Written by Dr Anna Carlile

Head of the Department of Educational Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London.

This blog was the subject of a picket line teach-out during the UCU strike at Goldsmiths in March 2020 and was first published at https://inclusiveeducation652853906.wordpress.com/

Why should we embed essay writing and other academic skills into our university teaching?

If you are a student looking for guidance for yourself, or a lecturer seeking to embed academic skills into your own teaching, scroll down below the article for guidance on the following:

  1. Plan your work schedule
  2. Learn exam revision skills
  3. Learn exam strategy
  4. How to write a literature review
  5. What goes in a methods section?
  6. How to write a data-with-analysis/findings section

Teaching academic skills is a decolonising pedagogy

How did you learn how to write a literature review?

I have heard people say that by teaching academic skills in the university classroom, we are spoon-feeding our students. But this misunderstands the poor educational service many of our students have experienced before they come to university.

If we are looking at the BAME (albeit an inexact and problematic acronym) award gap in HE, for example, we can’t ignore the impact of institutional prejudice on some students’ educational histories. So what can we do about it, beyond decolonising our reading lists (Goldsmiths library is amazing on this)?

Students who go to elite schools are being prepared for university. They are taught how to write research essays and how to prepare for exams. Some state funded schools do this too, but many arrive with us from institutions which have not been seriously preparing them for university. These institutions have been preparing students for servitude. The education system is set up so that working class students are coached to leave school as working class adults, and middle class students are hot-housed to leave school as middle class adults. Anyone who is perceived to be ‘a risk’ to the project of neoliberalism- in other words, anyone unlikely to leave school a highly effective consumer- is liable to abjection and exclusion.

Academic skills are taught fabulously by library staff at Goldsmiths. Our Academic Skills Centre runs a programme on decolonising study skills. However, low waged students, parents, carers and others with complicated lives may not have the extra time to go to library sessions. And we need to make our academic skills teaching specific to our disciplines, courses, modules and assignments.

But this is where we can decolonise our pedagogies. Instead of assuming students have all had an elite form of education before coming to us, we need to recognise that we may need to rectify the disadvantage built into the system. This is not spoon-feeding. It’s decolonising. In Educational Studies, we recognise this and consistently embed academic skills into all of our teaching.

Below are some examples of decolonising study skills support, together with sample documents and narrated PowerPoints. Feel free to use them for yourself, if you’re a student, or to embed them, change, update and tweak them for your own teaching, if you’re a university tutor or lecturer:

A. Plan your work schedule

Students with busy, complicated lives may feel daunted by the number of essays they need to write. I’ve had students who are living in homeless hostels, who have severe anxiety disorders, who are working two jobs, raising five children alone, contending with domestic violence, or caring for grandparents. Those students need help to plan out their work. I often sit down with a student one-to-one to help with this. You can use this strategy with several months or just a couple of weeks to go before submission deadlines.

How to make a work plan:

  1. Work out how many months you have left
  2. Create a calendar grid with four weeks per month
  3. Add in the weekdays
  4. Add in all your activities. Include self care, relaxing and socialising.
  5. Identify the gaps where you will have time for assignment writing
  6. Make a list of your assignments, with deadlines. Add the deadlines to the calendar.
  7. Work out how many writing days you have for each assignment
  8. Decide if you want to do each assignment in a block or work on them all in rotation
  9. Assign an equal number of writing days to each assignment
  10. Include days at the end of your calendar for editing (see writing in red on the example)
  11. You could also break down each writing day into specific part of each essay (see writing in blue on the example)
  12. Stick to your plan, and reward yourself each day

Here is a Sample Work Plan

B. Learn exam revision skills

Many students have never been shown how to revise. Here is one way of doing it. I used this to stuff my head full of pages and pages of case law for my law degree (which I didn’t really use, but hey…)

  1. work out what you do and don’t need to revise by finding out how many topics might be on the exam
  2. read through your lecture notes, making a summary of them as you go
  3. turn each main point into a question and answer
  4. create a quiz out of your questions and answers
  5. Revise by answering your questions:

(i) in whole sentences (the first few times, feel free to look at the answers)

(ii) in shorthand

(iii) verbally, with a friend holding the answer sheet

  1. Identify the areas which are really hard to remember and create a special quiz for these
  2. Look at and practice old exam papers. Time yourself.

