Essential Skills For Study

This section provides you with an introduction to key areas and skills that are central to university study.

If you are a current student, you can access further resources to support your learning in the Learning Development Centre Blackboard module (listed on your course list).

Academic writing

Structing your essay

An essay consists of three main sections:

  • Introduction
  • Main body
  • Conclusion

The function of each section of the essay is outlined below.

Essay Structure


Your introduction has two main functions.

  • It serves to introduce the reader to the topic of the essay and provide some general backgroundinformation.
  • It should also indicate the focus of the essay and act as a set of signposts for the reader. 

Main body

The main body of your essay will consist of a series of paragraphs. Each paragraph will develop one key point you wish to make about the topic. The basic structure of a paragraph is outlined below:

Topic sentence

  • This sentence introduces the topic of the paragraph –literally what this paragraph is about.

The other sentences within a paragraph develop the topic sentence

  • Each sentenceadds further information to support the topicsentence.
  • Remember to include evidence, analysis and commentary.
  • Concluding sentence/link to nextpoint/paragraphas appropriate.

There is no correct length to a paragraph. However, as a rule of thumb, if the paragraph is too short it is probably not fully developed. If a paragraph is too long, you have probably merged a number of points together which should be spread across a number of paragraphs,or, you have started to waffle!


Your concluding paragraph should:

  • Summarise the main points of your essay.
  • Provide some closing comment on the essay topic, i.e. refer to the question and/or title of the essay.

Avoid introducing new material in the conclusion.

Producing an essay outline plan

Before writing the first draft of your essay it is useful to draw up an outline plan. This provides you with a basic overview of what each section of the essay will focus on. It will help you to think about the order you will put your material in and how you will develop each paragraph.

Below is an example outline plan for an essay about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.

Outline plan
Introduction Introduction 
  • Essay topic
  • Focus of the essay

Main body
Paragraph 1

  • Topic of this paragraph
  • Supporting point
  • Supporting point
  • Closing sentence

Paragraph 2/3/4 etc

  • Topic of this paragraph
  • Suppointing point
  • Supporting point
  • Closing sentence


  • Sum up/recap key points
  • Final/closing comment
  • Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
  • Limitations of this hierarchy

Main body
Paragraph 1

  • Background to Hierarchy
  • Maslow quote (p75)
  • Analysis of this quote
  • Unquestioning acceptance of the hierarchy in workplace/school

Paragraph 2

  • Maslow in workplace
  • Ref to Smith (1985
  • Develop Smith's point
  • Also valid in schools

Paragraph 3

  • Maslow in education
  • Ref to Jones (1995)
  • Limitations of Jones' point
  • Although still valid especially re: Eurocentric focus


  • Summary of limitations
  • Need for new approach

Remeber: In the outline plan you are not writing the actual essay, all you need to is bullet point the key information.

Useful web links:

Aston University LDC: The LDC homepage has links to study skills materials and other useful sites.
Learn Higher: This link will give you access to numerous resources being developed by a number of universities in many different study areas.
Open University: The OU have developed many online resources, including a section on Study SkillsRoyal Literary Fellowship: The RLF website includes a number of additional links you may find useful.
Royal Literary Fellowship: The RLF website includes a number of additional links you may find useful.
Write Now: Aston University are part of the Write Now project, and the LSC provide student writing mentors through our with with Write Now.

The stages of assignment writing, from beginning to end
The first stage in this process involves developing a clear understanding of what you need to write.

Read the question/task several times, this will help you to:

  • Understand the question and task requirements
  • Form an initial idea
  • Become familiar with the structure of the question and the language used

Underline/highlight the instruction/process words:

  • These words tell you what to do - e.g. Discuss Analyse, Evaluate.
  • Check your understanding of the instruction word(s) and consider their impact on the structure of your assignment. 

Underline/highlight the topic/content words:

  • These words provide the focus for the assignment and set the boundaries and will help you search for relevant resources.
  • Think about the assignment question/task and write down what you have to do in your own words.

