How to study

Studying at university is likely to be different from anything you’ve done before. There are a few new skills and techniques that you will need to master. Don’t worry, no-one is born knowing all this. It’s simply a case of learning it and putting it into practice!

In this section we introduce you to the key study skills. Remember you can refer back to this whenever you need it.

How To Study

Reading at university


As a student, you expect to increase your knowledge and develop your skills in the subject you have chosen to study. Although lectures may provide a starting point for this, reading allows you to extend your knowledge and really develop your thinking skills. So it’s a key study skill.

What are academic reading skills?

While some students come to university with well-developed reading skills, others have to acquire them. Reading texts and academic journal articles in your own subject will help you become familiar with the conventions in your subject and can also help you develop your writing skills.

What are the skills you need to read effectively at university? Think about some of the things you have read recently. Think about the way you read them. It’s likely you’ve glanced over a piece of writing just to get an idea what it’s about. Maybe you’ve had a quick look to see if you wanted to read the whole thing. You’ve probably also looked quickly through a piece of writing to find a particular item of information.

If you do these things, you’re already using academic reading skills.

There are three key reading techniques that you will find useful. They are surveying, scanning and skimming.



Surveying the text means looking at the table of contents, chapter headings, summaries or abstracts, to get an overview of content and purpose of the text. Is it what you are looking for? Does it serve a purpose for you?



Scanning means looking quickly through the text to find a specific piece of information. If you only need a specific piece of information, scan the text to find it. Don’t read the whole text in detail.



Skimming means looking over a text quickly, looking for key words, headings, tables and illustrations, to get the gist of the content. Never start to read without first quickly skimming through the text to get an idea of what it’s about.

How do I read selectively?

We're all aware that there's so much information available now that we could drown in it. So, if there's so much information and so much choice, how do you know what to read?

Your course reading list is a good starting point. It may recommend some general and more specific textbooks. It may also include academic journal articles and professional publications.

However, for most written assignments it is likely that you will be expected to go beyond your reading list, and identify additional reading for yourself. You will be able to demonstrate a greater breadth and depth to your research through doing this.

Spend some time learning how to make electronic searches. If you spend time getting good at this it will pay dividends for you further down the line.

Once you have identified materials you also need to evaluate the content and and decide if it is suitable for you to use. You can make this process easier by considering whether the information is:

  • R - Relevant to your needs
  • U - Useful for the problem in hand
  • D - Date of publication appropriate
  • O - Obtainable
  • L - Level of information correct, too simple/advanced
  • F - Fresh information, do you know this already

Remember: You can't read everything! Be selective. Don't spend time reading in detail without first checking relevance, by surveying, skimming and scanning.

What are primary and secondary sources?

It's useful to think about the different kinds of text and their purpose.

General textbooks

General textbooks cover a whole subject, and are usually based on the work of other writers. These are known as secondary sources.

More specific textbooks

More specific textbooks cover one or two topics, and go into much more detail. These may be based on the work of other writers, and the work of the author. So they can be a combination of secondary and primary sources.

Journal articles

Articles from subject specific research journals normally report on a particular piece of research that the writer has carried out. They are very detailed. These are primary sources.

Click to see which is a primary or secondary source

the news:
interview transcripts:
review articles:
survey results:
journal findings:
raw data:
secondary source
primary source
secondary source
secondary source
primary source
primary source
secondary source
primary source
secondary source
primary source
secondary source
primary source


What’s different about reading journal articles?

It is quite common for students not to have read journal articles before they come to university.

Journal articles report on a study, or piece of research, that has been carried out. They can be quite hard to read at first, as they usually contain a lot of very specific detail and highly specialised vocabulary. Don’t worry, as you learn more about your subject, you will become familiar with this. Journal articles all follow a similar structure, which roughly answers these questions:

  • What's the purpose of the study?
  • How was it done?
  • What was found?
  • What does that mean?

Always read the abstract carefully first. It will help you to decide if the article is relevant for you, and which parts you need to read.


