University of Exeter Handbook (Physics) Questions/Comments Department (Physics)

Effective Studying

Effective studying depends on a number of factors: the subject discipline, the particular teaching methods used, and the personal preferences of you the student. In a new learning environment, you need to adapt your study techniques to fit in with the requirements of the varying learning situations and the challenges you will face.

The purpose of this document is to give you some insight into study at Exeter and to suggest some study approaches that might help you to make the most of studying here. We aim to promote good learning and hope that our students will develop as independent learners, able to think for themselves.

The role of the academic staff ('lecturers') is to guide, advise and stimulate learning. They will do this in two main ways:

Your role, as a student, is to be an active learner:

Conventional Modes of Teaching and Learning

Learning in Exeter is made up of different elements:


Lecture classes will be organised in different ways. Some will be held in a large lecture theatre with rows of seats arranged in tiers. Others will be held in a small room with students sitting around a group of tables.

The lectures will vary from one discipline to another and, within a discipline, from one lecturer to another. Lectures are used to identify key points within the syllabus and to put them in context. Some lecturers aim to give an overview of a subject and expect the students to work on their own to find out the detail. Other lecturers aim to explain difficult concepts which the students need to work through afterwards in order to understand. Some lecturers provoke questions, while others provide factual information.

Lectures are never intended to comprise all of your studying. They are an aid to your learning; you have to play your part:

More important than the way you take notes during a lecture, is what you do with them afterwards. Because listening and writing at the same time is difficult, your notes will need revising This should be done as soon as possible after the lecture while you are still able to recall what went on.

Seminars and Tutorials

Seminars usually involve a much smaller group of students than a lecture. They may be organised in various ways but their purpose is to provide an opportunity to learn through discussion. Generally they do not provide 'right' answers but the chance for a student to try out some ideas and receive feedback on them. Often one or two students will be asked to prepare a paper that they will present to the rest of the group. All the students will then discuss those papers.

The academic staff play a much smaller part in a seminar than in a lecture. They will decide the topic for discussion and may be available to help the presenters beforehand. They will guide the discussion that follows.

Your role as a student is to contribute to the discussion. Even if you are not a presenter you should do some preparation of the topic beforehand. You should listen to the papers presented carefully so that you have some points to raise. Be prepared to make suggestions, to speculate. Don't be afraid of saying something 'wrong'. When you are exploring ideas there is not likely to be just one conclusion. If you are not a native English-speaker don't worry about your English. Speaking your ideas is a good way of developing the language skills you will need to write assignments, and it is only by practice that you will improve.

Problems Classes

These are a form of seminar. It is normal for problems to be set about a week in advance of the class. It is essential that you make a serious attempt to understand and solve these problems before the attending the class. The instructors will help you with obstacles, but will not be prepared to hold up the class while those who have not done their homework struggle to catch up.

Written Assignments - Essays and Reports

Written assignments form a major part of the way you are assessed and will demonstrate your understanding. An assignment should not be merely a compilation of things you have read or heard in class but should demonstrate your critical abilities, and your skills of evaluation and reasoning.

Assignments are designed to make you think. Your response should be argued logically and supported by evidence. The subject matter and type of assignment will impose further constraints but almost all forms of academic writing will require you to be clear about the following points:

How to Succeed as a Student

Organise Your Time

You will be responsible for your own learning and for developing the understanding necessary to complete your course successfully. How you do this is to you to decide. It is important to organise your life so that there is enough time to do the necessary private studying.

It is a good idea to draw up a personal study timetable. This has two advantages:

One year of a full-time programme in the UK requires you to spend 38-42 hours per week on academic work over 30 weeks. These hours will largely comprise formal and private study. Look at your lecture schedule and consider your other commitments. Be reasonable in your expectations. You are unlikely to work effectively for more than eight hours in any one day and you cannot work without breaks for food and relaxation. Review your schedule every week in light of set work and any other commitments, and draw up a plan of work, but keep to broadly the same pattern every week. Allow time to cover all the elements of your programme and don't neglect one part of it because there does not seem to be much set work to be handed in.

