For history students, the dissertation or final year project should be the crowning glory of their undergraduate studies. However, for many, it becomes more of a crushing weight they simultaneously can’t ignore but can’t seem to progress with. This is the time when it feels like the wheels are coming off the whole thing. This post will focus on some practical steps you can take to make sure those wheels stay on and you’re able to steer it all safely home.
It’s that time of year again. Seminars are mainly over, ‘silence’ signs are appearing all over campus and there’s not a seat to be had in the library for love nor money. It can only be the exam period.
Students seem to see exams as a hurdle, a challenge, a horrible pain-filled Herculean labour that exist solely to cause the most amount of stress before the joy-filled days of post-exam frolics. I’m not about to suggest that anyone should really enjoy exams (although I suspect some people do get off on the drama of it all – flouncing round the library with water bottles & coloured pens, distracting everyone by talking about how little revision they’re doing and how they’ll definitely fail before doing annoyingly well). But I do think we can – and should – break down some of the myths about exams. Here’s my top four exam myths and some advice on how to bust them.
It’s late at night (or possibly early morning), and you’ve just got down the final sentence of your final paragraph of that essay that’s been haunting you for days. And the deadline is tomorrow/later today. Excellent. Job done. Now you’re finished, you can relax…
You probably know by now that’s not the case. There’s a whole bunch of stuff that needs to happen when you finish writing but before you can submit a finished piece of work. The thing is, realistically, you might not have much time between finishing writing and submitting, and sometimes things get shoved to one side and you only remember them when they’ve been circled & underlined and handed back to you by your marker. It’s annoying and frustrating, for both you and your marker. You might well even have lost marks for things that you know you meant to do… Only you never did them. And that’s probably the thing that niggles the most.
I’ll write more about the stages of writing an essay and the importance of giving yourself time to edit in another post, but for now, here is my checklist of things to check before you hand your essay in. It’s divided into two main parts – Content and Style. Continue reading Dr Barker’s essay checklist→
When you look back at all the things you do at university, well, the academic things, your dissertation should be the thing of which you are most proud. For history students, it is the headline event. You’ll spend a large chunk of your final year, and probably a whack of your penultimate year, working on it: it will most likely be the lengthiest thing you produce as an undergrad, and it will sit on a shelf in your house long after you graduate, finished and bound like a proper published work. It’s the thing you can show your friends and family for years to come – an essay’s an essay, but the dissertation looks and feels that bit different, that bit more significant.
Yet the dissertation can also be scary. It looms ahead of you throughout first and second year, when all you really know of it comes from the harassed looking third years camped out in the library. They might terrify you with mind-boggling scare stories, or they might have really helpful advice, like this recent Guardian blog post. You don’t really get to practice it, like you do with essays and presentations and the like – you only get one shot at the dissertation. You probably don’t have classes in how to do the dissertation, you’re just expected to get on with it (you’re not really, but I’ll cover that in another post).
This post will cover the things you need to consider at the start of the dissertation process, when you’re coming up with the initial ideas and as you start your research. In particular, I’m going to focus on how you go about deciding what to work on. The dissertation’s big selling point – you get to work on whatever you want – is also what terrifies a lot of people – how on earth do you pick one thing? Finding the topic that will allow you to complete a good dissertation is challenging, but not impossible, and there are some things to bear in mind as you start to narrow down a topic.
A few things have prompted me to write this post. I’m putting together some new module outlines, and I’ve been thinking about how to assess these. I’ve also spoken to several students about their experiences of group work recently, both as part of the official feedback process and in general conversation. And I talk regularly with my colleagues about how teaching is going. These situations typically prompt me, and my colleagues, to reflect upon our practice, but also how we communicate that practice to our students – in other words, do we make it clear why we ask you to do the things we want you to do? Ideally we should, but there’s a big difference between listing some bullet points in a module template’s ILOs (Intended Learning Outcomes) and really explaining to students how the different parts of their studies all fit together. That’s one of the reasons we started this blog – to de-mystify the process a bit.