Typical structure of a journal article
Title first idea of what it's about
Abstract brief summary: purpose, method, findings, conclusions
Introduction purpose of study, how it fits with previous research
Method/Procedures how the study was carried out
Findings/Results what was found
Discussion/Conclusion what it means, what the significance is

Remember: It's very easy to look at the title, think it looks interesting and then spend a lot of time reading the whole article from beginning to end. Don't do that – make sure it’s relevant to what you’re writing about!

What is active reading?

People often think of reading as a passive activity, where the reader just soaks up information like a sponge without doing very much, but to be an effective reader requires active reading skills. What does it mean to be an 'active' reader?

  • Being clear about your purpose in reading. Why are you reading a particular text? What are you hoping to find? It often helps to formulate some questions about the topic before you read it.
  • Questioning as you go along. Thinking about the reasons for something, or the consequences.
  • Linking new information you read with things you already know.
  • Thinking critically about what is being presented. Just what are you expected to believe? Is there sufficient evidence? Is another interpretation possible?

Remember: It's worth checking the source of the information, especially if you're using the internet. Check the date. The information might be quite old. Check the author. Is the writer a reliable source? Check the evidence. Does the writing just contain lots of opinions with no supporting evidence? Although an internet search might provide some useful information, it will also offer a lot of information of dubious quality.

Reading tips

  • Before you begin to read, take a little time to think about what you already know about the topic
  • If you can, make some notes
  • Then write down some questions for yourself. What do you want to find out?
  • After each section, pause. Think. Make a few notes. Ask more questions
  • Identify key points
  • When you've finished, talk yourself through the main points
  • Make sure your notes reflect what you've learned as a whole. Some students like to make a mindmap or other sort of visual representation

You'll find that you need to do a lot of reading at university. The more effective you are, the more wisely you'll use your time - and there will be lots of pressure on your time!

And of course, the more effective you are, the more likely you are to gain good marks in your assessments!

Find your reading

Merchiston library

At University, you may need to find textbooks or journal articles recommended by your lecturer or search for your own academic sources for an essay or assignment.

What is LibrarySearch?

Edinburgh Napier’s LibrarySearch is generally the best place to start your search. It’s like Google for academic material. You can search across:

  • • Everything on the shelf in our physical libraries (books, journals, movies and more)
  • • Hundreds of paid-for databases (including ebooks, ejournals, online multimedia, and e-conference proceedings).
Find LibrarySearch at When you first use LibrarySearch, make sure you sign in (otherwise you won’t see everything) and watch out for the filters on the right hand side – so you can limit your search to only show items available online or books in a particular Library.

What it’s like to look for information at University

Learning to search for and organise academic sources takes time, and nobody expects you to be an expert in your first year at University. It helps you to learn some of specialist language that is used for your subject, and often once you have started on your key reading you will learn words or author names which can be useful for entering as keywords in your searches.

Then you need to find out about the best places to look to help you find quality academic information, for example peer-reviewed journals for your subject. A specialist Subject Librarian may come to your class to demonstrate some of the best resources for your particular subject, and there are Subject Guides available to give you an overview.

When you start searching in LibrarySearch, you may find hundreds of thousands of results, which can sometimes be overwhelming.

Some key ways to limit your search:

Phrase searching
Using quotation marks will search for the words together in that particular order, giving you a smaller number of results. e.g. “Global warming” This works on Google too, and can be really helpful for book titles or searches with common words.

Filter your results
In your search results, use the options on the right-hand side under ‘Tweak my Results’ to limit by subject, publication date, author etc. If this makes your number of search results too small, click on 'Reset filters' to remove the limits.

What is a reading list?

A reading list is a list of required, recommended or for further reading resources identified by your lecturer for your module.

It may include books, book chapters, journal articles, websites or videos.

