The Seven Deadly Sins for Students*

*Ok, well not deadly and strictly speaking not sins but definitely seven things you should try to avoid doing.


It’s almost the end of the year, so what better time is there for us here at the Hub to reflect on some of the most common student queries and missteps we have encountered over the past few months in an effort to stop you bringing those bad habits back with you in September.  How many of these have you been guilty of this year?!


7.  The ‘How Many’ Question:

I’m starting with the question that I’m sure you’ve probably all asked at one point or another and that is ‘how many?: how many books do I need to read, how many sources should I look at, how many historians do I need to refer to and so on. In the vast majority of cases, you may as well be asking your tutor ‘how long is a piece of string?’ – yes, it’s a cliché, but in this case it’s true. Now, there may be occasions where the number of books, sources, or types of sources are specified and that is a different matter, but on the whole, how much you should read and how many things you should refer to is impossible to quantify.

This is a question that is particularly common with people starting their dissertations – ok, this needs to be based on primary sources, but how many? Well, is your main source base political cartoons from the Daily Mirror or the novels of Leo Tolstoy? Are you analysing pacifist tendencies in the lyrics of Bob Dylan or exploring the theological thought of Martin Luther? Your source base and how many sources that base is comprised of will differ dramatically depending on what your topic is; the important thing is that it is sufficient for you to offer a reasoned and detailed examination of whatever your subject matter is. This is never something that we can give you as a neat little number.

There is perhaps a slight difference when it comes to reading secondary texts for essays generally, but only slight. Most tutors will have a rough idea in their head as to what constitutes a reasonable length bibliography for a 2,000 word essay, depending on what level you are at in your degree. For example, I say to my first years if asked that I would expect to see 10-12 items on their bibliography. However, there is a big difference between reading 8 specific items that are closely related to the question you are attempting to answer and 20 items of the ilk of Joe Blogs’ A History of the Modern World, 1485-2001. Again then, it’s not so much how much you read, but what you read and ultimately how well you process and engage with what you read that is going to make a good essay.

Whether you are carrying out primary research or reading secondary scholarship then, don’t get hung up on ‘how many?’.


6. Dictionary Definitions:

Trust me when I say there is little that makes your tutor’s heart sink like seeing ‘The Oxford English Dictionary defines…’ as the opening line of an essay. The only time it is really appropriate to use the OED in your work – at least as far as I’m concerned – is if you’re writing an essay on the history of the OED. This is not the same as saying that discussing definitions is a waste of time – in many cases it’s not, and in some cases it’s essential. Big ideas such as toleration, globalisation or total war, and particularly slippery concepts such as class or ethnic cleansing can often benefit from some discussion of definition. This can be because the idea has been the subject of much academic debate, sometimes it is just so that the person who is reading your work knows exactly what you mean when you use a particular word or phrase. However, the place where you go for definitions should not be the dictionary but the secondary literature – how have scholars used the term? What are the points of contestation? Whose definition do you want to use or do you actually want to take points from a number of people and create a usable definition of your own?

There is a caveat here though: by all means define what you think needs defining but don’t go overboard and don’t let it consume your entire essay. Now there may be occasions where wrangling with definitional fuzziness is actually at the crux of the issue you’re discussing, but in the majority of cases it won’t be. Make your definitions clear and concise right at the start of the essay – either the introduction or first paragraph – and then get on with actually tackling the question. Don’t do what one of my friends did in her first year essay on the Peasants’ Revolt, which was spend half the essay defining what a peasant was and the other half discussing the difference between a revolt and an uprising. I believe that her tutor asked her at the end of her degree whether he could use that as an example of exactly how not to write an essay…


5. Stylistic Sloppiness:

At some point here at HE History Hub we will tackle essay writing in-depth and I’m not going to get into the nitty-gritty of reading material selection, structuring and effective argumentation here, I just want to talk about stylistic issues. Obviously presenting a piece of work that is well-written and error free is a very good starting point, but what about going beyond that? Now I may be alone in my pedantry about this, but I doubt it! I really dislike seeing things like font changes in students’ work, either in the main body of the text itself or in footnotes and the bibliography. Your essay and references should be in the same font, if you copy and paste from the library catalogue, it needs to be in the same font, if you copy a quote from an online source it needs to be in the same font – are you spotting a theme here?! The same goes for changes in font size, text alignment and spacing, italicisation, capitalisation and so on – be consistent.