For example in the question:

Using examples from specific public service domains (e.g. housing, regeneration, education, health) to illustrate your answer, critically discuss three ways in which governments have sought to target scarce resources on those in greatest need. Outline the advantages and disadvantages of these methods.

Using examples, illustrate, critically discuss and outline are all instruction/process words

Specific public service domains, three ways…government, target scarce resources…those in greatest need, advantages and disadvantages – all of these words are topic/content words. These words help you to focus on what it is you have to do. You have to use examples, critically discuss three ways the government target, focus on scarce resources and those in greatest need, and include an outline of the advantages and disadvantages of the methods you are using as examples.

Brainstorm/mind map your initial thoughts

At this stage use a blank sheet of paper to map out everything you know about the assignment topic.

  • Put all your ideas down – even those you think are not very good
  • Do not try to edit or censor your thinking – they are just your initial thoughts!

This stage of the process will help you to:

  • Identify what you already know
  • Identify the areas you need to develop
  • Identify what you need to research
Develop an action-plan

Your mind-map should help you to focus on what you need to research. A useful way to develop this focus is to draw up an action plan with clear objectives and targets.

  1. What do you need to do?
  2. When will you do this?
  3. How will you do this?
  4. Where will you do this?

Keep your action plan targets realistic and achievable. If they are too general and broad they may end up being difficult to achieve. What you are aiming for is a clear direction for your reading and research.

Research the assignment topic

At this point it is a good idea to revisit the essay title (particularly the topic/content words) to ensure that your research is relevant. Identify the most appropriate material/texts and begin your research and note making.

It is inevitable that your research and note making will result in collecting more information than you need for an assignment. But it is still a useful process as it will give you a better understanding of the topic and allow you to select the most relevant information when writing your assignment. However, it is still important to stay focused and specific in your reading. (See the information sheets on Developing academic reading and Developing note making).

Prepare an outline plan

When you have completed your research you should be in a position to prepare an outline plan for the assignment.

The outline plan is a more structured and detailed plan than the initial plan you created at the brainstorming stage. It should give you a step-by-step overview of the assignment. However, it does not have to be too detailed.

The outline plan should indicate: 

  • The focus point of each paragraph
  • The sources you will refer to
  • Your own interpretation/analysis of the point

A good outline plan should also help you develop an introduction and conclusion.

It is useful to keep the outline plan to one or two pages. This will provide you with a quick reference source and checklist as you write the first draft
Write the first draft

The most important point to remember about this stage of the process is:

It is the first draft! 

Try to resist revising and editing at this point. It is an unnecessary distraction and may result in you loosing the structure and flow of your writing. Once you have the completed first draft down on paper you will be in a better position to identify what needs to be changed, developed and improved.

Editing the first draft

When the first draft is completed put it to one side. Leave the assignment for one or two days and then read through it.

Approach this stage with a critical mind – think of yourself as the first person to read the assignment. Ask yourself whether the assignment:

  • Follows a logical structure?
  • Follows a clear and fully developed understanding of the issues?
  • Contains only relevant information?
  • Is fully referenced?

Make all the necessary changes. This may involve both adding information and removing information.

Final draft
Write the final draft and then complete the final stage of the writing process.

You should now proofread the assignment for any grammatical, spelling or punctuation errors. As with the editing stage of the process, this is best undertaken after you have had a break from the assignment. Your mind will be more open and receptive to the types of errors that go unnoticed if you proofread straight after completing the final draft.

Make the changes needed and hand the assignment in!

Viewing assignment work as a series of stages is a useful means of approaching your academic writing tasks. All the stages are equally important.  As you develop your skills, you should find that each stage becomes easier to achieve. However, it is important to remember that writing assignments is not a race. The more time you allow, and the more organised you are, the better the end result.

