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Effective Studying

study skills. Tips re reading lectures, classes, essay writing,

Even students who have been outstandingly successful studying at school face a range of quite new challenges at University, where they are expected to approach knowledge in new and more sophisticated ways. Learning how to do this is not easy and takes time. It is also true that different students have different ways of studying, so you need to find out what method works best for you.  Since many study techniques are subject-specific, your tutors are the best source of advice and support.  What follows are some general points for you to consider.

There are more resources, including videos, on the University's Study Skills and Training site.

First year historians in their College class on Gender and History

Getting Organised

Time management As a student at Oxford you will be responsible for managing your own time, probably for the first time ever.  But how many hours per week should you be studying?  Often the people who find it easiest to adapt do so by treating studying like a job – they do a basic 35-40 hour working week and recognise that at times more may be needed.  But they make sure they allocate time for recreation as well.  The University has recently adopted a recommendation of 40 hours effective studying (i.e. not distracted by social media etc.!) as the norm. There might be occasional weeks when you need to do more, but if you're consistently working longer than this then something is probably not quite right; talk to your tutors.  You might enjoy studying for longer hours. But it’s really important that you don’t feel out of control about your work and the time it’s taking, or you’ll start to resent it and/or feel driven by it in a negative way.  You may find it helpful to make yourself a timetable and use this to plan ahead, setting aside time for attending lectures, tutorials, library visits, reading and essay-writing.  Don’t forget to include in this time spent on extra-curricular activities.  Be realistic about setting aside time to relax and be with friends – you’re going to do this anyway, so it’s much better that you don’t feel guilty when you’re not working!

Filing: You may quickly generate a lot of paperwork, even if you're storing a lot of things digitally (and back files up - the University does not accept laptop failures as a reason for submitting examination work late).  Take time to get these papers organised.  If you’re tired at the end of a tutorial it’s tempting to just throw everything into a pile, but this makes life harder.  Get ahead – buy files and folders before you need them so that you have somewhere to store your reading lists, notes and essays for each paper.  Think about how you need to organise the material – keeping topics together; or having a lecture series stored sequentially; or the notes for an essay followed by the essay itself.  Once you’ve got a system, stick to it.

Housekeeping Try to finish each day with a clear desk: it helps when you start the next day’s work if you haven’t got a pile of papers and books to tidy up before you can start.  It’s also depressing to wake up surrounded by books, papers etc.

There's a videocast on time management here.


Attendance at lectures is an essential component of your course work.  Many of the lecturers at Oxford can put you in touch with state-of-the-art research, supplying you with angles you could not derive from a book (because the books have not yet been written).  Others will be able to provide you with a broad interpretative framework, filling in gaps between what can be the isolated pools of knowledge provided by tutorials.  Others are simply entertaining.  This is not to say that all lecturers are skilled communicators; you should take your tutor’s advice (ask for it, if it is not proffered) as to good lecturers, and (in departments where all lectures are not compulsory) you should shop around a bit in the first week for what is stimulating and informative.  Do not feel that you have to confine yourself to topics you are studying; you should feel free to drop in on lectures in other faculties if your curiosity is aroused.

Lecture capture, the recording of lectures to be viewed again later, is gradually being rolled out across the University. This can be useful for later revision.

It is difficult to give advice on techniques for taking notes in lectures because the style of individual lecturers varies.  However, the same principles as for taking notes from books and articles should apply.  Try to identify the central thrust of the lecturer’s argument, and the sub-arguments with which it is supported.  Make these the organising principles of your notes, leave white space between the various sections, and use indentation: you may want to amplify your notes after the lecture.  Be very selective in the recording of illustrative material: it is important that you concentrate on the shape of the argument.  Some lecturers will make things easier by supplying hand-outs which outline the argument; in these cases you can concentrate on the use of evidence by the lecturer, perhaps writing on the handout itself.  Make sure that your lecture notes are legible and file them systematically together with all material handed out in the lecture.



Seminars and Classes

If you are participating in a seminar or a class, you will often be asked to prepare something, either some core readings or a presentation.  It is vital to effective learning that you prepare properly.  If you do not, the result will be that you will be left behind, the discussion will be uninformed and shapeless, and you will be left feeling inadequate.

If you are required to make an oral presentation, decide what you want to say before you go into the meeting, write some brief notes, and if necessary rehearse it.  Remember that you are in the position of communicating a set of ideas to the other members of the group, not showing off what you have read to your tutor.

Communication in seminars relies on the cultivation of a degree of theatricality.  Begin by outlining the main points and then illustrate them in turn.  Speak clearly and slowly, but not monotonously; always complete your sentences; learn to inflect your voice to highlight key words and phrases; use signpost words and ‘emphasisers’ to underline key points; do not look down at your notes throughout the presentation but maintain eye-contact with the participants, and do not look constantly to the chair for encouragement.  If you find looking into the eyes of one of your colleagues an unnerving experience (perfectly understandable), try focusing on the wall behind them – they will probably still think that you are looking at them!

Seminar presentations should be accompanied with typed hand-outs in the form of ‘bullet-points’, identifying the key stages in your argument.  Ideally these should not be mere headings, but should appear in a form which makes the points in an immediately comprehensible and accessible fashion.  Show your hand-out to a friend and ask them whether they can tell from what is on paper what you are driving at.


Don’t be surprised to find that a reading list is several pages long.  Reading lists are intended to provide you with all the information you might want.  It is more important to choose wisely what to read, and to read intelligently than it is to read a lot.  Your tutor should also give you guidance as to the order in which to read different texts.  As a general rule, you should use textbooks for initial orientation, then move on to monographs and journal articles, preferably looking at as many as possible briefly in order to determine which will be most useful for the questions you are addressing.

