What works and what doesn’t….

There is a lot of talk in the on-line student community about how to manage time, the volume of information and new materials. I thought I would share my perspective about what doesn’t work and what works very well.

What did not work well last year was ‘under-reading’ and ‘under-writing.’ For me, six or seven texts in-depth is not enough, especially for theory courses. While studying Approaches to Text I revised three theoretical disciplines in detail; unfortunately there was not a single question I could answer with one particular theoretical focus. Consequently I was under prepared in the exam room.

For me, preparing in-depth means multiple readings, research and writing. In 2009 I used advice from Joyce MacAllister’s book ‘Writing About Literature: Aims and Processes.’ My exam mark improved by ten points. MacAllister outlines writing exercises she calls ‘pre-writing.’ They specifically focus on topics like theme, character and plot. Last year I did not use pre-writing strategies and my marks stayed the same.

Revising was more difficult and my marks stayed the same because of ‘under-reading’ and ‘under-writing.’ I had to incorporate more texts at revision time. This was possible because of my reading strategy. I read all the texts on a syllabus at least one time before selecting several for closer study. Success in exams for me depends on being very flexible with texts and not pre selecting which texts I will use for certain questions. Despite completing too few texts in-depth my strategy of reading widely on the syllabus allowed me to pass the exam successfully.

For me what works, what does not work, and how to organize my study plan can only be measured if my goals are clear. Deciding how I will manage course work has a lot to do with what I expect to get out of the exercise. Do I want to improve my marks? Do I want to manage two courses, or three or four? What are my strengths at the beginning and how can I best use them? What are my weaknesses as a student? Can I compensate for my weaker skills or do they need to be directly addressed? How will that choice affect my outcome? How do my study habits affect exam performance?

To manage these performance and organization issues I need to assess what I want to accomplish then establish steps and practices to reach my goal. That might seem obvious but guessing at it for a year does not work. Thinking about the process works as well for me as thinking about the literature. For me, the excellent Study Guides, Student Handbook and Support Schemes provide the very best advice about course work content and study process. The support materials and tutors help to develop and improve skills and exam performance; but I have to manage how I learn. Everyone has different goals, strengths and weaknesses. For me, establishing process and content goals, setting key performance indicators and monitoring them closely all year works very well.

8 thoughts on “What works and what doesn’t….

  1. Hi Catherine,
    I am enjoying your blog. I appreciate you sharing so much with us. I wanted to comment on ‘Approaches to Text’. It is a vast unit which could easily afford 3 years of study all to itself, if not more. I studied for it and ‘Explorations I’ in the last academic year. I initially found it overwhelming. The sheer amount of theory it covers made it hard for me to focus. I followed the study guide as well as I could and made extensive use of the Examiners’ Reports, (thank you for the push Monika!) I cannot recommend the Examiners’ Reports highly enough. They are full of essential advice on how to approach the various questions, and they also give you a very good idea about the kinds of questions that keep coming up year after year.

    Like you Catherine, I revised three topics in detail: psychoanalytical criticism, feminist criticism, and intertextuality. There were questions on each of them in the exam, so I was able to choose the two questions I felt most confident about answering. I may have just been lucky that the questions came up this year, but I like to think that it was thanks to my use of the Examiners’ Reports. They can really help to guide us in our preparation for the exams.

    I would also like to second your recommendation of “Joyce MacAllister’s book ‘Writing About Literature: Aims and Processes.’” This excellent book was of great use to me as a guide to the writing process. It will help any student of Literature, especially those like me who are returning to ‘serious study’ after a long break.


  2. Hi Graham and Rachel! I really like the Student Handbook–I use it everyday!

    I’m glad to hear you enjoyed MacAllister’s book too, Graham. And that you managed the amount of information in Approaches. I actually did read the material for three years; keeping in mind the examiners’ advice that students who have not read widely will not do well in the exam. Working this way really reinforced the concepts of the program; it sound like you and I had a similar method.

    My issue with three theoretical focuses came up because of how I used texts and topics across the questions. I did not feel I could answer with feminist criticism using texts and topics best suited to selected questions because I had used them on other sections in Approaches and Exp 2. The essay came too close to a psychoanalytic analysis in response to another question, etc. In the end the Structuralists study I pursued was the best resource.

    The mark I earned was mostly the result of a flawed response to a question; I think. We’ll see if I am right when the reports arrive. I panicked when writing the essay thinking I was undermining my own argument and changed the essay focus. On the way home I realized the question was supposed to compare and contrast. I really wanted a do over! – More on that next week!

    Happy reading!


  3. Catherine & Graham, thank you both for sharing your experience. I am reading Approaches this year and your comments are very helpful to me.

    Catherine, I think both Graham & I are indebted to you for the MacAllister’s book recommendation. I remember you wrote that it was worth its weight in gold … so, to those who are reading this blog: get the book!

    As for the Student Handbook, it is an excellent resource, and I think often overlooked by many students (including me). I read it right at the start of my studies, and at the time it made little sense – of course I could not relate to almost any issues if I hadn’t done any studying! I re-read the Handbook straight after my first exams, and was kicking myself for not re-reading it earlier.



  4. hi catherini am so glad thst finally i find a name to write her about some of neccessary information.at first can i have your email to contact u .i wana ask u about the eualities of study with international program? i am resident of iran so i can find truth only by mean of some interneti tools .watinto hesr sth from u.thanks alot


  5. Hello Mohammed,

    I’ll try to answer your questions the best I can. A great start is searching the University of London web site for answers to your questions or contacting the colleges for material about your interests and related programs.



  6. Hello Cathrine. I have successfully completed Diploma In Law from Pakistan and now in 2nd year LLB(hons). Can u please guide me on selection of electives. I have two options EU Law or Introduction To Islamic Law. which of either shall i take.




  7. Hello Ali, sorry for the delay as I have been tryng to find your note on the blog site! It comes to my inbox, very sorry to be slow.

    Congratulations on your success with the law diploma; it’s fantastic to hear you completed this credential. I am not sure how I can advise you since I am not in the law program. Your situation is one I understand; I want to take one or two more courses than are required for my degree. Have you considered taking both courses? I am going to ask our faculty if I can complete the extra courses even if it is after completing the credential.



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