C. Learn exam strategy

I often invigilate exams and I am shocked how many students leave the room before the end. Don’t leave the room! Use all the time you are given. Here are some ideas for best practice in an exam situation:

  1. When you get in the room, read through the whole paper. You might find you have to answer more (or less) questions than you thought.
  2. Make a note of how long you have, and specify a timing for each question. Leave five minutes at the end to read through and edit your answers.
  3. Decide which questions you will answer and quickly jot down the key points you need to include (eg quotes, dates, references). This will allow space in your head to actually write without having to remember facts
  4. Stick to your timings and write as neatly as possible, leaving plenty of space for edits
  5. In the last five to ten minutes, read through everything you have written and edit for sentence structure, accuracy and clarity
  6. Never leave before the end. If you have time left over, read through, edit and add to your answers again

D. How to write a literature review

(PowerPoint here:How to write a literature review GENERIC_recorded (3)– click on ‘Slide Show- Play from start’  and you’ll hear my voice narrating the steps)

1.Start by identifying themes

Come up with three to five themes for your research (eg race/class/gender/parent’s views/teachers’ views/children’s views/policy/faith/food/hair etc).

Open a Word document and write down the themes as subheadings.

  • Themes might be framed around the sub-questions that emerge out of your big question
  • New themes might emerge from the literature
  • Additional themes might emerge as a surprise from your data- you’ll need to come back to revisit your literature review if this is the case
  • They are ideas which you hope to learn or have learned from your research
  • One main theme may be an overarching idea you will use to think about your research: eg feminist theory, queer theory, or critical race theory

2. Library search

  • Spend a good two hours doing a library search for three to five article or chapters for each theme. Try to stick to peer reviewed articles published within the last five years. Download them into folders labelled by theme on your desktop. You may not find articles relating exactly to what you are writing about, but find a ‘best fit’. Your job is to explain how they link to your project. Ask a librarian for help if you can’t find anything.

3. Build the lit review around quotes from the literature. This prevents you from polemicising, or making a point from memory and then searching around for some literature to back it up.

  • Pull out a lovely quote from each of the three to five articles or chapters and write it down under the theme heading. Include year published and page number. Eg: ‘…institutional prejudice underpins some of the causes of permanent exclusion from school’ (Carlile 2012, p.178).
  • Each theme heading should now have four or five quotes from the literature underneath it.

4. Add words to introduce each quote, or paraphrase it:

  • Eg: Carlile (2012, p.178) explains that ‘…institutional prejudice underpins some of the causes of permanent exclusion from school’.

5. Add joining sentences

Eg: Another person who wrote about school exclusion is Kulz (2018), who point out the racial bias in the ways in which her students were pulled out of her classroom by senior management.

(Side note- Christy Kulz’s book Factories for Learning, about the neoliberal and exclusionary practices of a very disciplinarian secondary school, is one of the best ethnographies I’ve ever read).

6. Intro and conclusion

  • Add an introduction to your lit review, reminding the reader about the main topic of the assignment, and then laying out the themes you will be addressing in the section
  • Finish it off with a conclusion, pulling the main threads together

E. What goes in a methods section?

(Narrated PowerPoint here: How to write a methods section_recorded (2) Click on ‘Slide Show- Play from start’  and you’ll hear my voice narrating the steps).

1.Start with an introductory sentence referring back to your main research question and explain why the method is appropriate to the question

  • My question is therefore…
  • In order to answer this question I did this… (brief summary)

2. Add literature/references to your methods section

  • Other people have written the following about my chosen method…
  • This method is appropriate for my research focus because…

3. Say what you actually did

  • I did my interviews/observations/focus group/text analysis in this context/with these people/on these websites…
  • We met in a café/at university… because…
  • These people/websites/locations were appropriate for this research because…
  • Access issues included…
  • I recorded the data on a voice recorder/in a notebook/using photography…

Nb don’t waste a whole page on explaining generic concepts like ‘qualitative research’ or ‘interviews’. Be specific to your own chosen approach.

4. Limitations (but don’t spend too long saying what you didn’t do)

  • Limitations to my methodology were…

5. How did you analyse your data?

  • I analysed my data by (eg arranging it into themes, which emerged from the literature/my initial question/the respondents themselves… coding it according to the main issues that arose…)

6. Ethics

  • Ethics follow on from the methodology
  • Ethical issues arising from the research included…

– Confidentiality

– Informed consent

– Sensitivity

  • I dealt with these issues by…

– Interviewing in a neutral location

– Using open questions to allow the respondent to raise any sensitive issues

– Participatory methods

– Using an informed consent information sheet

F. How to write the main paragraphs of a data-with-analysis/findings section

(Narrated PowerPoint here: How to write a data section_recorded (3) click on ‘Slide Show- Play from start’  and you’ll hear my childlike voice narrating the steps)

Your findings section will need its own introduction and conclusion. Main body paragraphs can be built up as follows. If you follow this structure you will be ideally ticking all those evidence, reference, and analysis boxes you need to get a decent mark.

