How To Succeed
Students will often be asked to write about aspects of their learning and independent study. But what makes a good piece of academic writing? And what are the key stages of the writing process?
What makes a good piece of academic writing?
A good piece of academic writing:
- Responds to all aspects of the assignment guidelines
- Demonstrates an understanding of the ideas, issues or concepts at hand
- Is based on reading and research
- Supports assertions with evidence
- Signals evidence with citations and references
- Is written to a carefully devised structure
- Is written in a clear and detailed manner
- Is composed of paragraphs
- Engages and interests a reader
Producing a good piece of academic writing takes time, effort and attention. Here are some common experiences students have reported:
- Starting to read without being clear about what exactly was expected
- Having too much evidence and not enough time
- Leaving little time to edit or revise their writing
- Not allowing time away from the writing to rest and reflect
- Feeling overwhelmed by a large and monolithic task
It's helpful to break the task down into stages. Being clear about the different stages in the process of writing can really help you to plan properly, make the most of your time, and write well.
The academic writing process
There are six key stages in the preparation of any piece of academic writing:
- 1. Analysing the assignment guidelines
- 2. Planning your time
- 3. Reading and note-taking
- 4. Producing an outline
- 5. Writing
- 6. Re-drafting and editing
1. Analysing the assignment guidelines
This first stage is critical. Too many students have a quick look at the guidelines for their assignment and then rush off to the library without having a clear enough idea of the task at hand. It's important to analyse the task. What do we mean by that?
- Read carefully and repeatedly all of the guidelines you have been given
- Establish the key ideas, issues or concepts
- Identify imperative words, i.e. those that instruct you to do something
Are you being asked to 'describe', 'outline' or 'critically evaluate' something? What exactly do these words mean? Sometimes, the assignment is made up of several different tasks. These can help to suggest a structure for your response.
2. Planning your time
It's also a good idea to think about how long you will need for each of the stages we've outlined, and to set yourself some intermediate goals that you can tick off as you make progress. So:
- Be realistic
- Estimate how much time you will need for each of the stages
- Give yourself a timescale for your intermediate goals
- Remember to work backwards from your deadline
Unless you have very good reasons for not doing so - known as 'extenuating circumstances' - you must submit your work by the deadline or you will lose marks. So, producing a schedule for your assignment is really important.
3. Reading and note-taking
The purpose written assignments is to provide students with the opportunity to explore a topic or issue, and then demonstrate what they have discovered. All written assignments, therefore, require some reading. This means that you'll need to familiarise yourself with the library's resources and practise carrying out literature searches.
How do I know what to read?
Many students say that they have real problems getting down to writing because they have read so much, and collected so much information that they don't know where to start. It's important to be selective.
Module reading lists are always a good starting point. You could also look for references to reading material in lecture notes and hand-outs. There is often an expectation that students will complete wider reading. If you search for additional material, be selective by refining search terms, consulting subject-specific journals, or using databases dedicated to your subject area.
Tip: Read abstracts, contents pages and introductions before you read anything in detail.
Remember: As you read, make notes, preferably in your own words.
4. Producing an outline
Consider what you now know about the topic. Gather the most important ideas on a sheet of paper. You might produce a concept map, or just a list of bullet-points. Key pieces of evidence could be placed under different headings.
Planning like this will help you to work out how best to organise the constituent parts in relation to one another. What order would best help the reader to appreciate the issues, concepts or ideas of the whole piece of writing? Would a certain sequence address the assignment guidelines better than any other? This outlining process can also help to identify any important details that were missed out in the reading process.
Writing is often a haphazard business, and it is worth reminding oneself of this from time to time. Even the best writers don't write flawless first drafts. Striving for perfection from the beginning can make it difficult to get started.
Having an outline means that students can write one part at a time. The whole project then seems more manageable, and can be spread out over several days (or even weeks).
University writing should be evidence-based, but often it is best to put the evidence to the side during writing. It is easy to get overwhelmed by stacks of reading material on a desk or a screen. Write a rough draft of a section based on notes taken during reading, then, if necessary, return to the evidence to ensure that the draft is accurate.
6. Re-drafting and editing
This is a stage that students sometimes miss because they've run out of time or energy. If a piece of writing looks rough or disorganised, with obvious errors, repetitions or omissions, it is unlikely to make a good impression on a marker. So, always set aside time to edit and review your writing. Ideally, have someone else have a look at your work before submission, such as a family member, a peer, or a member of the Academic Skills team.
Reflection is a crucial part of independent learning, and markers' feedback supports this. Feedback can help students to identify strengths and weaknesses in their work and their academic skills. However, unless you are open to feedback, it is difficult to learn from it.
Think of feedback as being constructive advice intended to help you improve your working practices. It is not intended as a judgement on individuals' character or fitness to succeed at this level. Ultimately, you are trying to find out how you will work more effectively in the future.
And don’t just focus on the negative. If you receive positive feedback, then what was it that you did well? Think about how you can maintain that for other assignments and in your learning more broadly.
Academic writing style
Academic writing is a mode of expression that is quite distinct from other, more familiar ones, like writing emails or messages to friends. It comes with a set of conventions that is more detailed and rigid than those which apply to other types of writing.
What is an academic writing style
When you write in an academic writing style, you do not write as you would normally speak. You avoid using more informal language, such as slang or colloquialisms, or contractions. You structure your language carefully, using complete sentences and paragraphs. Although bulleted may be acceptable, they shouldn't be overused, because your writing would start to look like it was just notes.
You can get an idea of the kind of writing favoured in your subject area by looking at relevant research papers in academic journals and at academic posters. When you're doing the reading for your course you will find it useful to look at the style of writing, as well as reading for the information.
You'll find your ability to write in an effective academic style will improve the more you read, and the more practice you get in writing.
- formal and impersonal
- tentative and precise
- evidence based and referenced
In everyday speech, words and phrases are often shortened or 'contracted'. Academic writing avoids contractions, such as the following:
Most types of written work at university should adopt an impersonal, objective style. Generally, this means that students should not use 'I' or 'we' or 'you'.
