University has significantly less structure than school and places more emphasis on independent learning. Adapting to the new standards and expectations that come with university-level academic work can be challenging, even for high-performing students. However there is no need to panic. With practice and time you will adjust! A variety of resources can help you do this. Find out more below.
Training in Good Academic Practice (TGAP) is an online module you will complete when you first matriculate at the University of St Andrews. The module helps you understand the values underpinning all forms of academic work within the University, and helps you become acquainted with policies and procedures around research integrity and academic practice.
It will help you understand how to avoid plagiarism, multiple submission, data falsification, false citation, cheating in exams, aiding and abetting, coercion, and contract cheating. You can find the TGAP module on Moodle.
Although you have probably written essays at school, you may be uncertain of what is expected in a university-level essay. Having organised notes and allowing yourself sufficient time for research and writing will be extremely helpful. It is recommended that you write an essay in three stages over the course of at least three weeks.
Prior to beginning, ensure you have a complete understanding of the question and an idea of how to answer it. Are you being asked to describe a theme? Explain an equation? Analyse an argument? Summarise research in a field? Understanding the precise nature of the question is key to your success.
The first stage is research. Choosing a thesis (answer to the question) is important. This will narrow your focus to relevant information and prevent losing time to irrelevant research. You should be flexible to changing your thesis based on information you find during research. At the end of this stage you should have an idea of the flow of your essay's argument.
The second stage is writing. A succinct plan and organised notes reflecting the flow of the essay and its argument will be very helpful here. Your goal is to ensure the essay has a logical structure and that the transitions between paragraphs make sense.
The final stage is editing. It is important not only to detect grammar and formatting errors, but to find gaps in the logic of your argument. Make sure all your references and citations are consistent and correct.
In sciences, you may be required to write lab reports. Structure and conciseness are important in lab reports, and unlike in essays, figures and equations are often equally as valuable as written explanations. The detail required will depend on the subject and specific assignment, so it is important to consult module handbooks and academic staff for guidance, but you will generally follow the structure below.
This is a concise (100-200 word) overview of the report, containing the central question of the study, a brief explanation of the methods, results, discussion and wider relevance of the study. The abstract is often written last.
The introduction largely focuses on the justification for the experiment, an overview of past research in the area and why this research is required. You explain the central question, describe the theory, and outline your hypothesis. The tone should be objective, detached and concise.
The methods should provide sufficient detail for the experiment to be replicated. The subjects, equipment and materials are described, including exact models used, the order of procedures, and a full description of any tests you used.
Here you present all data from the experiment (regardless of whether it supports your hypothesis) and any tables or figures. Any arguments in the discussion should refer to the figures and tables. You typically also include statistical tests of significance in the results.
The discussion is where you analyse and evaluate the validity of your results and describe any future research that could resolve contradictions. You should explain how your results relate to past research and suggest a future possibility for further research.
The style of your lectures will vary depending on the subject and lecturers’ individual preferences. Whilst some lecturers provide detailed slides containing supplementary information that you will not be examined on, others give short bullet points and prefer to orate their explanations. It is important to attend all your lectures to ensure you have a complete understanding of the lecture and what you are expected to know.
It can be difficult to decide how to take notes. Some students choose to type their notes due to the ease of editing and expanding notes later. Saving notes to an online drive also provides security against loss and ensures you can easily access your notes in later years. Others prefer to handwrite their notes as this requires more active listening, making it easier to remember the lecture.
Some general tips for note taking:
- Be organised. Date and label each lecture and keep notes from different modules separate and clearly labelled.
- Be clear and concise. If the lecturer places particular emphasis on a point, highlight or underline it and note its importance. Pay close attention to words like 'therefore,' 'finally,' and 'furthermore' which suggest the idea is important.
- Be prepared. To make the most of each lecture, you should think about the learning outcomes in advance. This will refine your focus during the lecture and help you make better notes. After the lecture you should expand your notes with independent research.
