Having taught and graded students for thirty-five years in four continents in Universities and Seminaries I want to share here what I have learned about skills for study. Not all of these are study skills I practice, though those I miss would usually improve my own writing! All have been observed or missed in the work I have marked.
If you follow the simple and straightforward advice offered here, you will get higher grades. You will deserve them because you will also have been learning better. Studying skillfully is not rocket science though it may power your academic results to new heights ;)
Ranging from research (perhaps without a library) to writing more crisply and clearly, passing by how to avoid reading books on the way. The aim is practical and sensible, but also solid and effective.
I’m marking again. Every time I mark an assignment some distant students could have got better marks. If only they had used a decent scholarly commentary or two. Instead, they only use whatever they, their aunt Jemima (who did a course at Capenwray in the 1960s) or their pastor happen to have. Time and again I tell them. So now I’m telling you. A massive free theological library is available for writing your essay . It offers (at least) several good solid recent commentaries on every Bible book. (They are even in stock when you go to look for them!)1 And, to make a good story better, this huge resource is available in your own home :)
Free Library for Essay Writing
Yes, if you use Google Books you have a huge free library just a few clicks away. Follow the advice here and get to scholarly Bible commentaries in this free library. From anywhere, any time. It is a free library for essay writing. You should be getting better grades! As I said above, the video shows how to get Bible commentaries. But the same approach will help you find other books you need for your essay. At no cost.
And with your local theological library this isn’t always the case. Often the best commentaries on the book you are interested in have been borrowed by a PhD student or a class of hungry students with an assignment due? [↩]
In the real world flabby writing loses readers. For students, it’s worse flabby writing loses marks. Learn to write tight and gain marks!
In our intro class, students write a summary of the message a biblical text had for its intended audience. This should be one or two sentences and less than 50 words.
Writing a summary is like packing for a journey, some people want to take everything! Then it is an exercise in writing tight. Most students write much as they speak. In speaking we include padding – unneeded words and phrases that allow us time to think. Writing tight involves removing the padding.
Googling “tight writing” produced lots of advice, but many writers could not practise what they preached. (Several high ranked hits were written on contract. A higher word count means more pay for the writer ;)
So, here’s Tim’s guide to writing tighter
Don’t repeat yourself
If a word occurs several times in a paragraph some uses may not be needed. Using two words where one will do (tautology) is wasteful: “tightly stretched” only says the same as “stretched”.
Writers should have something to say. They should say it. Often, though, we also want to say other things. Tight writing omits such diversions. It keeps focused. The asides that often pepper this blog in brackets or as footnotes are examples that I should cut! (Except that I like the effect, and am not trying to save words, and anyway I try to help the reader by using parentheses to mark digressions off from the body text ;)
Don’t be passive
Good Grammar checkers (like MS Word used to have) hate passives. They are correct. Passive sentences are longer, and usually less clear: “The ball was kicked by John” vs. “John kicked the ball”
Long sentences usually waste words, needing extra coordination. Several short sentences work better.
“That” is often unnecessary. It can often be pruned, it sometimes signals other words that1 can be pruned. Extra adjectives are also an easy target “very” for example usually adds little. Karen Luna Ray offers this sentence: “See how many unnecessary words that you can remove from this very lengthy sentence that I am writing..” Which becomes: “See how many unnecessary words you can remove from this sentence.”
To be or not to be
The verb “to be” often encourages wasted words. Compare: “She is a powerful writer” with “She writes powerfully.”
Often we employ adverbs when a stronger verb does the job better. Suzanne Lieurance compares:
Flabby: She smiled slightly at the photographer.
Fit: She grinned at the photographer.
Above all, rewrite right
We seldom manage to write paragraphs, and even sentences, right first time. Edit cutting the flab. Read your text aloud. Read it silently. Each reading will show fat to prune.
Have a sit-down and a nice cup of tea
After a break (better a good night’s sleep, but a cup of tea will do), edit again. Cut again!
Plagiarism has been a hot topic in staff rooms over recent years, and there has been a flurry of interest in the social media over the last day or two. Charles Halton has a nicely provocative piece Authors or Criminals? as well as attempting to set felines among columbida:
What’s all the fuss about?
