5 Essential rules of academic writing

These 5 essential rules of academic writing need to be incorporated into every essay and assignment that you hand in. This will ensure your writing structure and style meet higher level academic requirements which will then enable you to achieve higher grades.

In addition to making sure you incorporate the 5 essential rules of academic writing in this video when you’re writing your assignments, remember to implement the fundamental strategies of good writing which are:

1. Write with your reader in mind 

As you’re writing your assignment, think about the person who’ll be reading and marking your work. That could be your subject lecturer, tutor or class teacher. Imagine that person reading your written work aloud and try and gauge how it sounds as they are reading it and how they will respond to it.

2. Give your reader nothing (or as little as possible) to complain about

Think about what your assignment reader, and marker (imagine that person in your head again), will complain about. Spelling mistakes, incorrect punctuation and/or grammatical mistakes all give your reader plenty to complain about! Incorrect referencing, factually incorrect information and any other violations of the 5 rules of academic writing in this video will give your reader a headache and that will mean they give you a lower grade.

3. Writing a good assignment is a process of several stages requiring effective planning and time use skills

Every time you’re given a new assignment, the very first thing you should do is mark the deadline on your monthly planner, then plan backwards from that deadline the date when you need to have the first draft written by. This should be at least 2-3 days before the final deadline so you can accommodate time to edit your 1st draft or get your essay proofread. In order to meet that 1st draft deadline, you’ll also need to pencil in further interim ‘milestones’ for typing up your assignment. Prior to that you need to schedule time for reading, note-taking and assimilating and prior to that stage time needs to be allocated for completing research. If you don’t have a monthly planner already in place, download one from the Study Planning page.

Incorporate all 5 rules of academic writing in this video into every assignment you write and apply the 3 strategies above to empower yourself to achieve higher grades.

How much are you eroding your focused attention?

How much are you eroding your focused attention?

There’s a type of attention that’s required for your brain to be able to focus exclusively on a specific task to completion. It’s called sustained or focused attention and it’s particularly relevant when problem-solving or learning new and complex information.

In the developed world the average human preference for sustaining attention on one task for extended periods of time seems to have decreased in favour of divided attention, also known as multitasking. The result is that the average human brain’s ability to focus on learning and assimilating complex information for extended periods also seems to have decreased. In short, a lot of humans are struggling to learn and find depth of meaning from new and complex information, instead skating superficially across the surface of knowledge. Hence the somewhat critical and circular argument exists as to whether the ‘average’ human is becoming dumber. All the more reason not to settle for being an ‘average’ human!

Think about your own ability to focus and sustain your attention on complex tasks.

How long can you focus for? Are you struggling? Do you find it more difficult than you did a few years, or even months, ago?

The main cause of this decrease in sustained attention is, of course, a certain type of technology. In particular the continual stream of billions of bitesize chunks of information, much of it over-simplified and highly abbreviated or just plain irrelevant, through online feeds and social media streams accessed via our smartphones or ‘popping up’ to invade our computer screens, and our brains.

Considering the ‘average’ person spends 3 to 5 hours a day looking at information on their smartphone, it would seem that rather than focusing on learning one piece of information at a time we subject our brains to a barrage of words, images and sounds that we scroll through rapidly. Our neurons flit distractedly from blogs to vlogs, likes to hates, political platitudes to skimpy outfit selfies, stories on starvation to sex abuse, bigotry to baking, homelessness to happiness memes and opinionated judgements, often in the space of seconds, leading to a state of cognitive overload where there’s little brain energy left to attend to tasks requiring higher, more complex thought processes.

Towards the end of last year I realised that my own ability to sustain my attention on specific tasks and work on projects to completion was seriously compromised. In a nutshell, I was getting nothing done. Even my creativity was suffering. I was struggling to write, to organise my time, finish what I’d started and not a lot was getting crossed off my daily and weekly planners.