Sometimes, you will be asked to write 'reflectively'. This may be as part of an essay or it may be for a reflective diary or log. Here, you need to talk about yourself – what you have done, what you have learnt, what you might do differently. In this case, it is quite acceptable to use 'I' or 'we'.Quiz
Tentative and precise
It is wise sometimes to use a humble or tentative tone in your writing, because very often you are discussing issues for which there are few, if any, indisputable facts, concepts or approaches. So, it's usually better to 'suggest' rather than 'state.' You will probably notice this style when you are reading academic articles in your subject.
Examples of a cautious or tentative style would be:
- It appears that...
- It may be that...
- It seems as though...
- It is likely that...
- This suggests that...
- It is possible...
You also need to be tentative about what your state as true, or as common knowledge, as this can undermine your arguments.
|Imprecise and potentially inaccurate||Tentative and more precise|
|In Scotland in the twenty-first century, everyone has a mobile phone.||The use of mobile phones among Scottish adults has increased greatly over the past two decades.|
The first statement is absolute and too general a claim, and is surely inaccurate. The tentative alternative is 'increased greatly'.
|Imprecise and potentially inaccurate||Tentative and more precise|
|Inflation will not increase over the next year.||Key indicators suggest that inflation is unlikely to rise next year.|
The first sentence is too definitive and is at risk of turning out to be incorrect. The tentative language is 'suggest' and 'unlikely'. These words make a clear suggestion without making too absolute a claim.
|Imprecise and potentially inaccurate||Tentative and more precise|
|The only career options for Victorian women were to stay at home with the family or become a governess.||For most poor but middle-class Victorian women, there were few career options other than getting married or becoming a governess.|
The first statement is too general because "Victorian women" refers to a large and diverse group. It is also too absolute because these were common occupations for Victorian women, but not the only ones.
Making an argument
One of the main aims of academic writing is to present an argument. In this context an argument is really just the main idea or point that you want to make about a particular topic. Although your argument may seem pretty obvious to you, it can often be less clear for the person reading your work; they will only know what you are thinking if you manage to clearly convey your thoughts in the text.
Identify your argument
Remember that it must also answer the question in some way! Try to write down what your main point is in a single sentence, or as few sentences as possible. The difficult part is now to convince the reader that your argument not only makes sense, but is the best argument.
Evidence based writing
The strength of a piece of writing depends upon the evidence that you present to support it. It can be a good idea to assume that the person reading your work will immediately disagree with anything that you write unless you can provide evidence to support it. Be aware of the type of evidence that you are using and evaluate its quality.
Present contrasting views
Assume that the reader is naturally sceptical. Offer different ways of understanding a topic or approaching a problem. Present contrasting views and point out their relative strengths and limitations.
Signposting your argument
A good way to help the reader follow the argument that you are trying to make is through signposting. This involves the use of key words and phrases at appropriate points in your writing which can be considered as being major or minor signposts.
Major signposts are used to point out fundamental elements of a piece of work and they are particularly useful in introductory sections. For example: "This essay will attempt to", or "the main aim of this paper is". Minor Signposts generally take the form of linking words to show how sentences, paragraphs or ideas relate to one another. Examples would be words and phrases like; alternatively, furthermore, in comparison, however, in conclusion, and many more.
Academic writing refers to information from a range of print, digital and other sources, all of which must be clearly referenced in your text. You must always clearly identify the work and ideas of others in your writing.
Each school at Edinburgh Napier provides detailed guidelines for referencing. Visit the referencing pages on myNapier to download the relevant guide.
Academic writing style tips
- Aim to be clear, concise and precise
- Look at research publications in your subject area for an idea of the writing style used
- In general, aim for an objective, impersonal style, avoiding "I" or "we"
- Use complete sentences and paragraphs, avoiding bullet-points where possible
- Avoid using contractions, colloquialisms or slang
- Be humble and tentative where appropriate
- Clearly reference the work of others
- Re-draft and proofread to refine style, clarity and grammar
Most students are familiar with the use of essays for assessments, and you may have written essays at school or at college. During your time at university you will steadily develop your essay writing skills. The advice and tips in this section will help you get a flying start.
Why write essays?
Some people enjoy writing essays and others don't. However you feel about this, it's worth considering what the purpose in writing essays actually is.
- Essays always require you to explore a particular topic or issue. So they are a way of extending your learning and understanding. Because you have to do the research for the essay independently, it means you can do this at your own pace, and in your own way, which is a great advantage. It also means that you are developing your skills in independent learning at the same time.
- In order to produce a good essay, you have to present the ideas and information in a logical and coherent way. This means you have to organise all the information you have collected. To do this, you will be developing skills in analysis, and synthesis (bringing together).
- In first year, essays generally ask you to 'outline', 'explain', 'explore' or 'describe', and then as you progress you are required to 'discuss' and to 'critically evaluate'.
- Essays generally require you to present ideas or a well-reasoned argument backed up by relevant evidence. This involves many skills, including comparing the ideas of different writers, and being able to evaluate different perspectives. You are not just giving your own views!
- Finally, essays are a means for you to demonstrate your understanding and how much you have learnt in a well-structured format.
Remember:There is no single correct way to approach essay writing. Each person has to find what suits them best.
What makes a good essay?
- The ideas and information are presented in a well-structured, coherent way
- It flows logically from the introduction to the conclusion.
- There is evidence to support the ideas or arguments presented
- It is properly referenced
- It is presented in an appropriate style, in well written English
How do I get started?
It's very common for students to enjoy the reading they do in preparation for their essay. After all, it's usually interesting and you feel as though you're learning. But the hard bit is getting the information and ideas you've collected into a well organised, coherent shape and then to start writing. So what can help?
- When you've read through all your notes, it's a good idea to look again at your essay title, and then do a brainstorm to produce an essay plan. What are the main themes, or sections or areas? How do the various bits of information link together? You may already have a good idea of a plan for your essay based on your initial analysis of the question, but you'll still need to look at this again in the light of the reading you've done. Anyway, make a plan for the main parts of your essay, and note down the key ideas or information for each part. The plan can be a mind-map, a spider-gram, linear notes, or a set of boxes.