If your lecturer is using online Reading Lists, you will see a link at the top of your module in Moodle (Moodle is the home of all your online course information). This will take you to an online list - which can link you directly through to e-items or tell you where books are available in our physical libraries.

Merchiston library

Get help

You can find more information about using the Library at or email

Critical thinking


You use critical thinking skills every day - think about the process you go through when you buy a new piece of equipment, or choose where to go on holiday. At university you need to think, read and write critically. Here are some tips to set you on the right track.

What is critical thinking?

Critical thinking involves reading and writing critically. Reading critically means examining different points of view with an open and enquiring mind, evaluating your own position, and drawing conclusions as to whether a particular point of view is persuasive. Writing critically means presenting your conclusions in a clear and well-reasoned way to persuade others.

When you think critically, you:

Analyse - break things down

Synthesise - bring parts together in a coherent way

Evaluate - make judgements, based on sound evidence

Remember: Being critical is a positive process. Thinking critically involves highlighting strengths as well as potential weaknesses, limitations or gaps in relation to ideas, concepts and research methods.

Am I a critical thinker?

Some types of information are more persuasive than others. These snippets are all about the same subject, but are very different.

Snake Oil gives a wonderful glow

This is a celebrity endorsement. It appeals to the public by relating a product to a popular figure with whom the target audience can identify, often without relevant expertise, which could validate the product. Since this information is designed to sell, it should not be taken at face value.

Interesting Research

This is an article in an academic journal. An academic journal is peer-reviewed before publication (this means articles are scrutinised and approved by experts in the field). This makes it a trustworthy source of information. However it is important to seek out more than one source, to verify accuracy.

Popular Geographic

This is an article in a popular magazine. Many popular publications are designed to be informative. However most are also commercial, which means they depend on the number of sales for survival. Because of this, articles tend to have a popular slant, and may be incomplete or inaccurate. As this issue was published back in 1989, the information is also out of date.


This is an entry in an online encyclopaedia published using wiki software. A wiki can be edited by anyone, making it a powerful means of collating content by multiple authors. However the constant mutation of information means it is unreliable, so should be treated with caution.

Critical Thinking Checklists
Critical thinkers A critical thinker will
pay attention to detail critically analyse the task
consider different points of view identify the author's purpose and position
evaluate their own position consider whether the evidence presented is sufficient
develop an accurate understanding of an issue. dentify any flaws in the author's reasoning
identify trends and predict outcomes determine whether the author's position is persuasive
consider broad implications and long-term consequences support an argument with evidence

Remember: Above all keep an open and enquiring mind, so you can recognise different viewpoints.

Persuasion and argument

Reading critically is a positive process aimed at identifying shortcomings in an argument in order to build on and improve the ideas presented.

    To do this you:

  • identify the author's purpose and position
  • consider and question the evidence presented
  • evaluate the writer's argument

The word "argument" is often associated with conflict. In academic writing, however, the word is used to describe any attempt to persuade. An argument asserts and provides evidence in support of a particular point of view. It can be used to advance an opinion or recommend a course of action.

When someone wants to persuade you to accept an idea they put forward an argument.


All arguments consist of two parts:

Assertion - The main argument. The idea or course of action presented

Evidence - Supporting the assertion. The reasons given to support an idea or action

For example: "Donors should be paid for giving blood [assertion] because the extra incentive would attract potential donors [evidence]."

The assertion is the main idea or course of action presented. All arguments have a minimum of one assertion, and at least one piece of evidence in support. The assertion may appear at the beginning, middle, or end of an argument.

Remember If an assertion does not contain any supporting evidence, it is an opinion, description, or explanation, rather than an argument.

Note making


Why Make Notes?

Many lecturers now make their PowerPoint slides available online for students, but they will present much more information during the lecture than is shown on the slides. They may also give very useful tips for assignments or exams that you’ll need to note down.

It is important to capture this additional information. We refer to the process as note ‘making’, rather than note ‘taking’, as it’s important that you engage with the information during the lecture and make your notes in your own words, rather than in the words of the lecturer. This will help you to make the information your own so that it will also make sense to you at a later point.