So, I removed Facebook and social media apps from my smartphone. I decided not to be the ‘average’ person. I created new motivational monthly and weekly planners and started the new year by setting some serious time-dependent goals for the first 90 days. I’ve switched off autofeeds on my laptop so I’m not distracted by a stream of unnecessary information ‘updates’ popping into the corner of my screen as I’m working and concentrating on tasks to completion.

After a month of not behaving like the ‘average’ person I’ve regained my ability to focus again and I got more done in the first 3 weeks of the year than I used to get done in entire months when I was a Facebook ‘feeder’. Yes, it took some time to get used to and, yes, I think I even had some ‘withdrawal’ symptoms. However, combined with the application of mental discipline I’ve largely stayed away from what had become a daily distraction and a seriously bad habit.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-facebook or anti-social media and I don’t believe anyone should remove it from their lives completely, if they don’t want to. Being on facebook enables me to keep in touch with friends and old work colleagues at the other end of the country as well as on the other side of the world, and that’s a great thing. But it’s made me realise what’s important and how much time I wasted in the past scrolling through trivial nonsense.

As a result of my experience I want to challenge you.

I want to challenge you to regain your ability to focus, concentrate and apply mental discipline so you can be and do your very best, both in your academic life and life in general. I want to challenge you to become far, far more than the ‘average’ person.

So, from today, switch off those autofeeds, reduce the time you spend on social media and scrolling through meaninglessly superficial feeds. Reserve a short amount of time each week to interact meaningfully with the people you use social media to keep in touch with or reach out to, and start regaining your powers of focus, concentration and mental discipline. It may take some effort but then so do all activities that are worth it in the long term.

What’s in your study toolkit?

What’s in your study toolkit?

I’m sure you’ve got plenty of pens, pencils, notepads and perhaps a few gadgets that you regularly use to study, but do you use them effectively? And what else do you have in your ‘study toolkit’ that enables you to learn in the most preferred and effective way for your brain?

Effective skills and strategies, our ways of using what we have to achieve success, which become good habits are often the most important factors in a student’s success story. So, it’s all well and good having plenty of colourful stationery and physical study tools, but you have to know how to use them effectively to gain the most benefit.

Incorporating these five strategic approaches into your daily study routine will enable you to develop your cognitive study toolkit:

1. Colour-code with meaning

Using coloured pens, pencils, highlighters and paper can be of great benefit to your organisation and learning strategies. However, the colours you use need to be meaningful and consistent. I always write ideas for blogs on pink Post-it™ notes and I write my to-do lists on yellow lined Post-its™ (they’re great for shopping lists too). The pink helps to stimulate my brain with ideas while yellow has a calming effect so I can think through which tasks I need to prioritize as I list them. I never change this and it helps me to organise and ‘compartmentalise’ my thoughts better.

I always write using pens with interchangeable multicoloured inks. I use blue to add my own thoughts and ideas to printed copy, which is usually black on white and is a great strategy for annotating printed lecture slides. I use red to write or underline important information that I need to remember and I tend to write in green if I’m thinking and planning creatively. I only use highlighters for underlining really important information that I know I’ll need to come back to at some point. Overuse of highlighters, what I call ‘highlighter happiness‘, is one of the most flawed study approaches I see and should be avoided.

2. Plan to manage, and stay on top of, your deadlines

Effective time planning and applying the SMART strategy is essential to staying on top of deadlines and submitting work on time. I have monthly planners pinned to the wall above my desk on which I chart my 90-day deadlines (90 days = 3 months or 1 term or semester and 1/4 of a year) and the interim milestone deadlines that I need to complete in order to meet my big, longer term deadlines. My monthly planners also contain regular weekly events so I’m continually reminded of them.

I then chunk down the interim milestones onto weekly planners. I allocate days and realistic time chunks to the projects I’m working on so that I can monitor my progress by crossing off completed tasks. This enables me to see if I’m on track to meet my interim deadlines on a day-to-day basis so I can see immediately if I’m getting behind and need to spend more time on certain tasks and if I’m being realistic with the amount of time I’m allocating to achieving my goals.