- The second thing that can help you get started, is to think of what you're writing as a draft. It is not the finished version. If you try to get something perfect from the beginning, it could actually prevent you getting started or getting very far. Just start by putting your ideas down, using your plan. After all, you can return later and revise what you've written.
- Sometimes students spend ages trying to work out how to write their introduction. But is it such a good idea to write the introduction first? After all, the purpose of the introduction is to indicate to the reader what's in the essay, and it may be difficult to do that until the essay's written. So consider starting with the main body of essay. It's usually easier to get into, and when that's done, you could return and write the introduction. But it's up to you. Some students find they have to begin by writing the introduction.
Remember: There's no one correct way to get started. Find what suits you!
A warning:if you simply start writing, with your pile of notes at your side, and you haven't given any thought to the organisation of the ideas and information, then you are very likely to end up with an essay that rambles and has no clear sense of direction. Think before you start writing!
Here are some words and phrases that are often used in essay titles:
|Word or phrase||What does it mean?|
|Account for||give reasons for, explain how something came about, clarify|
|Give an account of||describe in detail how something happened|
|Analyse||examine in detail|
|Assess||decide the importance/value of something and give reasons|
|Comment on||explain the importance of|
|Compare and contrast||describe/explore similarities and differences, indicate the significance of the similarities or differences|
|Criticise||consider the evidence or arguments and make a judgment about the merits, points out the faults|
|Define||state precisely the meaning of something, using examples. A simple statement will not be enough, you usually need to explore this thoroughly|
|Describe||give a detailed account of what something is like Discuss explain and give different views about something, then give your own opinion based on sound evidence|
|Elucidate||explain and make clear|
|Evaluate||examine the evidence and decide on the value of something, make a judgment about it, based on sound evidence|
|Examine||look at very carefully|
|Explain||give reasons for something|
|Illustrate||make very clear by giving examples|
|To what extent||discuss how accurate something is, there is no definite answer to this|
|Show||make clear, demonstrate, give evidence for|
|Outline||give a short description of the main points|
Check your guidelines!
At university, essays will form part of the assessment for many modules. Sometimes an essay can count for 40% of the total marks for a module. Sometimes it is more than this, and sometimes less. You should always check the information for the module so that you know how many marks are allocated to the particular essay.
So, check your guidelines for:
- Essays vary in length. In first year, students are sometimes asked for essays around 1500 words, and then later essays may be around 2500 words. You are usually allowed to vary from the desired length by about 10%, but you must check how many words are expected.
- The guidelines will also give you information about how the essay will be marked. These are called the marking criteria. Marks may be allocated for content, for quality of analysis, for structure, for quality of writing, and for referencing. However, the criteria and the allocation of marks for each criterion are different for different subjects. So again, you need to check the information given.
- Sometimes the guidelines can give you hints about an appropriate structure for your writing. That can be really helpful, so make sure you look for this!
Marking and criteria
How do I structure my essay?
The structure of an essay is important for two reasons:
- It shows that you have been able to order your thoughts in a systematic, logical way.
- The structure should take the reader logically from the introduction through to the conclusion, so that the reader feels a clear sense of direction throughout the essay, and never thinks, "what connection does this bit have with what I've just read?".
- The purpose of the introduction is to 'tune the reader in'. It should
- give your interpretation of the question or title
- may say briefly why this topic or issue is significant
- explain what the essay is going to do
- The main body is where you develop the main ideas or argument. Depending on the size of the essay, it will contain several sections, each divided into paragraphs. The paragraphs should be logically linked as you develop the themes or ideas. The sections may or may not have headings so you should check your guidelines for this. In the main body you will present ideas or arguments backed up by evidence from your reading. When you mention the ideas of another writer you must reference them.
- In the conclusion you should summarise the main ideas presented. It should bring together the different strands of your essay, and should follow logically from what you have presented in the main body. The conclusion should also be linked back to the title and show how you have answered the question. The conclusion should not contain any new material. It should be based on what you have already presented.
- The reference list should contain details of all the sources you have mentioned in your essay. A bibliography contains sources you have consulted, but not mentioned in your essay. You may only be asked for a reference list or you may be asked for both. Again you should check what is required.
Example essay structure
Essay writing tips
- Check the guidelines for your assignment
- Unpick the question. What exactly do you have to do? What do you need to know?
- Brainstorm what you know. Brainstorm for ideas
- Make a time plan, allowing plenty of time for research
- Draw up a writing plan, then do a very rough first draft
- Aim to start and finish effectively
- Structure your writing so that its flow is clear, logical and coherent
- Carefully proofread and edit your essay
- Ensure all your sources are clearly referenced in your text
Many situations at university, and work, require report writing skills. But just what is a report? When might you write a report, and how should you format it?
What is a report?
A report is a document that presents information about an issue or investigation concisely and impersonally, in a clearly structured format. There are many different types of report to suit different purposes.
Most fall into one of the following two categories:
- Analytical reports present information about issues, events or procedures. They are designed to provide the reader with enough information to be able to make decisions about future strategies. For example, if management were considering refurbishment of a staff canteen, a report on the current situation would help make their final decisions.
- Practical reports describe how a piece of work has been carried out, what the outcomes were, and what the significance is. A report on a scientific experiment is a good example.
Report writing style
Reports are usually written in an objective, formal style. This means you avoid using more informal language, such as slang or colloquialisms, or contractions. You structure your language carefully, using complete sentences and paragraphs.
However sometimes a more personal and less formal style may be acceptable, so make sure you check the guidelines you have been given.
How do I plan a report?
As in all writing assignments, it's crucial to analyse the task carefully.
- Who is the report for?
- Why do they want it?
- What do they need to know?
- Check your guidelines!
- Have you been given a suggested structure or format?
- Think how to present your information most clearly
- Think about what you already know
- Brainstorm. Jot down notes or make a mind map
- How will you find the information you need?
- Make a time plan allowing for each preparation and writing stage. Reports usually have important deadlines!
- Consider the sources you will need
- Decide which key information should go in which section
- Organise your information as you go along
- Note your references as you go along
Think about structure and format
Plan the writing process
Organise your information
Remember: Always check the guidelines you have been given for your assignment. These may specify a particular format or structure that you should use.