Reading effectively.  When reading books you need to skim-read; to look for summaries (chapter beginnings and endings); to use indexes and contents pages to target material that’s really useful.  For articles, begin with the abstract. Your reading should be active, which means that you must have a set of questions in your mind when reading.  To generate a set of questions think about the assignment you have been set.  What is the broad structure of the subject?  What parts can it be divided into?  What seem to you to be the main themes within the topic?  What broad questions does it raise?  What is the range of alternative answers to the question you have been set?  Think about the types of evidence the author is using? How does this author relate to other authorities on this topic?  Think about definitional and conceptual issues.

Take breaks.  You can’t absorb material for hours on end.  Take a few minutes off each hour and break for meals and/or exercise.

Taking Notes Never assume that you can get away without notes.  Some people can polish an essay off without bothering to take notes.  However, when it comes to examinations many months later, they are doomed.  Effective note-taking does not mean copying out long passages from a text.  And it certainly does not mean cutting and pasting chunks into your laptop (which runs the risk of plagiarism). Rather, you should begin by reading through the chapter or article without taking notes in order to get an idea of the overall framework/argument and various strands of the ‘sub-arguments’ under discussion.  These should provide the organising principles of your notes.  Summarise in a couple of sentences – and in your own words - the main points/arguments of the article/chapter, and then arrange your notes around each of the sub-arguments, noting an appropriate (but not excessive) amount of evidence for each point.  Always organise your thoughts analytically; think in terms of arguments; and don’t allow yourself to sink in the mire of factual information.

Some students accumulate large numbers of photocopies of texts.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, provided that they have been read!  Ensure that you have at least annotated photocopies by means of marginal comments, or highlighted relevant sections.

Remember, there is no substitute for taking notes by hand.  If you are in any doubt, please show your notes to tutor and seek advice.

Use of Libraries In Oxford you are extremely privileged as compared with students at other universities, who usually have only one source of books; you have at least three.   So tutors are unlikely to be sympathetic to students who claim they were ‘unable to get hold of the books’.

Your first port of call may be the College Library.  This has many key texts and some mainstream journals.  ALWAYS sign out the books you use. NEVER hog books which you are not using, and which others may wish to use.  Suggestions for purchases for the College Library are always welcome and should be made to your tutors.  Use OLIS (which covers holdings of all departmental and college libraries as well as the Bodleian) to identify the location and availability of books.  It is important to plan well ahead; start looking for books early on in the week to allow time for books to be recalled if necessary.  The Bodleian is a reference library, which means that the book will always be available somewhere in the library, unless it has been stolen.

All libraries, and the College Library in particular, are more than places to store books.  Librarians are knowledgeable on sources and learning practices in general.

Good house-keeping: Make sure that you include the bibliographical details, including page references on all notes that you take so that you can easily locate material at a later date.  You will also need to add a bibliography of sources used at the end of your assignments.  It is also crucial that your notes, reading lists and essays are kept in clearly organised files.

Essay Writing

Writing Essays

Essay planning:  Planning your essay is essential, and you should ensure that you leave enough time to do it properly.  Some students find it helpful to make lists of key points and ideas, others use ‘spider diagrams’ or ‘mind maps’.  You need to find what method works best for you.

Essay-writing:  Essays vary in scope.  Some subjects may require a clear exposition of a process or subject area; others may be looking for personal engagement  and opinion based on critical evaluation  of various authoritative sources and evidence.  Read the question carefully and ask your tutor if you’re not sure what is being asked for. In all cases, you should be aiming for clarity.  Essays should be legible, clearly structured and analytical.

Introductions should be concise, to the point and written in such a way as to draw the reader’s attention.  But they should also be used to identify the issues which the question raises, to define key terms in the essay title and to indicate briefly how you intend to structure your answer. Though this may seem rather mechanical, it is important that you signpost each part of your answer in advance in a clear way.

Your essay should be clearly organised into paragraphs. Group together your facts and ideas in logical ways.  Each paragraph should have an argument that is clearly linked to the previous paragraph and is somehow related to the main question.  If it does not, it should be eliminated!  Always move from weak points to strong points.  You don’t want to end your essay with a whole series of caveats thereby undercutting your own argument.  If you are dismissing a given line of argument do it at the beginning of the essay, not at the end; you must end on a positive note.

Make sure that your arguments are supported by evidence, whilst being careful not to bury your analysis beneath excessive amounts of factual evidence and/or examples.  You must clearly reference books and articles used and give credit to the authors.  Never copy or paraphrase from published or internet sources without attribution.  This constitutes plagiarism (see the link to a discussion on this page), which is a serious examination offence.

Don’t waste your conclusion.  This is your chance to remind the reader (i.e. your tutor) of the main issues discussed in your essay, as well as you own arguments.  You may also wish to indicate how the issues raised in this particular essay relate to other parts of the paper

Your essay should be concise (usually 2,000 – 3,000 words) and clearly presented.  If it is word-processed it should include a margin of sufficient breadth to allow for written comments from your tutor.  Some tutors may recommend that you write by hand, and for some students this is ideal practice for examinations. It forces you to think clearly and decisively from the outset. You should always include a list of books, journal articles and web-based sources that you have used at the end of each essay.

Feedback Having written the essay make a note of any outstanding issues or problems that you would like to raise about the essay topic in the tutorial.  Your tutor will give quite thorough oral and/or written feedback on your essay; take note of these comments and try to incorporate general advice about essay-writing technique into your next essay.  Do ask your tutor if you need more guidance in what’s going well or what you’re finding hard.

Useful References

The College Library has a stock of study skills books and the librarians are willing to order any that you might suggest.

There's a pdf guide on practical advice from the University here.


Students at work in the Library

Tutorials are not always what you expect: Dr Phelan puts the linguists through their paces