- Ensure your notes are accessible for reviewing and revising. Reviewing your notes regularly will ensure information is remembered. It is recommended that you review each lecture every week.
Knowing what kind of learner you are can help you find the most efficient way to take notes and revise. It is a good idea to experiment with different forms of note taking to find out which suits you best. You could also take an online quiz for guidance (external source).
The traditional outline
Making notes from the lecture in its original order is simple and useful if the lecture is organised sequentially, for example by time period. However it does not allow you to make connections between different parts of the lecture and may cause you to passively copy notes without thinking about their significance.
This style involves splitting your page into two columns with a horizontal row at the bottom. The left column is used for key words and concepts, which are defined and explained in the right column. You use the horizontal row at the bottom to summarise the page.
This method forces you to consider key points of the lecture and is useful if you are prone to getting distracted by details.
Mind maps are created by writing the lecture’s topic in the centre of the page with points radiating out in a series of connected lines. Mind maps are useful for visual learners and allow you to make connections between themes. However there is a risk of being too concise and missing important details. It can be difficult to complete mind maps in lectures, but you could consider using them as a revision technique. You can also create digital mind maps by downloading software available from IT services.
The key to realising your potential at University is a growth mindset. Students who adopt a growth mindset believe that talent and brains are just the starting point. They critically reflect on their work, listen to and act upon feedback, and learn from others. This effort ultimately leads to higher achievement.
Students with a growth mindset also thrive on challenges and view failure as a springboard for growth rather than evidence of unintelligence. Conversely, students with a fixed mindset believe their intelligence is set in stone. They find setbacks threatening, avoid failure in order to preserve their sense of being smart or talented, and dismiss feedback from their tutors and peers. This underlying belief and associated behaviour ultimately limit their potential and achievement.
Adopting a growth mindset and responding effectively to feedback is a crucial aspect of your academic and personal development. Once matriculated, you will have access to a Moodle course which aims to help you recognise the sources and types of feedback you will encounter as a student, and how to make the most of these opportunities with a growth mindset.
The course is currently under development and will be available from September. Please log in when prompted and click 'Enrol me'.
The academic skills project (ASP) was created by CAPOD to help students improve their confidence in subject-specific skills. It offers workshops designed and led by postgraduate students in your academic School. This gives you the opportunity to learn from students who understand the demands and challenges of your subject. Rather than focusing on specific topics or content, the workshops help you develop skills and strategies to approach similar problems in the future.
Examples of workshops which run in the past include:
- basic calculations in biology
- presentation skills (Modern Languages)
- overcoming challenges in your academic career (Psychology)
- writing philosophical essays
- visual analysis (Art History).
Access a list of Schools running ASP workshops and find the relevant contact for your subject on the ASP webpage.
In order keep with the principles of good academic practice and avoid plagiarism, it is extremely important to cite and reference any information you use in an essay or assignment (written or verbal) that is not your original work. This applies not only to exact wording, but also to the writer’s original ideas and analyses they have made of other work. For this reason, it is important to keep well structured notes including information about any textbooks or articles used.
You cite a source when you make reference to it within the body of your document. There are three typical ways of citing (in-text, footnotes and endnotes):
- in-text citation:
‘Referencing is important to avoid plagiarism (TGAP, 2016).’
- Footnotes and endnotes
‘Referencing is important to avoid plagiurism’.2
Here the superscript number relates to the corresponding number at the bottom of the page (footnote) or at the end of the essay (endnote), which will be followed by the details of the original source.
At the end of your document you must list the sources you have cited in a reference list. This should not be confused with endnotes.
Each source included should be listed once and should include sufficient information for the reader to find the original material. This typically means the authors, title, year, publisher and year of publication, and sometimes also chapter title, editors and translators, and details of journals or websites. A ‘reference list’ differs from a bibliography, which also includes background reading not directly cited in the final document.