How do I structure a report?
A report is designed to allow the reader to find information anywhere in the report very quickly. It might be the case that the reader only wishes to examine certain parts of the report. The information is therefore divided into sections, each with a heading.
These sections and headings will depend on the nature and subject of your report. In longer reports, the sections may be broken into subsections, also with headings. Sometimes these sections are numbered.
The presentation of a report is also important, not just because of the first impressions it creates, but because a report must be laid out in such a way that the reader can find information quickly and easily.
Example report structure
- The summary should provide an overview of the whole report, so that the reader can get a good idea of what the report contains, without having to read it in detail. The summary should stand alone. It should include, very briefly, the background and purpose of the report, the main points covered, the significant findings, conclusions and recommendations.
- The introduction should tell the reader:
- the purpose of the report
- what the background is
- what the report will cover
- how the information was collected
- any limitations on the report
- This is the largest section and contains most of your information. In it, you will present your research findings to the reader. You need to organise the information into smaller subsections, and give these sections a heading. Make sure the information flows logically from one section to the next.
- You must not introduce any new information here. You should pull together the main points of the report in a brief summary, and emphasise the most significant points. You should link your conclusion back to the purpose of the report which you stated in your introduction.
- This is where you have a chance to suggest how things could be improved or progressed. Your recommendations must flow logically from your conclusions, so that the reader can see the basis for your suggestions. Recommendations can be listed and numbered. It is important that recommendations are realistic!
- A reference list tells the reader all the sources you have referred to in your report. A bibliography tells the reader all the sources you have consulted, but not necessarily referred to. Check which is required in your assignment guidelines.
- Appendices are materials you have referred to which are not essential for the reading of the report, and which could distract the reader from its logic. However, they need to accompany it so the reader can refer to them. Examples are tables, graphs, statistics and diagrams which have been mentioned in the report. Appendices are numbered for referencing in the text.
Report writing tips
- Analyse the task carefully. Who is the report for? Why do they want it? What do they need to know?
- Make a time plan, allowing plenty of time for research
- Structure the report into clear sections using numbering and headings, so information is easy to find. In longer reports, provide a Summary or Abstract
- In general, write in a more formal, objective and impersonal style
- Aim to be clear, concise and precise
- Ensure all your sources are clearly referenced in the text
- Proofread carefully, checking for clarity as well as accuracy
- Always check the guidelines for your assignment!
Posters are often used as part of student assessments. How might you plan and design an academic poster? How do you produce it effectively?
What is an academic poster?
At university, students are often assessed on poster design. Posters are an effective way of communicating concisely, visually and attractively, and can be a powerful way of getting information across. Academic posters summarise information or research concisely and attractively, to help publicise it and generate discussion.
Posters are widely used in the academic community, and most conferences include poster presentations in their programme. Academic posters can reach a wide audience as they may be displayed for several hours or days at conferences and events. They may also be published online as part of conference proceedings, becoming part of a permanent record of research activity.
An effective poster can make a strong impact, so it's worth developing your poster planning skills.
Posters as assessment
At university, you will often find that one of your course assessments requires you to produce a poster, either individually or in a group. The criteria used to assess your poster will be weighted differently depending on your discipline.
In some courses, content and structure may be weighted at 60%, with visual organisation and presentation weighted at 40%. This may vary so always check your guidelines to find out how your own assessment will be weighted.
Assessment criteria are likely to focus on features such as:
- Visual impact
You might use PowerPoint or other software to produce a poster, or you might produce it by hand, for example using a flip chart, marker pens or poster paper.
Remember: Follow the guidelines given by your lecturer.
Planning an academic poster
An academic poster is designed to communicate clearly, concisely, and visually. It should also be self-explanatory. You shouldn't need notes to understand it!
It takes skill to summarise a complex topic without losing some meaning or connections. So what do you need to consider first? And how might you use images or diagrams to help convey your message?
Since a poster must communicate so concisely, you will need to spend some time identifying your key points.
Decide what you need to communicate, and how. What is your main message? What does your viewer need to know? Identify the key points, always keeping your topic or task in mind.
- Decide on the main title
- Note the graphics you might need, such as photos, diagrams, graphs or charts
Once you've decided on the main content, make a rough draft of the information you need.
Remember: Academic posters need to show evidence of reading and research, so you must always include references.
Like other types of academic writing, an academic poster should be well organised, with clear headings and subheadings. The structure you choose depends on the task you have been given.
Here are two examples:
1) Reporting on a solution to a problem
If you are illustrating how a particular problem was solved, or how a challenge was addressed, the structure might be:
2) Reporting on research
If you are reporting on a piece of research, your structure will be similar to a research report:
- Definition of problem
- Possible solutions
- Rationale for choice of one solution
Remember: The structure depends on your content, and what you need to communicate.
Let’s examine some design examples
1) This poster is well laid out over two columns, with an effective balance of text and graphics. The diagrams could have become cluttered and hard to read, but here are tidily organised with key features clearly highlighted. Overall, the layout is a little irregular, which helps provide visual interest.
2) This poster is unusually informal in style, which is appropriate for its people-centred subject. The visual focus is on a cheery central character, surrounded by speech bubbles. The golden colours are positive, warm and inviting.
Subject: Student Experience
3) This poster is concise and well organised, with clear headings and subheadings. Code examples are boxed in white so that they stand out clearly from the main text; images are consistently formatted and grouped. The light blue background tint is calm and helps tie it all together.
Subject: Computer Science
As you can see, there is much that can be communicated visually, even without reading the text.
Remember: It's the content that counts!
How do I design a poster?
Once you've identified your main content and structure, you need to identify the graphics and formatting which will communicate your message best. How will you organise your content visually? How might you use colour and type to enhance visual impact?
It's usually best to design from the outside in, thinking about the general purpose before the details.
Remember: It's important to be very clear about the purpose of your poster. Keep returning to this as you plan your design.
Posters are designed to convey a message quickly and efficiently. What should your viewer see and understand first?
- Think what will communicate your key points most clearly
- Find a focal point that will help draw your viewers in. This might be a key flowchart or diagram, or simply a clear main title
- Make sure important graphics or information stand out clearly in your design
- Remember, you may not need graphics if words are more powerful
Tip: In an academic poster, the priority is to be clear, concise and professional.