Useful web links:

Aston University LDC: The LDC homepage has links to study skills materials and other useful sites.
Learn Higher: This link will give you access to numerous resources being developed by a number of universities in many different study areas.
Open University: The OU have developed many online resources, including a section on Study SkillsRoyal Literary Fellowship: The RLF website includes a number of additional links you may find useful.
Royal Literary Fellowship: The RLF website includes a number of additional links you may find useful.
Write Now: Aston University are part of the Write Now project, and the LSC provide student writing mentors through our with with Write Now.

Critical thinking

Critical thinking is a core element of all university assignments, whether you are being assessed on your writing or an oral presentation, your ability to demonstrate critical understanding of the subject and task is important. For many students, the level of ‘critical thinking’ in university work is the biggest distinction between university standard work and non-academic work. Some students struggle with the concept of ‘critical thinking’ and feedback on assignments can include comments such as‘more analysis required’, ‘lack of critical thinking’...

So what is critical thinking about?

  • Moving beyond quotations and lengthy paraphrases.
  • Showing an awareness of the range of viewpoints on a particular topic, i.e. which is indicative of wider reading (which is another feature of assessment criteria).
  • Demonstrating your ability toapply your understandingof the subject,analysing informationin relation to your question (i.e. can youuse your academic understanding to explain the ‘why’, ‘reason’ or your ‘rationale?’).
  • In addition to using your subject knowledge to demonstrate your ability tounderstand, apply and analyse, you can also use evidence(i.e. make use of the research which you have been reading, by including references in your writing) toevaluatethe information, including theories and journal articles, you have read and understood.
  • You may not feel like it, but: you are already becoming an expert in your subject, and what may seem obvious to you, is not obvious to the person marking your assignment! They are not mind-readers! So, as appropriate, remember to explain your understanding, and relate the academic evidence underpinning your analytical points to your assignment task.
  • Though it can be quite daunting, it is important that you develop the confidence to use your own words and supporting evidence to articulate how you make connections, pass judgments, i.e. evaluate the research which you have been reading, in the context of the assignment title and task.
Referencing and plagiarism


When writing an assignment you will be drawing on the ideas and research of other people. Therefore, you will need to acknowledge where you have used ideas and research by providing references. This will enable the reader to see the extent of your reading,and follow up the information by going back to the original source.

There are many different referencing styles in use across the University (these include Harvard, APA, IEEE and OSCOLA). Your course may have a preferred format, so it is important to check your module handbook to identify the requirements.

The resource ‘ Cite Them Right’can be used to help you reference just about any source (with options for Harvard, APA and IEEE styles). For full access to the website, use your Aston University log-in.

What is Plagiarism?

"Can't I just copy and paste the information I want to use for my assignment?"

At university, any information you obtained from somewhere else (even if it is just facts) must be properly referenced. Failure to do so will result in plagiarism. Plagiarising is using information from someone else's work and presenting it as your own, including:

  • Colluding with other students.
  • Copying/pasting information without referencing the material.
  • Paraphrasing the information without referencing the material.
  • Merely changing words without referencing the material, then it is not plagiarism, but it is rather poor academic practice which will be spotted by the marker.

How to avoid Plagiarism?

  • The only way to avoid it is to always reference any material you have used by following the required referencing method (Harvard, OSCOLA, Endnote, etc).
  • When you use facts and figures, you cannot really paraphrase them, but when you use opinions, you should always paraphrase what the author is saying and reference the material.
  • You paraphrase by using your own words to describe the author's viewpoint - it shows that you fully understand the author's standpoint. It is paramount to reference the material, even if you have used your own words, because the idea/viewpoint/opinion is not yours!

Academic Reading

"There is so much to read - how do I know if it's relevant?"

Rule 1: You don't have to (or shouldn't) read all of it and everything! 
              You will have lost focus by the end of it. Be selective!

Rule 2: If you think that the resource is not relevant, move on!
             You will be saving yourself precious time and energy for more relevant resources.