We live in a very odd culture that extends ownership rights to non-tangible things like ideas and words. However, these are relatively modern inventions. Within the ancient world there was no such thing as “intellectual property” or even “authorship” as we understand it. Literature was composed not by individuals but by communities–whether these communities were sitting around campfires recounting stories real or fiction or in between or whether the communities were scholars writing for other scholars. Within the ancient world literature developed over time and subsequent generations of composers used previous work in order to fashion their own accounts. Hardly any scholar put their name on their work (there are a couple exceptions of acrostic poems which spell out a scribe’s name).
All this fuss about plagiarism has me thinking–are students merely reverting to an ancient view of authorship?
This post has generated a fascinating discussion of “ancient” authorship and its conventions, the comment thread is well worth a look! But I want to address that final question: “All this fuss about plagiarism has me thinking–are students merely reverting to an ancient view of authorship?”
Firstly: I am thinking of students operating in a Western academic context, I am aware that different considerations apply to students of other cultures operating within those cultural settings. “You cannot step into the same river twice.”1 Culture has moved on and so has technology, in a world of Zotero the habits of Baruch are no longer applicable.
Secondly: Plagiarism is a matter of respect. If I present another’s words or ideas as if they were mine I fail to respect them treating their work as of no value to me. I also fail to respect myself, for by failing to distinguish my own contribution to the conversation, or indeed situate it within a conversation, I suggest it is of no value.
Thirdly: Plagiarism is a matter of socialisation. There ain’t no such animal as a “digital native” we all, including your twelve-year-old, learned to speak video and audio we have been socialised into these modes of discourse just as we were once toilet trained. We can all no matter how young or old (within limits, but these are limits to all aspects of academic life) be socialised into citing our sources, just as we can all (again with only fairly extreme limits) be socialised into not depositing our excreta here and there as the urge takes us!
There are no digital natives. Indeed on the issues of plagiarism and citation, our classes commonly have students between late teens and seventies, with the majority between twenties and fifties, I have most problems with those in the middle of this range. The young are eager and willing to learn, the old also (or at that stage of life they would not have undertaken a course of formal education). It’s some of the the middle aged, fat and forty, fat in mind not necessarily body, who won’t learn! But, if you won’t learn, then you fail. End of story :(
Heraclitus of Ephesus, Fragment 41; Quoted by Plato in Cratylus [↩]
Mary Hess points to some great advice for doctoral students and much of it is pretty good for masters’ candidates too :) On things like going to conferences, and turning an old assignment into a paper… One thing I’d add to her conference advice, especially for Introverts, is: Talk to people! When you are standing near someone at a reception, or browsing the book display, they are probably as unfocused as you, so talk to them. I’ve met a few of the “names” whose books I’ve admired, doing that, and I’m a certified 19/20 introvert – who does not always take his own advice :(
What’s your one best piece of advice for new scholars?
Left to themselves memories of teaching wither fast. The shallow “forgetting curves” at the top of the diagram do not look too bad. But the typical case is nearer the bottom one. In bad cases, we lose 50% in half an hour. Which would mean in a three hour class at Carey very little of the “content” would stick unaided to the end of the lesson time :( We need to remember classes better.
There are lots of ways students can remember classes better. Basically by either repeating the material or better still by using it. We remember the ideas and information we use. We use ideas and information by working on them or with them :)
Donald Clark posted 10 techniques to massively increase retention (HT Jane Hart). He lists three of these techniques for students. He also gives seven things that teachers can do to help. I’m not sure all his ten are workable in my setting. So I’m selecting, and in one or two cases improving ;)
How students: can remember better
blogging your courses. This has all the benefits of getting you to put the key ideas and information in your own words. (Cf. “take notes” below.) It may also add interaction with others – not least potentially your teacher who may correct your misunderstandings ;)
take notes: Carey provides copious notes to students. We produce these books as replacement lectures for distant students, but give them to everyone. Sadly, this helps ensure only “good” students remember the contents because most are not noting the ideas and information in their own words :(
use loo summaries: Summarise the material from each week onto one sheet of paper. Keep this in the loo, there you will have peace, and enough time to cast your eye quickly over the summary every day, brilliant for memorising.