What visual arrangement will suit your content best, and how will you lead the reader through it?
- Try to provide a clear entry point for readers, and a logical visual flow
- Group related information
- Use numbering or arrows if linked content should be read in a particular order
- Avoid either oversimplifying (too little useful information) or overcomplicating (too much information)
- Use 'negative' space and margins to give your content room to breathe
These are examples of 'thumbnail' designs. In thumbnails, you sketch designs in miniature, showing images and text as primitive shapes like squares and circles, perhaps using shading to show the areas you want to stand out most.
Once the basic layout is planned you can consider graphic and text formatting in more detail.
Use of text
An academic poster needs to be clear and legible from a distance. You should therefore think about how to format the text and what size should it be?
- A poster should be legible from about one meter, and attract interest from about five meters
- Aim for a word count of about 300 to 800 words. 300 words leaves plenty of room for graphics, while 800 words would be more text heavy
- For clarity, use a sans-serif font like Arial or Helvetica. Make sure there is good contrast between text and background
- To be legible at a distance, the main title should be around 70-100 pts, subheadings around 40 pts, body text around 24 pts
- Format headings and subheadings consistently. This helps structure your information visually
Use of graphics
An academic poster should be both professional and concise, so a general rule is only to include graphics that really support your content.
- Use diagrams, graphs or flowcharts to help explain complex information visually
- Try not to use too many different or strongly contrasting colours. A limited colour palette can be very effective
- Avoid using unnecessary and distracting background textures or decoration
- If your topic has a central statement, graphic or diagram, make this prominent in your design. Don't hide it in a corner!
- Every graphic should have a purpose
How do I produce a poster?
A variety of software can be used to produce an academic poster.
One of the most popular is Microsoft PowerPoint, with a key advantage being that most computers have PowerPoint installed as standard. This allows you to share your work easily, and update it from any location. For example, you may need to add new information just before presentation.
Using PowerPoint you can integrate a range of media, produce diagrams and flowcharts easily, and create custom charts and graphs from your data.
How do I present a poster?
At academic conferences and seminars people gather to hear about and discuss issues relevant to their subject area, and to meet others interested in the same challenges and questions.
At a poster presentation, you will normally be asked to stand beside your poster, say a few words, and answer questions. This allows people to discuss the content in a more informal, less daunting setting than during an oral presentation, which might have a very large audience. It is also possible to have more detailed one to one discussions with the people who are interested in your poster.
First, allow plenty of time to prepare and produce your poster. You will need to plan your content, design the layout, write and edit it, organise production and printing. It's also a good idea to prepare handouts for people to take away.
Make sure you know the time, date, and location of the session. Check the arrangements for display. You might need to produce your poster to a certain size, laminate it, provide Velcro tabs, etc.
Think about what you will say, anticipate likely questions, and practise your responses.
Tip: If your poster is to be distributed online, convert it to PDF (Portable Document Format).
Academic poster tips
- Allow plenty of time to prepare and produce your poster
- Think about your target audience. What do they need to know?
- Plan carefully, structure content clearly and present it suitably
- Aim for a good balance of text and graphics
- For poster sessions find out the arrangements for display
- Consider preparing handouts of your poster
- Practice your presentation before the session
- Remember, it's the content that counts!
Oral presentations allow you to increase your understanding of a topic, as well as to develop specific oral communication skills, which are invaluable in the workplace.
Why give an oral presentation?
Most students will give oral presentations as part of their course at university. Sometimes presentations are part of a seminar or tutorial, and fairly informal. Sometimes they will be more formal and will be assessed. You may be asked to present individually or as part of a group. Whatever the circumstances, oral presentations require you to:
- research a topic
- plan content, structure and delivery
- prepare PowerPoint or other visual support
- present to an audience of listeners
Presentations can make some students feel extremely nervous, but it's important to know that most people feel anxious at 'performing' in front of an audience. With practice and reflection, your skills will get better and better.
As with all types of assessment, it's important to know how you're being judged, so that you can give yourself the best chance of getting a good mark. Typical assessment criteria might be:
- Content: Relevant, interesting, supported by evidence
- Structure: Clear sections, logical sequence, clearly introduced and concluded
- Delivery: Clarity, eye contact, pace, timing
- Graphics: Clarity, relevance, appearance
Remember: Different lecturers use different criteria and weightings, so make sure you check what is required.
Sometimes students are asked to give oral presentations in groups. In this case, your group needs to meet early on and make plans.
Usually, students decide that each person will take one part of the presentation each. You will need to decide in what order people will speak, and how they will pass smoothly from one to another. Someone will need to introduce and someone will need to conclude, and to do this everyone needs an overview of the entire presentation.
Group presentations can be awkward to manage because of the difficulty of getting people together but they can be very effective when done well.
How do I plan a presentation?
Like an essay or a report, a good presentation requires effective preparation.
Analyse the task so that you know exactly what you are being asked to do. Collect ideas you already have about the topic. Then decide what and how you will research. Ask yourself:
- Is your purpose to demonstrate knowledge and understanding in an 'essay type' structure? Is it to report on an investigation? Are you aiming to persuade listeners of a particular solution to a problem, or presenting recommendations that suit a particular situation? Each requires a different approach and a different structure.
- Fellow students, a panel of experts, business representatives? What do they need to know? You need to understand your audience to pitch content and language at the right level, to engage your listeners and present effectively.
What is your purpose?
Who are you delivering to?
First, work out the key points you need to convey to your audience. Many people find it helpful to note slide content in outline form, perhaps using a linear diagram like this:
Once you have noted your main content, work out how to convey your key points most effectively in the time available.
Length of time is important because it helps define quantity of content, level of detail, and the number of slides in your presentation. Students are often asked to present for five, ten or fifteen minutes.
In a presentation, beginnings and endings help 'frame' your content for your listeners, so think about how you can make both as effective as possible.
Tip: As a rough guide, allow two to three minutes per slide.
Remember: As in all academic coursework, you need to include references.
Think about the structure you might use for your presentation.
