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Raising Your Game with Dr Brenda Todd

Cambridge Open University Psychological Society Critical Skills Workshop, 7th December 2019.

 It is a truth universally acknowledged … that opening sentences can be tricky; hence this cheeky homage/filthy plagiary! Jane Austin’s, Pride and Prejudice was just one of the references made by Dr Brenda Todd in her brilliant critical skills workshop. Throughout the day, Dr Todd delivered a valuable toolkit of strategies to improve our writing, regardless of the level of study. Represented in the room were different levels of study however, nobody was either out of their depth, or bored. The workshop comprised four individual sessions which converged to ‘raise your game’ in terms of the critical skills crucial in study and in life.

Session 1, Planning and Procedure, started at the beginning; the real beginning. Essay planning and exam revision are important, however, before these stages there is the day-to-day studying. Dr Todd encouraged us to ‘stay positive’. The importance of routine was drawn upon because when life throws a curveball, being a deadline daredevil [me] creates more stress and issues than maintaining a routine. Open University students are not one-size-fits-all and so various strategies for planning and procedure were shared such as; getting up early to study, listening to audio materials on the train to work and, studying in the evening while children sleep. Also, do not underestimate the benefits of small chunks of study – something will always be better than nothing. Finally, practise reflection; look carefully at tutor feedback, reread assignments and, tying into minimising deadline devilry, save your assignment [and back it up!] and leave it overnight, because fresh eyes could notice an error or add a detail that an instant submission may not catch.   

In Session 2, Critical Reading and Note-Taking, Dr Todd emphasised that reading is not a passive activity because we each bring our prior knowledge and experiences. Purpose is a significant part of critical reading; both, the purpose of the author when writing the text, for example, to persuade, and the purpose of the reader, for example, gaining knowledge about a topic or, exam preparation. Similarly, note-taking must have a focus so as to not be regurgitating the text mindlessly. The group talked about different note-taking techniques, such as handwritten notes, mind maps and typed notes, plus flashcards and dictated notes. Whichever method used, it is important to keep order in notes, for example, including references or relevant page numbers, and to not lose the notes themselves. Operant conditioning came up in this session as a way of maintaining momentum by shaping behaviour with rewards, for example, study stalwart, chocolate.

Session 3, Communicating Effectively in Writing was as amusing as it was informative. Dr Todd used Marcel Proust and Snoopy to emphasise the importance of writing in a clear and concise manner. Style is neither lost in simplicity, nor found in convolution; taking examples from Robert Day’s book, Scientific English: A Guide for Scientists and Other Professionals, simple phrases, such as, curiosity killed the cat, were presented in convoluted and quite funny ways to demonstrate this assertion. Other issues mentioned in this session included common problems with undergraduate essays, such as, no structure and a lack of focus on the question. The paragraph structure of point-evidence-comment-link was covered [also known as PEEL if replacing comment with explain], particularly the link element because without linking, essays read as shopping lists and thus lose marks.

Session 4, Thinking and Writing Critically drew together key points of the preceding sessions to provide the tools to produce higher quality work. The evaluation element of critical analysis was outlined, as well as the importance of constructing a clear argument. An exercise was to critically analyse a short research article regarding background music. Different perspectives were shared about the article which illustrated the variations in perception, however, the way arguments would be constructed for an assignment is the key point: there is no right or wrong answer, but the success of this, and every, assignment lies in how it is produced. Organisation and planning, effective notes, a clear writing style and thinking and writing critically contribute to academic success and are all skills which can be learned. A slide stated that, ‘Communicating in writing is a craft not a talent – anyone can learn to be ‘good enough’’.

These tools gained and honed over the course of the workshop extend beyond academic endeavours; thinking critically is an important life skill. Thank you to Dr Todd and Cambridge OUPS for an excellent and lively event.

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