Understand Assessment

Your performance in every module will be judged in one way or another. The most common assessment methods are an unseen examination taken within a defined time, and/or a written assignment done in your own time but with a fixed deadline. Whatever the form (the module descriptors specify this) the marks you receive will normally be based on the following criteria:

As well as end-of-module assessments, there should be opportunities during every module for you to practise and so develop the skills necessary to complete successfully, i.e. attain the learning outcomes specified on the module descriptor.

You will receive feedback on your work and progress, and it is very important that you take notice of the comments made because they will indicate how far you have met the requirements of the assignment and what more you may need to do. If you don't understand the comments do find the person who marked your work and ask them to explain what was wanted.

For advice about taking examinations see a booklet 'Examinations: how to be prepared' which is available from the Student Skills Development Service.

Develop Concentration

It is easier to plan what to do than actually do it, but a timetable is aways helpful. Knowing what you should be doing in any work period avoids switching from one task to another unable to decide which to do. It also provides an end point to your studies, which aids concentration. If you find it difficult to concentrate for very long, try dividing the task in front of you into sub-tasks so that completing each of these gives a measure of progress and satisfaction. Suitable surroundings help too - a clear table, a hard chair, enough light and heat. Isolate yourself from sources of distraction (mobile phone: off, email: off, TV: off, etc.).

Take Notes

You should always keep a record of what you have seen/heard in lectures. There are two traps to avoid here. Firstly, if the material is complicated it is tempting to copy down sentences and/or paragraphs verbatim. When you come to refer back to these notes later you may not understand them. The second problem is that you may later copy out these points into your assignments and not attribute them to their author. This is a form of plagiarism and is penalised severely by the University.

The following suggestions will help you to avoid these problems:

Read With Purpose

A large part of your studying will be reading, therefore it is important to read as efficiently as you can. The amount of guidance offered in selecting material varies from one module to another, but unless you are specifically directed to the contrary, you are not expected to read all the books on a book list. Book lists are, as the name implies, lists of books that are available. It is up to you to decide which books and/or journal articles will be useful. It is more important that you read effectively than you read a lot. A useful mnemonic for reading efficiently is W.H.O.:

Before reading, always record the title, author and location of the book or article for easy reference later, and so that you can acknowledge quotations and the source of your ideas. While reading, take notes in your own words. If the amount to be read is long, read a few pages at a time and make notes at the end of each part. If you want to record a sentence or phrase for use, put it in inverted commas so that you remember later that it is not your own words. After reading, think back to the main points that have been made.

Write With Clarity

Module descriptors are published on the WWW and give links to the specific guidance and requirements for essays and reports which are published in the Department Handbook, normally along with the marking criteria for particular exercises.

Students writing formal essays or project reports may find the articles Psychological Writing by Prof. Stephen Lea, and Use of English by Prof. Roger Bowley useful guides to appropriate style and grammar.

The NASA publication Clarity in Technical Reporting [2.8MB] offers common-sense suggestions for improving written and oral reports. It discusses basic attitudes, some elements of composition, the organization and contents of the report, and the editorial review.

Use Textbooks

Textbooks may seem daunting, especially if they are large, because they contain unfamiliar material. Of course, if they contained only familiar material, there would be little point in reading them! Your attitude when approaching a textbook will affect what you learn from it. If you approach it with fear and trepidation, it may be more difficult to read. To approach a text with confidence, it's easier if you:

This will make the text:

If you'd like to read more effectively, try the following.

These steps will:

Make your reading active. A good indicator is if you start talking to yourself, or arguing with the author, as you read or write. It shows you are trying to make sense of what you are reading.

Find Help

Many people in the University are willing to help you with study problems. The Department Handbook has a useful list:

Obviously, unless you ask for help no-one will know that you need it.

Advice for International Students

If you are not a native speaker of English, try to think in English when you are studying. You will have to write and discuss your subject in English so it is important that you practise working in that language from the beginning. All subjects have a specialised vocabulary of technical or subject-specific words that a student has to understand. Some of these words may occur with a different, general meaning in English and if you convert them into your own language using a general-purpose dictionary, you will get the wrong meaning.

For international students there are also a wide range of welfare services. Details may be found in the University handbook for international students. These services can help you with non-study problems that may get in the way of studying.


We are grateful to Anne Wyatt for permission to base this document on material she developed when she was a study skills advisor at Exeter.

University of Exeter Handbook (Physics) Questions/Comments Department (Physics)