Tip: Organise your notes in the structure you plan to use.
When you have decided key content and structure, plan how best to design your presentation. What information might work best as text and what as graphics? What other visual support, media or effects might help convey your points clearly?
The following general guidelines apply particularly if you are using PowerPoint, but are also relevant to other types of presentation.
One advantage of using PowerPoint is that most computers have the software installed as standard, which means you can share your work and update easily from any location. You can also import a variety of media, produce diagrams and flowcharts, and create custom charts and graphs from your data.
Remember: The guidelines from your lecturer should indicate the kind of visual support expected.
Layout and formatting
How might you organise the information on each slide? What fonts and colours should you use?
- Aim to keep layout simple, clear and consistent
- For clarity, use a sans-serif font like Arial or Helvetica. To be legible, body text should be a minimum of 18 pts in size
- Format headings and subheadings consistently. This helps structure your information visually
- Aim for good contrast between text and background
- Try to avoid very dark images or backgrounds
Tip: Use the templates in PowerPoint to help format your presentation consistently.
What might help make your presentation visually persuasive?
- Try to avoid presenting a long series of bullet lists
- Use diagrams, graphics or other media where these will help explain your points
- Where possible show numerical information visually, for example as graphs or charts rather than tables
- Ensure slides are not too detailed, and that any graphics are clear and large enough to 'read'
- Remember your audience does not have long to absorb the information on each slide
PowerPoint allows you to use a variety of time-based media and effects in your presentation. Used selectively, these can be very effective in supporting your points.
- Use animation to help build up complex information over time
- Consider including audio, video, or internet links where appropriate
- Check timing carefully. Remember each stage in your presentation needs to be clear to your audience
- If you use time-based effects, remember not to treat these as a static screen when you present. For example, you may need to comment on each step
- Use media and effects purposefully - not just because you know how!
How do I deliver effectively?
Make eye contact
One of the most effective ways of engaging your audience is through eye contact. Try to acknowledge all parts of the audience, from the front to the back. In a small group, you can make eye contact with almost everyone.
Use your voice
Your voice is a powerful communication tool. You need to make sure everyone can hear you, and that you speak at the right speed - usually a little slower than everyday conversation. Use your voice to emphasise important points, and to show that you're questioning an issue.
Pace your presentation to build up to your main points. Don't be afraid of using short pauses where appropriate, to let important information sink in. Sometimes people speed up when they are nervous; try to be aware of this and avoid speaking too quickly.
If information comes out in a continuous flow the listener may find it difficult to distinguish between different sections, and between important and less important information. Use 'signposts' to indicate key points.
In oral presentations you need to make it clear to your listeners when you are moving to a new section, and when you are telling them something significant. This is known as 'signposting'.
- I think it's important to emphasise…
- What's significant here is that…
- I'll move on now to…
- Turning now to…
- In conclusion…
- To summarise…
- You might be wondering about…
- You've probably realised that…
Here are some useful signposting phrases:
You can draw attention to a point by using phrases like:
- What is the significance of…?
- What are the consequences of…?
- What recommendations can be made in these circumstances?
A useful technique for beginning a new section or for highlighting an important point is to use a question, for example:
Tip: Observe other presenters to identify their signposting strategies, and develop a repertoire of your own.
How do I perform well on the day?
An excellent presentation is well prepared, practised and delivered. You will not be able to deliver an effective presentation if you are dependent on a script that you can't take your eyes off!
- present fluently, without relying on notes
- check pace and timing
- move smoothly from one section to another
- identify any problems
You need to practise several times so that you can:
Tip: Many students find it helpful to make notes in PowerPoint, while others use cue cards to note their key points. Find a method that suits you.
- Proofread text content. Check graphics and media and ensure any linked files are present
- If you can, practise in front of some friendly listeners. At the very least, practise aloud to yourself
- Check the room and the equipment in advance. Make sure you have everything you need
- You may need to check that specific software is installed, for example to play audio or video
- On the day, try to arrive early. Bring water as well as your notes and any supporting materials
- If you use handouts, decide when to give them out. If you give them out at the beginning, listeners may pay more attention to the handouts than to you. If you are going to give them out at the end, let your audience know in advance
Tip: Try to check your presentation on the computer you will be using, and in the room you will be presenting in.
Dealing with nerves
If you become anxious, encourage yourself and try to relax. It helps to remind yourself that people are interested in what you have to say. If you are well prepared, remind yourself of this. If you go blank, try to remain calm, and go on. It is quite likely no-one will notice.
Remember your purpose - you have an interesting topic to present to your listeners. Show your interest in it!
Tip: Be yourself and concentrate on getting your message across.
You will often need to take questions after a presentation, and you may be assessed on this. It helps to try to anticipate likely questions so that you can be prepared.
If you don't understand a question, don't be afraid to ask for clarification. Repeat the question to ensure the audience have all heard it. (This also gives you time to construct your answer).
Take your time on answers you know a lot about – it leaves less time for other questions! If you can't answer a question, say so. You could open it out to the audience or say you will find the answer to the question later, depending on the circumstances.
Oral presentation tips
- Be clear about your purpose. Who is your audience and what do they need to know? What were you asked to do?
- Prepare thoroughly, edit tightly, structure clearly and illustrate appropriately
- Check dates, times, locations, equipment, media
- Check your presentation on the destination computer if you can
- Anticipate likely questions so that you can be prepared
- Prepare handouts of your presentation. (You can also use these if equipment fails)
- Connect with your audience. Show your interest in the topic
- Keep to time. Aim to begin well and end well
- Relax - if you know your subject and prepare carefully, the rest should come naturally!
Editing and reviewing
Editing and reviewing is a stage that students sometimes miss, maybe because they've run out of time, or because they feel so sick of the essay or report that they don't want to look at it again! It's important to build in time to edit your work effectively.
How do I plan editing and reviewing?
If your essay or report looks slapdash, contains obvious errors, or repetitions, or you've forgotten some references, it can create a poor impression and you can lose marks.
What should I check for? (our 10 point plan)
- Have you answered the question set? Have you addressed the topic given?
- Is your assignment the right length? 10% either way is usually permissible
- Is your content all relevant to the question set?