Rule 3: Good academic writing depends on engaging with wider reading.
             Do you just describe the information or do you think critically?

Rule 4: Make notes of your reading!
             You'll read many articles, books, etc and you need to be organised.

Developing Academic Reading

'Think of reading as a "treasure hunt": an active search rather than an attempt to soak up and absorb everything you come across.' Peter Levin Write Great Essays! (2004, p.2)

At University you will be expected to do a good deal of reading. You will have extensive reading lists that can seem quite intimidating. This is why it is important to develop an effective reading strategy. A key element of such a strategy is to develop an active reading approach.

Active reading

When reading for academic purposes it is useful to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Why am I reading this?
  • Do I need to read it all?
  • Where should I start?
  • Which parts will be most useful?
  • How can this text help me?

These questions should help you to start to engage with the material from the outset and become a more focused reader.

Different ways of reading

The way we read depends on the material we are reading and our purpose for reading it. Some of the different approaches to reading include:

Skimming: Reading to form a general impression of the text. You do not try to read every word or in too much depth or detail. You can skim the introduction and conclusion to a book, or the opening and closing paragraph to a chapter or article. You can quickly skim through the content page, index or chapter sub-headings. The main purpose when skimming is to get the gist. 

Scanning: Looking for a particular piece of information. When you scan you ignore all the other information and focus on finding what you want. We scan when using a telephone directory. When we scan for information we usually know what we are looking for. 

Critical reading: close and detailed reading of a text. When you read critically you need to continually analyse, question and evaluate what you are reading. Some useful questions include asking yourself:

  • What is the main argument?
  • What evidence does the author use to support and develop this argument?
  • Is the evidence valid? (Is it up to date, relevant or biased?)
  • Is the author's argument similar or different to others you have read?
  • How does the author's argument develop this particular area of study?
  • Do you agree with the author? (Why? Why not?)
  • How can you use this information? (e.g. in an essay, report or presentation)


sq3rA useful reading strategy to use is known as SQ3R. This stands for Survey, Question, Read, Recall, Review.

Survey: Quickly skim through the text. This should give you a general idea of what the text is about and help you to decide whether it is of any use to you.

Question: Can this text help me? Does it give me any useful information that I can use? Which part of the assignment can it help me with? Asking questions will help you stay focused on your subject

Read: Make a more careful and detailed reading of the text. Still try to remain focused on your reason for reading this text. Read through the text and make note of any key/significant points. Use the critical reading questions listed above.

Recall: Put the text and your notes to one side and try to recall the information you have read. Make a note of any points you are still uncertain about.

Review: Re-read the text to check your understanding and seek clarification of points you were uncertain about.

SQ3R may seem to make reading a time consuming process. However, with practice this will improve. The most important point about a reading strategy like SQ3R is that it will help you to become a more active reader. It allows you to engage with a text in a way that is meaningful and beneficial to you.

If after the first two steps you feel the text is of no use to you move on to another text. If the text is useful to you continue using SQ3R

Developing note making skills


Making notes helps you to understand and remember the information you read, see or listen to. Good note making also helps you to select the information that is important to you and your purpose:

  • Understand a new topic
  • Develop your understanding of a familiar topic
  • Write an essay, report etc
  • Revise for an exam

Identifying the purpose of your notes is an important part of the note-making process. Not only can it help you to select the relevant information but also to select a suitable format.

Some essentials for note making

  • Always make a full note of the source of information. This can help you to check and clarify the information if you need to. It also allows you to reference and acknowledge your sources.
  • Make your notes meaningful to you and be selective about the information you are noting. Avoid making notes for the sake of it. Ask yourself:
    • Why am I making these notes? (for an assignment/presentation/exam)
    • What information am I looking for? / What do I want to find out?
    • How do these notes fit in with my other notes on this topic?
  • Keep your notes brief but clear and accurate.
  • Whatever format you choose to use leave plenty of space on the page. This not only makes your notes easier to read but also allows you to add further details, comments and cross-references later.
  • Check over your notes before filing them away – Do they make sense? Will they make sense next week/month?
  • Store your notes in a logical way – different folders for different subjects; separate sections for separate topics.