There are different styles for formatting references and citations, and these vary by subject; this is important to remember if you study modules from different subjects. Information on which format you should use will be included in module handbooks. You can access guides for common referencing styles, including APA, Chicago, and Harvard, from the Library website.
You can also use referencing software to help you organise references. These include Endnote’s 'Cite While You Write' feature which is installed on classroom PCs and adds references and citations directly into a Microsoft word file. You may also consider Mendeley which is free to download and useful for creating references for journal articles, or a citation manager like Zotero. Find out more about referencing software.
- in-text citation:
You can view the essential and recommended reading for your modules in electronic reading lists. These can be accessed via Moodle, MMS, MySaint, or by searching your modules. Clicking on titles in the reading list allows you to see the availability and location of each book, directly access electronic resources, and keep a record of your completed and planned readings.
The library also offers subject-specific guides which provide an overview of the resources you are likely to use at university. These help you familiarise yourself with the journals and software most commonly used in your subject.
Being an effective reader
You will have a lot of readings to complete at university which could include books, textbooks and journal articles. Your goal is to obtain a concise and comprehensive understanding of the arguments made in your readings. To keep up, it is important that you schedule enough time to prevent rushing, and that you read actively so that you do not waste your time on irrelevant details. You should
- Identify the research question and the author’s thesis.
- Outline the arguments made in the introduction, main body and conclusion. This outline should be as concise as possible, and should focus on how the key points relate to each other rather than on minor details. Highlighting can be a good way to do this, but you should be conservative in your use of highlighting and underlining to ensure you only emphasise what is absolutely necessary.
- Analyse the strengths and weaknesses of the author’s arguments. Consider how well they used evidence and developed their thesis. These are questions you should be prepared to discuss in tutorials, essays and exams.
- Regularly review your notes and readings throughout the semester to ensure information is transferred from your short-term memory to long-term memory.
The Library has a number of resources which may be useful for new St Andrews students.
The M-Skills programme, which stands for Masters’ Skills, is an extra-curricular programme for all taught postgraduate (Masters) students at the University of St Andrews. It brings together Masters students from all Schools and disciplines to help equip them with a range of useful skills and experiences for their year at St Andrews and beyond.
M-Skills concentrates on four different areas:
- making the most of St Andrews
- getting through your course
- what comes next
- getting set for the workplace.
Each of these areas comprises a number of workshops, online resources and events; events include sessions to help you think about doing a PhD, dissertation writing bootcamps, and postgraduate networking events.
The first events in the 'Making the most of St Andrews' strand begin in Orientation week. Check the M-Skills web page for information about the Masters welcome events.
GRADskills is a programme of courses, events and activities specifically for research postgraduate students (such as PhD or MPhil students), delivered by the Centre for Academic, Professional and Organisational Development (CAPOD). It aims to support the development of all research postgraduate students at the University of St Andrews, to improve their research capability and widen their employability inside and outside of academia.
GRADskills offers workshops and support for research postgraduates in all four domains of the Researcher Development Framework – a small selection of these are listed below:
Knowledge and intellectual abilities:
- introduction to Endnote, Refworks, and Mendeley
- basic and advanced statistics (five workshops)
- Microsoft Office workshops
- using the Library’s Special Collections.
- assertiveness skills
- CV and interviewee skills
- preparing for your viva
- networking workshops and events.
Research governance and organisation:
- research ethics
- intellectual property and copyright
- managing your research and working effectively with your supervisor
- project management for PhD success.
Engagement, influence and impact:
- presentation skills for researchers
- maximising impact at conferences
- successful publishing in Arts and Sciences
- public engagement: the nuts and bolts
- voice coaching.
You can request a place on any workshop using the University's online booking system, Personal Development Management System (PDMS). GRADskills workshops are only available for booking in PDMS one month before they are due to run.
You can access further help by booking a one-on-one appointment with a tutor from the Centre for Academic, Professional and Organisational Development (CAPOD) to help you develop study strategies, or you can attend a drop-in session at the University Library between 2pm and 4.45pm on Thursdays.