That’s what the doctoral qualification is based on. This does not mean that you will not be heavily dependent on a collaborative engagement with others and with past scholarship. But is does help you case if you are able to outline what you have discovered that is new. It’s not enough to create patchwork, a new mix, or a mash-up. Therefore stress the unique contribution of your work and be clear about which parts offer fresh interpretations or challenges to the orthodoxy. This does not mean that your work has to revolutionise the entire discipline or field of enquiry. But you will need a balance between humility and a realistic sense of what your achievements have been.

2. Errors in References, Footnotes and the Bibliography

These are the anchor for your work and the foundation for professionalism. If you have maintained these accurately from the start then your final preparation of your thesis will be stress free. It is essential that your format corresponds with that recommended by your institution, and that it is consistent. Check punctuation and title formats in italics, publisher, place and date of publication in the right order. If there are 12 or more mistakes you may be in trouble.

Also check that you are using standard editions of key works. Penguin Books, for instance, often modernise spellings and style, whereas Oxford UP does not.

3. Fat or Thin Bibliographies

Don’t force feed a bibliography with stuff that you never read or did not use. At the other extreme don’t just list the texts that you worshipped as your guiding lights. Omissions suggest you did not read enough, or that you are concealing your influences. On the other hand, unnecessary additions suggest a forest of confusion; they are the vice of excess packaging.

4. Ideological shorthand and sleight of hand.

A theoretical bag of tricks often appears to be essential for the post-post-post-structuralist. Don’t mix and match schools of ideas and concepts just for show, and don’t be shallow. Critical and theoretical terms often have distinctive histories and traditions.

You might hang yourself by a loose use of deconstruction and signifiers left hanging on inappropriate semiotics. Key words and ideas require careful and consistent use. Sloppy and inconsistent use suggests that you are unsure about the progression of your thesis.

5. The solution to the word/world/universe thesis.

If your thesis is too big it may buckle under the pressure. Don’t pretend that you can overturn a major scholar’s life’s work in 3 years' scholarship. Unless your are blessed with genius and superhuman powers your most original work will be achieved in your post-doc years.

6. Research sources need to show a chronological range.

If you just rely on research undertaken since 2000 you may well be losing vital evidence that supports the foundation and origins of your work. You may miss minority or contested debates. Similarly, your work also needs to show evidence that it is up-to-date. Again, sweeping generalisations about Descartes or Darwin, or Hegel or Derrida should be avoided. Be precise about intellectual phases and developments and reference works and texts rather than author summaries.

7. Avoid general statements that lack evidence

Scholars agree that...
Many critics have proposed that...
A minority of academics would disagree.

We need names and footnotes. Sweeping statements tend to betray lazy scholarship
We need precision and we are looking for nuance and detail. Demonstrate your familiarity with all relevant secondary critical texts by footnoting and discussing appropriately.

8. Tell-tale signs of the rushed submission

Apart from the multiplication of errors relating to accuracy, the obvious signs of a rushed submission will be evident in the style of writing. The style is uneven, sometimes colloquial, often fuzzy. The lack of lucidity and precision fogs the sense of your work. Baggy or half-baked sentences stifle communication.

9. Heads and Tails.

It is essential to write a solid introduction and a firm conclusion. These require more careful thought, and more studious revision than any other part of your work. They open and close the doors to success or failure. Poor openings and endings suggest a lack of confidence or an unseemly rush to complete against the clock.

Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(Quibble Academic, 2013)

Also available on Kindle, or to download.

Also try: The Art of the Abstract

A Quick Guide to Writing and Abstract.