Note making styles and formats

There are different styles and formats you can use for note making. The key is to find   a style and format suitable to you. Some students prefer to stay with one format whilst others prefer to use different formats depending on the purpose.

Linear style

  • Linear notes written down a page
  • Headings and sub-headings are used to divide the notes into sections
  • Bullet-points/numbers are used to identify separate points
  • Underlining/highlighting/colours are used to emphasise and draw attention to key information
  • Abbreviations used (so long as you remember what they stand for!)
  • Not written in full sentences
  • Plenty of space left on page

Spidergram style

spider-gramSplit page style or the Cornell System

This style involves splitting a page into three sections
Title of book/lecture + other reference information  
In this section you should record your comments, questions, ideas and points you need to explore further In this section you should make your notes on the book, lecture or other material you are referring to 
In this section you should write a brief summary of the notes on this page  

What should you include in your notes?

What you include in your notes depends on the purpose of your notes. Focus on:

  • The main ideas
  • Essential and key information
  • The relationship between ideas - for example how theories/thinkers are linked or differ
  • Examples to illustrate these ideas and information

Try to use your own words rather than copying. This will help you to concentrate on the information and engage with it.


Don’t just put your notes away! Review them. Add comments and fill in any gaps. Note down points you need to follow up. Turn note taking into note making.

This handout has drawn from these resources:
Burns, Tom & Sinfield, Sandra. (2006) Essential Study Skills. SAGE Publications Inc: London
Cottrell, Stella. (2003) The Study Skills Handbook 2nd Edition. Palgrave-Macmillan: Basingstoke.
Cottrell, Stella. (2005) Critical Thinking Skills. Palgrave-Macmillan: Basingstoke Greetham, Bryan. (2001) How to write better essays. Palgrave-Macmillan: Basingstoke Levin, Peter. (2004) Write great essays! Open University Press: Maidenhead
Race, Phil. (2003) How to Study. Blackwell: Oxford

Useful web links

Aston University LDC: The LDC homepage has links to study skill materials and other useful sites.
Learn Higher: This link will give you access to numerous resources being developed by a number of universities in many different study areas.
Royal Literary Fellowship: The RLF website includes a number of additional links you may find useful.

Planning your revision

Find out exactly what you need to do:

  • How many exams have you got?
  • How long is each exam?
  • How many questions do yo have to answer?
  • What format do the answers take (e.g. essays, multiple-choice questions)?

Look through the Learning Outcomes for the subjects/modules you are being examined on - these should you an indication of what the exams will focus on.

Prepare an exam revision timetable

  • Ideally aim to have two revision timetables
  • One for the whole revision period
  • One for each revision week

Aim to spread your revision of a particular subject/topic over a number of revision slots rather than revise the whole topic in one slot. This will help you to keep the information fresh in your mind.

Set a clear target for each revision slot

  • Try to make the target specific
  • Avoid setting too big a target
Example of a weekly revision timetable
Day/time Subject  Topic  Target  Achieved  Reflection 
10:00 - 11:00
Business  Lecture notes week 1  Outline key points of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs  Yes  Session went well - although need to check understanding of higher order needs 

The last three columns of the above table are as important to effective revision as the first three:

  • The third column helps you to focus on a particular area/theory
  • The fourth column allow you to monitor your progress
  • The final column allows you to reflect on your learning - why something worked or didn't work - and identify your next course of action
  • The target column should also help you to be active when revising and avoid the possibility of passively reading through notes
  • Try not to revise for long periods - there is no rule as to how long a revision slot should be but best practice is to revise for short spells and take regular breaks.