So note making is important because:

It actively involves you in the learning process, which is good!

In addition to taking notes during lectures you will also need to take notes as you read. There’s a lot of reading to be done at university and you won't be able to retain all of this in your head. When you're reading for a written assignment you will need to collect notes as you go along so you can construct your coursework.

Making notes allows you to reduce information to a manageable size

In order to study for your exams you will be covering a lot of material. This will include information from lecture notes, textbooks, from relevant articles and possibly primary research. The key points need to be extracted and the information compressed. In doing this, you will have to think a lot about the topics – about what is important and how things link together.

Making notes is an aid to exam revision.

The activity of making notes helps you to think about your subject, and also to retain the information. Making notes helps you develop a much deeper understanding of your subject.

Remember: The head is a great place for creativity but a lousy place for storage, so don’t try.

Remember: Write it, type it, file it!

How can I make useful notes?

    There are a few common pitfalls with note making:

  • You take lots of notes and stick them all in a folder with no system. This makes it difficult to use them again or to find anything
  • You have a great system and file your notes away and never look at them
  • You try and write too much and end up copying out the text book
  • You write too little and the notes don’t mean anything when you look back on them

    It can be tricky and it’s definitely a skill that improves the more you do it. So how can you get maximum benefit from note making? Here are our 6 top note making tips:

  • If you already have some ideas about what the main parts, themes or sections of your writing will be, try to group your notes as you go along
  • Use key words, phrases and short sentences
  • Don’t cram too much information on one page. This makes it hard to read, and difficult to add to later
  • Create a filing system so you can access the information when you need it
  • Review your notes – they are an important resource, like your text books, as they include your thoughts, reflections and questions about your learning
  • As you make notes, record correctly all the details of your sources of information because you will need this for your references. Many students forget to do this, and then waste many hours looking for the information later

Note making in lectures

    Before the lecture:

  • Prepare for a lecture by doing any advance reading that's been recommended
  • Read over the notes from the previous lecture
  • Try to tune yourself into the topic for the lecture by thinking of questions you might expect it to answer
  • Arrive on time with everything you need, and your mobile switched off!

    During the lecture:

  • Do not try to capture a full word for word transcript. Use key words, phrases and short sentences instead
  • Use abbreviations wherever you can. Develop your own abbreviations for common words in your subject
  • Listen for signposts like, 'there are four key points here' or 'the thing I want to emphasise is…' etc
  • Lecturers often say at the beginning of a lecture how they have structured their lecture and what they are going to cover. Listen carefully for this. It can provide a framework for your note making

Different ways of note making

There are many ways in which you can make notes. Some are better suited to certain situations and you will probably have a style that you prefer and that works best for you. Here are some options you can try.

Linear notes

This is the most common type of note making and is the method most students use in lectures. You jot the notes down as the information comes along, starting a new line for each new point. You write key words, short phrases or brief sentences. You can also use a numbering system or bullet points if you have some idea of the structure of the information.


Mind map notes

This is a very visual way of capturing information. It allows you to show hierarchies of information and how different pieces of information and ideas are connected. It can be useful in helping you organise information and theories. Students tend not to use mind mapping in lectures, but quite a lot of people find mind maps useful for making notes from their reading and when they’re making notes for exams.


Flowchart notes

Flowcharts are useful when you want to show a sequence of events, or a cause and effect relationship. Students sometimes use simple flowcharts during lectures, depending on the topic. They can be very useful when taking notes from reading and are also helpful for exam revision.


Table notes

Tables are really useful for comparing things. They can be very helpful for comparing different writers’ perspectives on certain themes, or for comparing different theories for example. It allows you to look at contrasting bits of information together instead of having to go backwards and forwards.


Making good use of your notes

Finally, to really get the most out of your notes, use them. That means you need to review any notes you make, whether it's from a lecture or from your reading.