- Have you supported your ideas with evidence?
- Does the writing flow, so that the reader will feel a clear sense of direction? Or are some parts a bit dis-jointed?
- Is the writing style appropriate?
- Is the grammar, spelling and punctuation correct?
- Are ideas from other writers clearly referenced within the assignment?
- Do the references given in the assignment match the reference list at the end?
- Does the reference list follow the appropriate conventions?
- Try to leave a short gap between when you finish the writing and when you go back to review. This means you will look at it with a fresh eye. Pressures of time may make this difficult to achieve, but if you can do it, it really is worth it
- Don't try to read for meaning and check the spelling and grammar at the same time. If your brain is searching for meaning, it tends to ignore spelling mistakes! So you need to check these separately
- If you can, get someone else to proofread your essay. They will notice things you don't see because you know what you mean and you are too close to it
- Some students find it useful to read their assignments aloud, because sometimes they hear things they don't see
Remember: A little time spent editing and reviewing can improve your finished writing and boost your marks. So try to do it!
Preparing for exams
Assessment is a necessary part of all university programmes. At some stage in your university programme, you will almost certainly have to take formal exams. How should you prepare?
What will exams at university be like?
Programmes differ in the number and types of exams that students have to take, so you might find you have more or fewer exams than your friends on different programmes.
You may have taken exams in the past, and have some experience of what helps and what hinders you. You may have experienced exam success, and have tried and trusted revision strategies and exam techniques. Alternatively, your experience of exams might have been a bit negative. This section gives advice and tips to help you prepare for exams at university, and build on your positive experiences so far.
Most students find that exams provoke some anxiety. It's important to realise that it's natural to get a little nervous. It means that you are aware of the challenges ahead, and that your body is gearing up to deal with them.
What do I need to know?
The only way you can properly prepare for exams is if you know exactly what you are preparing for. Sounds obvious, doesn't it!
There are many different types of exams and it's crucial to be clear about exactly what you will be required to do.
1) What type of exam will it be?
- Is it a multiple choice exam or one that requires short answers?
- Does it contain case studies that you need to analyse?
- Are you going to be asked to write three essays?
- Is it an 'open book' exam where you can take sources of information into the exam?
2) What's expected of me?
It's very important to find this out. You're likely to find this kind of information in your Module Handbook, but you can also look at the past papers which are held in the relevant library for your subjects.
Past papers can be really useful in helping you think about what you will be expected to do, but it's important to remember that sometimes the format of exams can be changed, so check with your Module Leader that your exam format is the same.
Remember: If you are not clear about the guidelines in your handbook or what you have seen in past papers, ask your Module Leader for clarification.
3) What will the exam cover?
How about the scope of the exam? How much of the course is it going to cover and how much of the course should you expect questions on?
Your Module Handbook contains a list of learning outcomes, and the exam will focus on several of these. The Module Leader can advise you, and past papers are usually a very good source of information on the types and frequencies of topics examined.
If your exam is multiple choice, it can cover a wide range of topics. If you are to write three essay questions however, you will not cover such a wide range of topics, but will need to write about each in more depth.
4) What are the marking criteria?
How will the exam be marked? How many marks will be allocated for each question?
It's a good idea to find out about this before the exam, because it can give you an idea of what is expected for each section. Obviously, if a question is worth ten marks then it will require less depth, and quantity of response, than a question worth thirty marks.
Knowing the allocation of the marks can help you plan your exam strategy. Sometimes students spend a long time on a question worth a small amount of marks, and then find they've run out of time for a question worth a lot more marks. Try to avoid losing marks in that way.
5) What else do I need to know?
- The first thing is to check out the exam timetable, and make a note in your diary of the times and locations of your exams. If you have more than one exam, it's important to know how much time you have between exams so that you can build this into your revision timetable.
- You also need to know exactly where the exam is being held. On a multi campus university, you might find that one of your exams is being held in a venue you're not familiar with. If you're not sure about the venue, it's a good idea to check it out in advance.
- Work out your transport arrangements and be sure to check parking possibilities if you're travelling by car. You can't afford to get lost on the day or be late. It does happen! Imagine the stress it creates!
- Exams vary in length, some might only be an hour, and others might be three hours. Make sure you check how long the exam is. You'll need this when you plan your exam strategy. You can't work out how to manage your time in the exam unless you know how much time you've actually got.
- What do you need to take with you? Unless your exam is online you'll need a reliable pen and a spare one as back up, perhaps a calculator. You might also want a bottle of water. You will definitely need your matriculation card.
When is the exam?
Where is the exam?
How do I get there?
How long will it take?
What do I need?
Exam preparation tips
Here are some questions you need to answer.
- Timetable – What are the dates and times of your exams?
- Duration – How long are your exams?
- Location – Where is the exam being held? How will you get there?
- Scope – How much of the course does the exam cover? Which learning outcomes?
- Format – What type of exam is it? What will you be asked to do?
- Marking criteria – How much is each question worth?
- Equipment – What do you need for the exam? Matriculation card, pen, spare pen, calculator? Anything else?
There are lots of different ways of revising for exams, and it's important to realise that there is no one 'correct' way. How can you plan your revision? What techniques might you use to revise effectively?
How do I plan revision?
If you've had experience of taking exams, it's useful to reflect on what worked for you and what didn't. The techniques you use should suit the particular type of exam, but they also need to suit you.
- The first step is to draw up a revision schedule for yourself. It's important to be realistic here and make sure you allow time for the rest of your life! You can't revise all the time
- When you're thinking about how long to spend revising, it's useful to consider how long you can really concentrate for. There's no point in sitting in front of your notes for three hours if you're not absorbing anything
- It's best to arrange your revision so that you work for short periods, broken up with breaks
- It's a really good idea to make sure you get outdoors for a time. Having a short walk or other form of exercise can be really beneficial. It allows information to 'settle' and can help you make connections and links between different ideas, which is a sign of real learning
- Your revision plan should schedule in regular sessions each week when you feel you will be able to revise effectively and efficiently. Try to schedule revision sessions for times when you think you'll be at your best
- When you've made a revision timetable, it's important to realise that things will not always go according to plan. Sometimes you may be unable to revise, or it may take you longer than you thought to revise a topic, so you find yourself 'behind' in your schedule. It happens to everyone, so it's important to be flexible
- Re-organise your schedule and your priorities when you need to, to make sure you stay on track
When, What and Where
When should I start revising?