Teachers helping students remember classes better:
repeat yourself: ideally do this less as you go along. But do use the “tell them what you’ll tell them”, then “tell them”, finally “tell them what you told them” approach, and then summarise last week’s class before starting this week
record the class: this allows even students to run over the material again (or at least the bits they need to). Even those who are poor notetakers (as I was) or too lazy to take notes (as most people are, given the chance – like Carey’s big blue course books). It is easy to do. I used to use an MP3 player on the lecturn, now I use my phone (the noise reduction technology helps make a clearer recording). The only disadvantage of the phone is it records as AMR (a highly compressed format, that needs Quicktime to play) but I can just drag that to the Miksoft Media Converter and it makes an MP3…
make students process the ideas: Set assignments, or in class exercises, or online discussions… Force students to engage with the material, reuse it, do something new with it… that way they will forget less.
I know I am not good at these things. That’s why I have prepared this post – maybe this time I won’t forget, but will actually use this information ;)
Good students avoid reading books. They read effectively. They read less words, but learn more. To explain this I need to start by describing how average students read, so you will understand what I mean.
Head scratching by a r b o Many of us read wrong!
The average student faced with a book reads it. They begin at the beginning, or more likely at chapter one. As we shall see this is never the right place to start. They then slowly – but only sometimes surely – plough through until, with a sigh, they finish the chapter. Little information and few ideas are retained, the words have mysteriously passed from eye to brain, only to drain out through the pores of the skin to join the other lost words in linguistic limbo. Such reading is the next best thing to useless. Better to read effectively. This time spent in “uselessness” could have been invested more wisely. For “wasted time” often pays surprising dividends, but time spent merely reading a textbook seldom does!
Having described how one ought not to read books, and hinted at why, let’s think about how to read effectively. The aim of the smart student is to read as little as possible but gain the maximum benefit from that reading.
I’ve always been a slow reader, I try to cope by “reading smarter”.
One way I do this is to “waste time” overviewing something before reading it:
The contents list should give you a fair idea of what the book is about and how it is organised. A few moments1 spent on the contents list lets you make intelligent guesses about where to find what. You might even join a conversation about the book without sounding totally stupid.
The foreword (before the first chapter) often tells you what the author thought their book was about. That’s vital reading! Likewise, the conclusion (Like detective stories, serious textbooks demand you read the ending early on!) should let you write a summary of the book in a few sentences.
Go on, write the summary down! At the worst you can look back at it later, and shake your head over how naive you were before you understood the full complexity of the topic ;-)
Look first at beginnings, endings and headings to try to get an idea of what the each chapter is about and how the different parts fit in.
Then skip through the material. Do not actually “read” yet, but look at a bit here and there. This will firm up your idea of what the chapter is about, and where it is going. By now you should be able to join a conversation about the chapter and sound like you read it!
Essential “reading“: they say a picture is worth 1000 words. (1Kw in metric measures.) Well-chosen pictures are worth 1Kw! Though badly chosen pictures are worth-less. (However, they are fun to look at, so worth wasting time on ;-) Charts, tables and diagrams are usually (even when badly done) worth at least 1Kw – so spend time on them!
At this stage you should be able to write a brief summary of the chapter. Yes, just like you did for the whole book earlier.
Moby’s important reading by ktylerconk The effective way to read textbooks is the way we “read” newspapers or magazines!
Then read carefully the bits that you think matter most. See, now you are reading effectively. Seldom (using this approach) will you actually “read” all of a chapter, but you will get a good idea of what is in it – often better than if you had scanned each of the words!
I find if I try to read page by page it goes in my eyes and out my ears. Reading that way, I forget almost all the content five minutes after I saw the page. Such reading is a waste of time – don’t do it!
Sometimes with the way of reading I have described you read some parts twice. But they will be chapters or sections that really matter. Sometimes you will end up not reading some pages at all. However, you will know where they are if you need them “one day”!
Do a survey of the book, or chapter. Play with the material till you know what it contains, and where things are. Only after this, actually read carefully the “bits” that matter to you.
Congratulations, if you practice reading like this you will be reading effectively. More results for your effort!
1mo is shorter than 1min but much longer than 10secs. [↩]