You might want to question some of what you've written, change something, or you might have additional information to add. (That's why you need to leave space when you make notes.) Your notes are your record of your developing understanding of your subject.

    And remember…

  • Take notes in your own words
  • Make sure you can read your notes later. Don't cram too much on the page
  • Use different note making methods for different purposes, for example flowcharts for process planning, tables for comparison
  • Organise your notes so that you can easily find what you are looking for
  • Title your notes and date them. If you have several pages on one topic, include page numbers
  • Always record the source of your notes. You will need these for your references
  • Avoid cutting and pasting, or copying huge chunks from books or articles - you risk committing plagiarism by accident



Why is referencing so important?

For many students, referencing is quite an unfamiliar skill because they may not have been required to do it before. However, at university almost all pieces of academic coursework require referencing and marks are awarded for doing it well. It is therefore an essential skill that all students need to develop. This is often a source of concern for new students at first, but referencing has clear rules and conventions. If you follow these, your referencing will be fine.

Academic writing requires you to research a range of information and evidence, in order to evaluate it in relation to your topic. You will need to refer to externally sourced information from a range of print, digital and other sources, all of which must be clearly referenced in your text.

    There are three main reasons why you must reference clearly, systematically and consistently:

  • If you include the work or ideas of others without referencing it clearly, this is plagiarism. Plagiarism is a form of academic cheating and carries strict penalties
  • A well-referenced piece of work demonstrates to your lecturer that you have thoroughly researched the topic, and that your work is based on evidence
  • Readers of your work may wish to look at the external information you have referred to in your writing, so will need full details of the source to locate it

Remember: Marks are often awarded for referencing well!

What are the basic systems and principles?

There are different systems of referencing at Edinburgh Napier University. It is important that you check with your module handbook and Moodle for the referencing guidelines that you should use.

The basic principle of referencing is quite logical: within your text you show you are referring to another writer’s work by giving very brief details, usually the surname and year of publication. These brief details allow your readers to find the complete details in your reference list at the end, and to locate the source if they wish.


    There are two parts to referencing:

  • Referencing within the text - the way you refer to another writer's work within your own text. This is called in-text citation
  • The reference list - the list of references at the end of your text, which contains full details of all your sources

How do I reference in the text (citation)?

You will often need to refer to information from other writers in your text. This is known as in-text citation. Two examples of citation are quoting and paraphrasing


A quotation repeats a piece of information in the author's exact words, or exactly as originally published.

Example of a longer quotation:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetuer adipiscing elit. Aenean commodo ligula eget dolor. Aenean massa.

"Get ready for university study introduces some of the key skills needed for successful university-level study. Feedback from staff and learners indicates the resource benefits a wide audience including school-leavers, new and potential students, postgraduates and professionals." (Smith 2015, p. 60-61)

Cum sociis natoque penatibus et magnis dis parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus.

Example of a short quotation:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetuer adipiscing elit. _According to Smith (2015, p. 60), "Feedback from staff and learners indicates the resource benefits a wide audience."_ Aenean commodo ligula eget dolor. Aenean massa.

Notice how the two examples are formatted. The longer quotation is indented with quotation marks while the short quotation has quotation marks round it but is not indented. In each case this ensures the quote is clearly identifiable in your text.

How do I reference a quotation?

To reference a quotation in your text, note the author's surname, the date of publication of the original source, and the page number.

Most lecturers prefer students to use only a small number of quotations, while some ask for none at all. Make sure you check what is acceptable on your modules.

Remember: If you use a quotation, you must give the page number!


Paraphrasing is when you present the ideas or information of others using your own words. This is a very common way of citing other writers' work within your text.

Examples of paraphrasing

“Students frequently overuse direct quotation in taking notes, and as a result they overuse quotations in the final [research] paper. Probably only about 10% of your final manuscript should appear as directly quoted matter. Therefore, you should strive to limit the amount of exact transcribing of source materials while taking notes.” (Lester 1976, p 46-47)

According to Lester (1976) students often quote excessively in research papers, failing to keep quoted material down to a desirable level. Since the problem usually originates during note taking, it is essential to minimize the material recorded verbatim.