It's important to start revising early. Some lecturers suggest you should begin revising about six weeks before your exams. What is really important is that you don't leave it all to the last minute and then attempt to cram.
If you want to perform well in your exams, and you want to get good marks, cramming is unlikely to achieve that. Cramming means you can really only regurgitate the same information in the exam, but that's not what lecturers are looking for. They are looking for evidence of learning, evidence that you have processed the information.
What should I revise?
This is where your information gathering helps. If you've looked in your Module Handbook, checked with your Lecturer and looked at past papers, you should have a reasonable idea about what to revise.
It's really important to attend all the lectures and listen for any clues about what will be covered in the exam. Lecturers often give hints about what is important for the exam, and you don't want to miss this kind of information.
Where should I revise?
This is down to personal preference and to personal circumstances. Most students prefer to be alone and in a quiet environment, although some people find it really helpful to have background music.
Libraries are also an excellent revision option as they have quiet spaces where you can study uninterrupted, as well as easy access to reference books, journals and online resources. Staff are also on hand to assist in your searches, and it can be helpful to see others revising quietly around you.
Sometimes lecturers offer revision sessions for exams, and if they do you should go. These revision sessions are likely to be really valuable.
How can I revise effectively?
What about revision techniques? How can you revise 'actively'?
Sometimes students think that revision means they have to read, re-read and re-read their notes, and just absorb information like a sponge. This can help to a certain extent but it's not the most effective use of your time.
To revise effectively and give yourself the best chance of getting good marks, you need to be active in your revision.
Active learning techniques
To help you get the most out of the time you'll spend on revision, you need to develop 'active learning' techniques. This means you need to do something with the information. For example:
- ask yourself questions about the subject
- explain information in different ways, e.g. by using mind maps or diagrams
- use cue cards.
There are lots of different techniques students use to revise actively. Again, you have to find the ways that suit you.
Using cue cards for revision
To help you remember key information, you have to rehearse it - go over it several times.
You can use cue cards, or flash cards. Make notes of the information you need, then rewrite your notes, reducing them as you go until you can fit the key points on a series of cards. If you like learning visually you might find it useful to summarise key information in a diagram, flowchart or mind map.
Look over the cue cards whenever you can. You can carry them around, or stick them up around your office or home, on the wall, the fridge, the mirror - anywhere you look at every day.
Here are some examples of cue cards, using index cards or sticky notes.
- Highlight key information, then rewrite it in your own words
- Take notes of the key points, then reduce the notes down until you can get the information on cue cards. Carry the cue cards around and look at them whenever you can
- Make mind maps of key information. Use colour and diagrams to help you remember
- Use diagrams to explain information in different ways. For example a flowchart could help you remember a sequence of events or a particular process
- Set yourself questions and practise answering them
- Organise a study group so that you can discuss the topics you need to study
- Use past papers to practice answering questions against the clock
- Talk someone else through a topic, or talk yourself through it!
Remember: It's not enough to look at information once. You need to go back to it, often repeatedly. When you return to information, try to do something with it. This means you are working with it 'actively', which helps you learn.
Exam day strategies
Everyone wants to perform well on the day, and students have different strategies for dealing with exam days. Perhaps the most important thing is to identify your own strategies to help you stay cool, calm and collected.
Key tips - Before the exam
The key to performing well on exam day is effective preparation, so plan your revision strategy well in advance. Here are some tips you might find useful.
- Try not to study too much the evening before an exam. What you certainly mustn't do is study all night!
- It's really important to try and get a good night's sleep so that you're fresh and ready for the exam
- Remember to eat well and drink plenty of water
- Work out how many questions or sections you will be required to answer and how much time you have, so that you can work out how much time to allocate to the different parts of the exam
- Draw up a rough timetable so that you know when you should be finishing one part and going on to another
- Arrive promptly for the exam, but maybe not too early. If you arrive very early and start discussing the exam with other students, it could make you more nervous
- Make sure you have everything you need, especially your matriculation card
Key tips - During the exam
During the exam, try to keep a cool head. Plan your responses carefully, keeping a close eye on the allocation of marks, as well as the clock.
- Don't feel you need to start writing immediately, even if other students around you start writing rapidly
- Remember to allow yourself time to read through the paper before you begin answering
- Pay attention to the allocation of marks. More marks means more is expected. Don't spend a long time on a question worth only a few marks
- If you have to write essays or longer answers, spend a few minutes planning what you're going to write. Your answer will be better structured and you won't forget your key points
- If you have to choose questions, give yourself time to make a good choice. Sometimes students choose a question without thinking it through. Then, after spending quite a lot of time on it they find they don't know as much as they thought, and have to choose another question
- If you find yourself spending a long time on a question you really know a lot about, make sure you still give enough time for the other questions
- Even if one question is answered brilliantly, it might not compensate if you can't answer others because you've run out of time
Dealing with nerves
What about nerves? Students experience different levels of exam anxiety. It's useful to recognise that it's quite normal to feel nervous. It's important to work out ways of managing this.
It's a good idea to identify things that help you relax, and actively try to do that as you approach the exams. It should also help if you feel well prepared for the exam.
One of the things that often worries students is that their nerves will cause them to go blank in the exam. This really doesn't happen very often, but if it does, there are techniques that you can use.
- Try to relax, allow yourself to breathe deeply
- Tell yourself that things will be okay, and take the time to recover a sense of calm
- If you can't answer a question or complete one you've started, leave it and go on. You can always come back to it later
- The most important thing is to give yourself permission to take a few moments to recover a feeling of control
Be positive, you can do it!
Most students get anxious about exams, but if you find you're feeling really very stressed, it might be worth making an appointment with one of your university counsellors. You might find it useful to go to one of the workshops on 'managing stress' that they run before exams.
If you've prepared well and used effective revision strategies, you can't do any more.
Be positive, go into the exam confidently and do well!