What really got me to my computer though was finding out what students think about their studies when they’re talking to each other and not to a tutor. It’s Sabbatical Election time on campus at the moment – there are posters and slogans and people in colourful costumes all over the place! Over the weekend, I was reading about some of the policies suggested by candidates for the Vice President Education sabbatical post (their debate was helpfully recapped on Twitter and then written up by the Exeter student paper Exposé.) I have the utmost respect for students who are engaged and driven enough to stand for election to these demanding posts, they play a crucial role in shaping how universities work, and I think even more students should get engaged with the process – if only through the simple act of voting! And I was impressed with many of the ideas and policies proposed by the various candidates. Several of the candidates brought up group work when outlining their policies, in particular ensuring that the marks awarded for group work were fair. The general point being made was that students should be rewarded for the work they, individually, put in. Seems reasonable, doesn’t it?
It did get me thinking, however, about how tutors are explaining group work to students, if it is mainly seen as leading to a grade based on hours of work done individually. The balance between the individual and the group is a tricky one to navigate, but group work is about much more than grades, and if tutors are not getting that across, then that worries me a bit.
So, term’s getting underway, and hopefully you’re starting to feel a bit settled, if you’re new to university, or are getting back into the swing of things, if you’re an old hand at this. No matter what stage you’re at – fresher or finalist, undergrad or postgrad – you will no doubt be confronted with a seminar at some point in your learning career. This post will explain what a seminar is, and what you should expect from them – and it should be of use to both undergrads and postgrads. In other posts, I’ll look at how you should prepare and contribute to a seminar so that both you and your fellow students benefit.
What is a seminar?
Put all thoughts of business seminars you might have seen in American sit-coms or movies out of your mind. We’re not in motivational-speaker-land here. A university seminar is a small, discussion-based class, made up of a small sub-section of the whole class. There will be a tutor who is there to lead discussion, but students are expected to do most of the talking, because they will have been given preparation work to do for the session. Finally, a seminar typically focuses on a small-ish, discrete section of the course.
So far on HEHistoryHub, we’ve focused mainly on undergraduate history students, freshers in particular. But they’re not the only ones starting out on degrees at this time of year, of course. Universities also welcome their new postgraduate students at this time of year – those doing taught degrees (Masters, or MLitts if you’re in Scotland) as well as those doing research degrees. Studying at postgraduate level throws up a whole new set of challenges, so we’ll be looking at studying history at postgraduate level on HEHistoryHub too. Today, I’d just like to go over some of the main differences between undergraduate degrees and masters degrees, in particular the things that seem to throw new MA students for a bit of a loop.
In my previous post, I explained what a lecture is, why we still use lectures to teach history, and what you should expect when you turn up to class. In this post, I’ll go through some practical ways of getting the most from your lectures – whether you need to show up at all, how to prepare, what to do in the lecture theatre and how to stop everything leaving your head the minute the lecturer stops talking…
Your first choice is whether or not you’re going to turn up – if the lecture is at 9 am after the big student club night, on the far side of town/campus, it’s raining and you’re just not sure you’re that bothered. You’re not sure what the lecture’s on today. You can catch up from someone else or using VLE support…
Well, yes, you can, but there are several reasons for making the effort to go to that lecture:
Term’s probably underway or about to be underway for most history students now, so it is a good time to think about the ways in which you’re taught at university. For history students, lectures are probably the most obvious form of teaching you encounter. But what are they and why do we do them? Should we even be doing them, and should you be attending? In this post, I’ll try to break down the reasons for the lecture, then a follow-up post later in the week will look at some techniques for getting the most from lectures.
One of the things we are keen to stress on HE History Hub is where history at university differs from history at school. A good example of this is how your history department is staffed, and how it fits in with the wider university. Because teaching is only part of what goes on at a university, there are loads of bits of the university machine that you might not get to experience first-hand. If you’re in a medium to large sized department, you probably won’t be taught by anything like all of the staff on the books. Nonetheless, getting to know who is who is a good way of settling in, discovering your new surroundings, and broadening your understanding of history. Most departments will have a section of their website dedicated to their staff, their research interests and teaching – take the time to browse this before you arrive, so you have some idea of who does what.