I also add important appointments and events to my phone calendar and set 2 reminders for each so I have a back-up on my phone that reminds me of appointments and when I need to start travelling to get to them on time. As I’m working I keep a lined Post-it™ pad next to me to write down any additional tasks that crop up on each day, or anything I’ve forgotten to put on my weekly planner, so I’m reminded of them. If I’ve focused on getting through what’s on my weekly planner for that day, I’m still reminded of those outstanding tasks written on the Post-it™ at the end of the day.

3. Measure your productivity daily and weekly

As I complete each task I cross it off my planner. By the end of the week my planner is covered in scribbled out tasks and looks a mess, but I can see clearly what I’ve completed and achieved as well as, and more importantly, what I haven’t completed. Crossing off tasks is vital to gaining a sense of achievement and enabling us to see how productive we’re being. If you’re not getting things done, you need to be able to reflect on and figure out why that is, and quickly, so that you can do something about it.

At the end of each day, cross off the tasks you have completed and rethink whether the rest of your planner for that week is still achievable. At the end of each week, spend at least 30 minutes reflecting on and reviewing your progress over the week to check if you’ve allocated enough time to get enough study done.

If you realise you haven’t allocated enough time and you’re behind, you either need to re-write your task list or allocate more time to your study tasks.

4. Allocate realistic amounts of time to tasks

In order to know how much time needs to be allocated to completing certain tasks, you need to have a good sense of time and know what your capabilities are. If you allocate 1 hour to reading a very complex text that’s realistically going to take you 3 hours including brain breaks, or you schedule 2 days to write an assignment that realistically will take you 4 days, you’ll constantly be behind with your workload and it’ll be a continual struggle to meet your deadlines.

If you don’t have a realistic sense of how long your study tasks take, use a timer to start developing that sense. Try out the Focus Booster app or just use the timer or alarm function on your phone or watch. If you don’t have a watch or a smartphone, use a kitchen timer instead.

Often complex tasks take longer than we anticipate so we need to constantly re-evaluate our planned use of time. Allocating realistic amounts of time to study will invariably mean making sacrifices as you’ll have less time for leisure and social activities but they always fall into the Reward category of using the SMART approach. However, if you can use time more effectively and get more done in the time you’ve allocated, you’ll have more time for rewards and be able to do the things you want to do in addition to the things to have to do.

5. Take action to overcome your distractions

Too many people allow their distractions to control them. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard people say “but I can’t help logging into Facebook.” Yes, you can help it! You have ultimate control over what you allow into your life and your brain, certainly when it comes to social media. If you’re constantly allowing distractions to interrupt your ability to plan and achieve, take action. Use the Unlocked Learner’s free downloadable Action Over Distraction worksheet to implement a strategic approach to this.

Mastering these 5 essential strategies will mean your study toolkit contains real, transferable skills and knowledge of how to put all of that colourful stationery to highly effective use. Not only will that make you a more effective learner, it’ll also give you a head start as a graduate employee. In the 21st century employment landscape we all need to be effective lifelong learners.

For more personalised advice and guidance to master these essential skills, book a 1-1 Study Coaching session. Remember, your first 15 minute session is always completely free!

Feel free to share any other effective study tools and habits that you use, either in the comments below or post them on the Unlocked Learner’s Facebook page.

Improve Your Study Approaches to Achieve and Succeed

If you’re struggling to stay on top of your deadlines, book a 1-1 Study Coaching session.

Your first 15 minutes of 1-1 coaching are completely FREE!

How to stay well to study well

How to stay well to study well

At certain times of the year your body needs a bit of extra help to stay well to study well. When you start a new course you tend to meet lots of new people and, unfortunately, that means you get exposed to new germs! When you’re under pressure to meet deadlines or you’re experiencing revision and exam stress your immune system also gets put under a lot of stress leaving you more susceptible to viral infections.

There are a couple of chemical-free ‘secret weapons’ that I use daily to keep those dreaded bugs at bay. They can prevent you from falling ill with a virus that leaves you bedridden for days, knocking out your carefully planned study schedule that you were fully in control of.