An example of a sixty minute revision slot might look like this:
Time Activity 
20 mins
10 mins
15 mins
10 mins
5 mins
Read through notes on.......
Write notes on key points/words
Check notes with original notes
Reflect on the revision slot (see below for the importance of reflecting) 
  • Aim to reduce your notes down to key points/ideas/information
  • Devise your own questions and answer them
  • Get hold of past papers/questions and practise your answers

Revision and exams

"How do I best prepare for exams?"


  • Revision is a personal and individual process - no one revision strategy works for all students. So, find what suits you!
  • Plan out your available time in relation to each exam - devote as much time as you can for revising.
  • Reduce your notes to key points/ideas and try to retain key information (or arguments) in your mind,
  • Practise past papers to get the 'feel' of the exam and see how you fare against time.
  • Check the Assessment Criteria of the module to know how you will be assessed.
  • DON'T revise for too long - take regular breaks and eat healthy!
In the Exam
DO NOT spend more than the allocated time for each question - it's better to move on to the next question for more marks than continue writing on the current one. READ & UNDERSTAND the question - do not be pressurised to start writing - have at least a mental plan.  It's always better to plan out your answer in a few bullet-points - you may think of something you may have missed if you had just begun to write.  Allow yourself a few minutes at the end to read through your answers to spot errors or make additional comments. 


Time management

How can you be more effective?

There are many different demands on your time at University. You will likely need to adopt a range of strategies to organise your time. Your approach may also depend on what you feel works best for you.

Plan ahead

  • Use a planner. This might be an online calendar (e.g. iCal, outlook, google calendar) or a paper diary. The important thing is that you have easy to access to it and that you use it daily.
  • Put all of your assignment deadlines into your planner. Also add your teaching timetable and any work and personal commitments. This will help you identify key times to study and work on assignments.

Break down your assignments

For each assignment, identify the key tasks that you will need to complete.
o For example, an essay might involve tasks such as: planning, research and reading, writing each section, redrafting, referencing and proofreading

  • Once you have a list of tasks you can identify time in your planner to complete them.
  • This assignment calculator can help you identify some of the key tasks and consider how to use your time.

Keep on track

  • Rather than focusing on one assignment, it can be more effective working on several during the week. This will require keeping track of all tasks to do and your progress.
  • Kanban boards help you to visualise your work flow. A simple board has three columns ("to do", "doing", "done"). Tasks are moved across the columns as you progress through them.


Assign priority to tasks on your to-do list. A useful way to identify priority is to use the 'Eisenhower Matrix':

  Urgent  Not Urgent 

1. Important and Urgent
Assignment deadlines
Last minute preparations 

2. Important and Not Urgent
Reading lecture notes
Personal development
Planned studying/writing
Exercise and health
Planning time/setting goals 
Not Important 3. Not Important and Urgent
Some emails & phone calls
Many interruptions
Some popular activities 
4. Not Important and Not Urgent
Time waster activities
Excessive TV or Internet
Some emails & phone calls 

Plan your studying

  • Try to be specific about what you are going to do in the time that you set aside. Also be realistic about what you can achieve in 1hour!
  • Consider where you are going to study and ways you might reduce distractions.
  • You might also consider your routine. What time of day is your concentration at its peak?

Take breaks

  • Divide your day into 1-2 hour chunks for study/writing, with breaks in-between. This can help reduce boredom, information overload and exhaustion.
  • You could use a timer for short focused blocks of time to work on a task. The ‘pomodoro®’ technique uses timed blocks of 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks. There are many free ‘pomodoro’ timer apps available.

Take time to reflect

  • Reflect on what is going well and what isn’t working to identify changes.
  • Reflect on how much time tasks have taken, to improve your future planning.
  • If you find yourself procrastinating (not getting things done) consider why this might be happening. If you are feeling unsure how to start, or unconfident about your writing, you could seek advice from the Learning Development Centre.

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