1.Writing a data-with-analysis paragraph

  • Introduce the themes or ideas emerging from the data (these themes should ideally reflect those used in your lit review)
  • Give an example of the theme or issue which is arising from your data
  • Bring in an author (from the corresponding theme in your lit review) who talks about the theme or issue and quote or paraphrase them
  • Reflect or comment on the author’s idea which you have just quoted or paraphrased

The second and third step could be repeated in the paragraph if you had a couple of good examples.

2. Sample text (from this book): a data-with-analysis paragraph:

It seemed from my observations that a permanent exclusion option must have a negative effect on pupils and professionals. For example, Cherry Tree School’s head teacher told me angrily, ‘Michael Johns: I have had enough of him!’ Because exclusion was an option, this head teacher could afford to ‘have enough’ of one of her learners. This shut down her ability to creatively think about other ways to support him. As Searle (1996) explains, ‘The abolition of corporal punishment gave teachers the opportunity to develop skills in … strategies of counselling and community liaison that they had not thought possible … An end to ‘permanent exclusion’ (except in the most dire and unavoidable circumstances) would have the same positive effect’ (p.41). In other words, the existence of permanent exclusion from school limits teachers’ behaviour management skills.

3. Let’s break it down a bit…

(a) Identify the themes or ideas which are emerging from your data. These might follow the theme headings you decided on when you structured the literature review. They might be new for you, emerging as a surprise from your data. They are ideas which you have learned from your research

Examples of emerging themes or ideas:

  • Parents are a big influence on what children like to do outside…
  • Musicians tend not to see informal learning taking place but consider what they do to be ‘work’…
  • Dance classes are often marketed toward white middle class people, unless they are called ‘street’ or ‘urban’…

Adults who have been excluded from school as children often find themselves in the criminal justice system later on…

  • What are some of your emerging themes or ideas?
  • What do you predict might be some of your emerging themes or ideas?

Write them down using the sentence starters:

  • The data suggests that…
  • My findings point towards
  • One issue that emerged

(b) Give an example of the theme or issue which is arising from your data

  • For example, in the first interview, Alice said that ‘…
  • This was demonstrated during the first observation. Billy aged four ran across the room and…
  • One of the websites showed this: the primary colours used suggested a focus on younger children…

What specific examples can you give regarding the themes or issues you see arising from your data?

(c) Bring in an author who talks about the theme or issue and quote or paraphrase them.

  • Find a quote which relates to the theme or idea which emerges from your data

Write it down with the author’s last name, year published and page number: Eg…

  • One theorist who discusses this is Jones (2012), who notes that…
  • Smith (2014) addresses this issue, suggesting that…
  • One idea Evans (2010) raises in relation to this is…

Reflect on the author’s idea which you have just quoted or paraphrased

  • This suggests that
  • In other words
  • One conclusion that might be drawn from this is…

(d) What do you think of the quote or idea you just selected?

Don’t give someone else the last word. Finish the paragraph with your own summary sentence.

4. Another example:

Many permanent exclusions seemed to be about making an example out of the child. This was demonstrated in Alex’s case: although he had Tourette’s Syndrome and could not help himself, the school had still excluded him to demonstrate, as the head teacher explained, ‘zero tolerance to disrespectful language towards a teacher’.  Osler and Vincent (2003) suggest that the government has an official ‘consequences’ discourse (34). The goal to reduce numbers of permanent exclusions had, they explain, ‘been replaced by a growing official concern about the need to address youth violence and criminal behaviour, in which exclusion from school was seen as an essential policy tool’ (34). One conclusion that can be drawn from this might be that children like Alex were being excluded from school to make a political point about being tough on crime.

5. Now you try

  • Introduce the themes or ideas emerging from the data
  • Give an example of the theme or issue which is arising from your data
  • Bring in an author who talks about the theme or issue and quote or paraphrase them
  • Reflect on the author’s idea which you have just quoted or paraphrased

6. Edit

Read the paragraph aloud

  • …edit the paragraph

First published March 3, 2020

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