First, take an acidophilus supplement

If you’re thinking ‘what on earth is that?’ acidophilus is a probiotic type of bacteria that naturally occurs in your gut and can be found in natural yogurt.

The theory is that 70% of the bacteria in your body that support your immune system reside in your gut. Diet, stress and other lifestyle factors can deplete these good bacteria so topping them up in large doses can help you stay healthy. The number of colds I caught reduced dramatically after I started taking acidophilus regularly and I can’t remember the last time I had the flu.

The secret of success to taking acidophilus is in the number of live bacteria you ingest so make sure you check the number on the front of the bottle. The higher the number, the more potent the pills are, so aim for millions, if not billions. The best brand you can buy is Biocare. Other brands do work but Biocare is the leading brand of acidophilus supplements. Shop around to find the cheapest stockist as prices vary. The link above will take you to a very reasonably priced option.

Keep the pills in the fridge to preserve the live bacteria. Start by taking two every day for the first week, preferably in the morning with some yogurt or fruit-based sugar such as jam which will enable the good bacteria to thrive. This will give your immune system a good initial boost so you can then reduce your intake down to 1 pill a day. After a couple of months you could reduce your intake down to 1 capsule every other day but increase it again over the winter months or just before and during your exams.

Take vitamin B and C supplements

If you’re feeling tired a lot of the time and regularly catch viral infections, you probably need to boost your vitamin levels. Vitamins B, C and folic acid are all water soluble which means they are not stored in the body so you must top up your intake regularly to maintain good health. Vitamin C is essential for fighting infection and the seven different forms of vitamin B are essential for metabolic functioning, maintaining healthy functioning of the nervous system, immune system and vital organs in addition to helping the body generate energy. Folic acid, which works in combination with vitamin B12, is essential for your body to form red blood cells.

Hence, if you’re feeling low and ‘drained’ a lot of the time, it’s highly likely that your vitamin B levels are low and drained. I spent years of my life feeling drained and low in energy and, at times, that prevented me from making good progress on the goals I’d set out to achieve. Taking a vitamin B supplement daily boosted my energy to the point where it changed my life as I now regularly wake up before my alarm clock, get up and get more done.

Avoid caffeine and energy drinks (which also contain caffeine)

A large, hot latte or quick cappuccino may provide you with an immediate perk. However, long-term, caffeine depletes your vitamin C stores which you need to fight off germs and viruses, leaving you feeling worse by the end of the day. Look at the list of ingredients of most so-called ‘energy’ drinks and you’ll find near the top is sugar, followed by caffeine, along with a list of chemicals most of which really only belong in a laboratory, not inside your body!

If you need something that will really give you a boost, take some soluble vitamin C with zinc. However, check the ingredients of whichever brand you buy and get one that doesn’t contain aspartame, saccharin or other chemical sugars. Dissolving these in water means your body gets the instant dose of vitamins and minerals it really needs, and you get to increase your water consumption. Eat an apple, banana or some berries to help top up those vital vitamins throughout the day.

Get enough sleep

This may seem like stating the obvious but if you have deadlines looming and you’re getting up early and going to bed late, or even working into the small hours of the morning to get assignments finished, you will become run down. Be conscious of how many late nights you’re putting in and, when you can, take time out to relax and have some down time. Have a lie in or go to bed earlier than usual.

If you struggle to get to sleep because you’re stressed about deadlines, exams or making progress with your studies in general, keep a notebook by your bed and write down your worrying thoughts. Getting the thoughts out of your head is the first step towards dealing with them and it may even help you to think of some solutions as you’re writing. Use some meditation techniques to calm and slow down your body and brain.

Also, accept that sometimes your brain will switch into ‘overactive’ mode, especially if you have multiple deadlines coming up. If you really can’t sleep and feel awake enough to study or work on an assignment, then get out of bed and do it. There’s no rule carved in stone that says you can’t or shouldn’t study in the middle of the night. I’ve suddenly woken up at 5:30am and written the first draft of an essay conclusion. And I sometimes find myself at my desk at 2:30am being quite productive which is the preferred alternative to tossing and turning in bed. Although since I started taking a vitamin B supplement, I sleep better and wake up earlier refreshed and ready for the day ahead.