Now, unless the presentation of your work is particularly poor, these are not things that are necessarily going to result in marks being docked, but they create a good impression. You want your tutor to think that you’ve put thought and effort into creating a polished and accomplished piece of work rather than making them think that you knocked it off in the early hours of the morning it was due whilst strung out on Red Bull; even if the latter may be true, don’t let the presentation of your work testify to this.

And obviously what goes for an essay in terms of consistent and polished presentation perhaps is even more important when you’re using something like PowerPoint in oral presentations, when you’re projecting your work to an entire classroom of people who will, believe me, be silently judging you if it’s full of stylistic blunders.

Think about the longer term implications of this; when you’re applying for a job along with potentially hundreds of other people, a slapdash CV – regardless of its content – may mean the difference between being read and taken seriously and being instantly binned.

Presentation is just one small part producing work of a good standard but it is a part that can too often be overlooked by students.


4. The Half-Arsed Essay Plan:

It’s fairly common now for students to produce a plan of some kind before writing their essays and even if it isn’t an requirement for your module, most tutors will be more than happy to discuss a plan with you, if it’s produced in good time of the deadline. What can be rather frustrating is when students don’t maximise the opportunity that this presents – you can essentially show your tutor what it is you intend to do, get their reaction to your approach and their feedback on what it is you might also want to consider – surely this is a good thing?! It is a waste of both your tutor’s and your own time to produce an essay plan that is nothing more than bare bones, a few lines of generalised comments or broad themes.

Ok, an essay plan should not be your essay converted into bullet-points but at the same time it needs to be substantial enough that your tutor has a good idea of what you intend to do. You will want to give specific details about your proposed structure, your line of argument and what evidence you plan on using to substantiate this argument. Like so many things when it comes to your work, being able to produce a relatively detailed essay plan in good time depends on having actually starting working on your essay in good time. Most tutors will want plans in a minimum of a week in advance which means that you probably should start reading 4-5 days before this. Submitting something too late may mean that your tutor doesn’t have the chance to provide you with feedback or that there isn’t enough time for you to act on the feedback they do give. Manage your time in a way that allows you to really exploit this opportunity to get advice and guidance on your work.


3. Untimely Exam Anxiety:

More and more I am finding that students are stressing about exams right from the start of a course, so let me take this opportunity to put your minds at ease somewhat. Let’s be clear, I’m not saying that you are being daft about worrying about exams or thinking about what questions you may face on the paper when you turn it over, but for several reasons you should try not to let the prospect of sitting an exam colour your whole experience of a module.

First of all, cast you mind back to the start of this semester, if your tutor sat down in week one and went through what kind of question you might face on the exam, would it actually have been any use to you at that point? Probably not. By all means familiarise yourself with the format – seen or unseen, open or closed note, how many questions in how many hours, is there a gobbet component or are they all standard essay questions, etc. – but don’t worry about the specifics of the question type or themes before you’ve even started the course.

Secondly – and don’t ever forget this – your tutor wants you to pass the course. We never sit down to write an exam paper and deliberately pick mean questions or try and think of ways we can trip you up. We want you to do well – we have also invested much time and effort into delivering the course just as you have in studying it and, believe it or not, we want you to succeed! Your tutor does not suddenly take on the persona of Dr Evil when it comes to putting together the exam paper, and even if they did, there are rigorous internal and external checks to ensure that examinations are in line with the material that is covered on the module.



“I know: Question 7, Discuss with specific reference to both Habermas’ theory of the public sphere and Plato’s The Republic, the ontological and epistemological construction of power in the Third Reich using a non-teleological approach’ Mwah-hah-hah”


Thirdly, just step back for a moment and think of all the questions that you have been asked to discuss over the course of a particular module – there will be dozens. While questions are a way of structuring a seminar, they are at their heart the key way that you engage with the major debates, themes and issues related to any particular topic. While they may not frame it explicitly in this way, by asking you questions in the seminar your tutor is not only training you to be a historian generally, but also exposing you to the range of questions you may encounter on the exam paper throughout the entire module. Whether we say so or not, we are always aware of the fact that you are examined in some way on the material we set. So when it does come time to revise then, don’t just look to past papers for guidance but go back over the discussion questions for each session as they are also likely to be a great barometer for what you’ll face in the exam hall.