Notice the way paraphrased information is integrated into the flow of the main text.

How do I reference paraphrased information?

To reference paraphrased information, note the author's surname and the date of publication of the original source, e.g. Smith (2008). Here are some examples:

According to Smith (2008) …

Smith (2008) reported …

Research by Smith (2008) suggests …

A recent study demonstrated …… (Smith & Jones 2008)

Remember: If you use a quotation, you must give the page number!

How do I construct the reference list at the end?

So far we have looked at the importance of systematically referencing all the sources referred to in your work, and demonstrated examples of in-text referencing (citation). You will also need to provide a full reference list at the end of your writing, and ensure that the details in it match your citations.

A distinction is often made between a bibliography and a reference list.

A reference list contains all the items you have referred to directly and cited within your text. A bibliography contains all the sources you have read but not necessarily cited within your text (usually this is background reading). Students are often only asked for a reference list. In some cases however, no distinction is made between the two.

Remember: Check your guidelines!

What details should the reference list include?

Book Author, Date, Title, Where published, Publisher
Chapter of book Author, Date, Chapter title, Book title, Editor, Page range, Where published, Publisher
Journal article Author, Date, Article title, Journal title, Volume number, Page range
Internet reference Author, Date published (if available), Article title, Publication title (if available), Web address, Date accessed.

Example reference list

Garcia, D. (2006). Interesting things about something. Available at: [accessed 6th January 2013]

Interesting Research Group (2003). Some Facts And Figures 2003. Baltimore, MD: Interesting Research Group.

Jones, C., Smith, A., Garcia, D. and Lee, A. B. (2005). Challenges in e-something. Something Interesting, 40, pp50-55.

Lee, A. B. and Jones, C. (2004). Instrstng mssgng. Interesting Research, 2, pp60-135.

Lee, A. B. (2005). An Organisational Theory Of Something. New York, NY: Interesting Press.

Smith, A. (2005). E-something. In: Black, A. & White, B. (Eds.), An Introduction To Something Interesting. Edinburgh: Textbook. pp.30-52.

How do I organise my references?

It should now be clear that to produce a well referenced piece of coursework, you need to research the topic effectively, and also provide specific details of all the information sources you have used.

    To do this, you need to organise your references from the moment you begin work on your assignment:

  • Note down full details of the sources you refer to as you go along. Otherwise, you will be faced with many hours of tedious searching later to find the details for your reference list!
  • Always take notes in your own words. If you cut and paste, there is a danger you will forget this is another writer's work, and use it unchanged in your coursework. If you do this, you run the risk of plagiarism

    Students have different techniques for organising references:

  • Some note down the details in the correct format for the reference list from the very beginning, and save them electronically as they go along
  • Others note reference details on paper, keeping them separate from their main notes so they don't lose them. (Coloured paper is useful for this)
  • You can also use the referencing software, Endnote

There are many techniques you can use. The important thing is to plan your referencing right from the start of your project, and to find the way that works best for you.


Plagiarism is considered to be academic misconduct and Edinburgh Napier makes use of TurnitinUK software to prevent and detect plagiarism. The software checks your work against a database of over 45 billion web pages, 337 million student submissions and over 130, 000 professional, academic and commercial journals and publications (TurnitinUK, 2014).

Referencing tips

  • Be wary of cutting and pasting - you risk committing plagiarism by accident
  • Take notes in your own words. (This also helps you learn)
  • Note down all your references as you read, and organise them as you go along
  • Make sure your citations match up with the reference list at the end and vice versa
  • Follow the referencing guidelines stipulated by your academic staff for each module, and ensure your references are; Complete, Consistent & Correct
  • Always check the examples as well as other advice provided in the guidelines stipulated

Remember: Marks are often awarded for referencing well!