If you’re really struggling to get a good night’s sleep on a regular basis, try a herbal sleep supplement such as Kalms Night and aim to get to bed earlier. Only use these until you start sleeping properly. Try and avoid visiting your GP for sleep problems as they tend to prescribe antidepressants and these are the last thing your brain needs if you want it to function properly at a higher level. If you really can’t sleep and it’s affecting your ability to function, make an appointment with a member of your school/college/university’s welfare team.

Last, but by no means least, breathe properly

Yes, I know you’re breathing right now but most breaths we take during the day as we’re dashing around from place to place are shallow. Living in a city also makes it a challenge to really fill your lungs with clean fresh air.

Take 5 or 10 minutes each day to consciously breathe deep into your lungs. If you can, go and stand outside in a green space somewhere, preferably next to a tree or plant and take a couple of long, deep inhalations through your nose. Or just stand up next to your desk if you can’t get outside.

Put your hands on the lower part of your ribcage, just above your waist, and inhale slowly and gently through your nose for a count of 5, or longer if you can, until you feel your lower ribs expanding and your hands moving out with that expansion. Breathe out by blowing slowly and gently through your mouth to make it a good cleansing breath that completely empties your lungs so your hands move back inwards.

Repeat this 5 to 10 times, or more if you can. If you get dizzy (because your brain isn’t used to having so much oxygen!), stop, sit down or lean against the tree and just breathe normally.

“Breath is the inspiration and blueprint for all movement in life. When we breathe well, fully and deeply, we can move and be well. Every area of our life is affected by how we breathe … The breath’s responsiveness and our awareness of it enable us to thrive in life.”Jean Hall

Take good care of yourself and stay well to study well.

If you have any questions about any of the above or any other tips that you use to stay well and healthy, I’d love to hear them. Post your comments or questions below or on The Unlocked Learner’s Facebook page.

5 Rules of Formal Writing … That Guarantee Better Essay Grades!

5 Rules of Formal Writing … That Guarantee Better Essay Grades!

These 5 rules of formal essay writing need to be incorporated into every single essay and assignment that you hand in to ensure your writing style meets higher level academic requirements. Using the correct formal writing style and tone will ensure that you achieve higher grades.

In addition to making sure you use the 5 rules of formal essay writing in this video, remember to also incorporate the following fundamental strategies of good writing:

1. Write with your reader in mind

As you’re writing your assignment think about the person who’ll be reading and marking your work. That could be your subject lecturer, tutor or class teacher. Imagine that person reading your written work aloud and try and gauge how it sounds as they’re reading it and how they will respond to it.

2. Give your reader nothing (or as little as possible) to complain about

Think about what your assignment reader, and marker (imagine that person in your head again), will complain about. Spelling mistakes, uncorrected typos, incorrect punctuation and grammatical mistakes all give your reader plenty to complain about! Incorrect referencing, factual errors and any of the 5 formal writing errors in this video will give your reader a headache.

If you give them a headache, they’ll give you a lower grade!

3. Writing a good assignment is a process of several stages requiring effective planning and time use skills

Every time you get a new assignment, the very first thing you should do is mark the deadline on your monthly planner, then plan backwards from that deadline a date when you need to have the first draft written by. This should be at least 2-3 days before the final deadline so you can accommodate time to edit your 1st draft or get your essay proofread. In order to meet that 1st draft deadline, you’ll also need to pencil in further interim ‘milestones’ to allocate enough time for typing up your assignment. Prior to that you need to allocate time for reading, note-taking and assimilating and prior to that time needs to be allocated to carrying out research.

If you don’t have a monthly planner already in place, you can download one from the Study Planning.

Incorporate all 5 rules of formal writing covered in this video into every assignment you write and apply the 3 strategies above to empower yourself to achieve higher grades.

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