Finally, and I know that this can be tricky, try to enjoy the module while you are studying it out of the pure love of learning cool new stuff. Thinking things like ‘I’m not going to bother reading this source because I’d never answer an exam question on it’ will ultimately inhibit your learning experience. Yes, don’t lose sight of how you are assessed on any given course – thinking about assessment is important – but don’t let it dominate your approach to your studies.


2.  Module Evaluation:

I’m sure over the last few weeks that you’ve filled in some kind of feedback form, where you’ve had to assess everything from library resources to how interesting your seminars were to what skills you feel were enhanced on the module. As tutors, getting module evaluation is often a very useful process and it can be quite lovely as well to read about how much a student has taken from a course you’ve put a lot of effort into. In some institutions module feedback is also used officially in staff career progression so it is a serious matter. But it can also be really frustrating and the key frustration for myself and other colleagues I’ve spoken to is when the evaluation process is used to flag up issues that we weren’t aware of but could have possibly rectified.  The end of the module is not the time to say that a key text was missing from the library or that a particular document on the VLE wouldn’t open – ok, we can take action on that for next time, but what good does it do you? If there is some problem with the mechanics of the module – things missing, files corrupted, something not working as it should on the VLE, don’t wait until the end of the course to tell your module leader! Some things, like missing library books, they may not be able to do much about in the short term but they won’t be able to do anything unless someone actually tells them there is an issue.

In a slightly different vein, also don’t be afraid to flag other things up to your tutor as you go along – do they speak too fast or too quietly in lectures, do you have difficulty deciphering their comments on your work, is there a problem with the group you’re meant to be presenting with? Some of these just require a simple politely-worded email, others require a face-to-face chat, but these are all issues that should be broached during the course of the module. How is your learning experience enhanced by sitting in lectures you can’t really hear and then commenting on it at the end of the semester? Clearly there is a right way to go about raising some of these issues with your tutor, but we would rather know about these kinds of problems as we go, than find out at the end of the course.


And my number one ‘deadly sin’ is…

1. Going Off the Grid

For most History students, there will be at least one piece of work where you’re allocated a supervisor and are then pretty much left to your own devices. For many, this will be a dissertation, for others it may be some other kind of independent study module. Whatever the format, you will undoubtedly be given tons of advice both generally from the department and specifically from your supervisor about what they are expecting of you.

We will be coming back to look at this issue of supervision in the new academic year but I’m going to give you my top tip right now – stay in touch with your supervisor. I am not exaggerating when I say that without fail every year I have been doing this job, I have had at least one piece of work that gets a far lower mark than it ever needed to because that student completely stopped coming to see me. Sometimes it’s because their structure is completely unsuitable, sometimes it’s because they’ve strayed away from the parameters of the assignment, sometimes it’s because they’ve overlooked something hugely significant, sometimes it’s because they’ve made glaring errors – any and all of which could have been at least limited, if not completely rectified, had they at any point come to see me or shown me a draft of their work.

Often time management is at the heart of why many students stop seeing their supervisors – they feel they haven’t made sufficient progress or put as much effort into the project as they should have – and clearly this is something that you have to figure out for yourself. Part of doing an independent research project is the independent bit, as well as the research bit! And the cold hard truth of it is that you are adults and we are here to supervise. We are not going to chase you up if you don’t come to see us, you have to be proactive in seeking out the supervision you require, so please do it!

These kinds of mistakes don’t do you any favours and there is nothing more frustrating for us as tutors in seeing a piece of work that has been compromised, not because the student was lazy or didn’t try hard enough, but because they have gone wrong somewhere in a way that we could have helped with had they only come for a chat. Plus, as historians we are naturally nosy, I mean curious, and genuinely want to hear about what you’ve discovered, so come and tell us!



2 thoughts on “The Seven Deadly Sins for Students*

  1. I stumbled across this blog while doing some general history research, and am delighted to have found such helpful, practical and generous advice for students!

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