Academic Skills

Helping you get the most out of your studies

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Worried about Exams?

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The Advice & Representation Centre are here to provide confidential non-judgemental  independent support and advice to all students. If you are worried about exams and would like to talk through your concerns you can drop into the centre on level 3 of the Student Union or e-mail  for advice by email or to book an appointment with an advisor. Advisors can also offer give information about the process of completing and submitting an  individual mitigating circumstances  form, and can discuss the process and your case with you in confidence.


Getting started on your final dissertation

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Choosing a suitable dissertation topic may not be a straightforward task as there are many complex factors to consider. However, the earlier you explore and consider possible themes and ideas the better. Firstly it is important to choose something you are generally interested in, and not something that you believe you should be writing about. Remember, you will be focusing a lot of time and effort into this single piece of work over a period of months, thus your interest and motivation are critical to successful completion.

A dissertation can be connected to a future career move, or around focus topics in the ‘real’ and non-academic world, however, more importantly it is first and foremost a work of academic research. Therefore you have to find the right balance of personal interest, and what is available to study. This means that you will have to be realistic about what is achievable within the time you have to complete your dissertation. There could be many areas that may hold your interest, and you think are worthy of researching, but ultimately a dissertation must be attainable.

In addition, you have to be flexible. It is inevitable that your dissertation will change during the course of undertaking it, as you read more literature and discover new research ideas. Being flexible is important in the research process, and is good academic practice but it does not mean that the areas you have worked on already have been a waste of time. They will have helped shaped your research direction, and can also be used as part of your literature review if still relevant.

Finally, it is also important to keep checking the topics and ideas that you are considering with your supervisor, as he or she can guide you in the early stages,  particularly whether your dissertation topic is achievable, and he/she can also provide you with connected areas of research,  key authors and useful sources. This dialogue  is something you should also try to initiate as early as possible.

So good luck, and start reading now!

Dave Evans is a  Graduate in MSc International Development & MA TESOL and Academic Skills Teaching Fellow at The University of Bath



How to build your critical response using argument-counter argument

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Developing a critical response in your assignment involves carefully selecting and combining the voices of others to support your thesis ( your argument, position, or purpose) and drive it forward. These voices  may include academic argument, evidence, data, theories, examples, case studies and so on. Critical response, however, is also about evaluation of those selected voices, even when this could potentially undermine your thesis. However, the use of an argument-counter argument approach in your writing can help you to evaluate and strengthen your position at the same time. Here's how it works:

Stage 1:

First, you need to consider and predict some of the arguments that may be pitched against your thesis (position). You need to unpack them and show how and why this evidence may be flawed. You can then present your counter-arguments or counter-evidence, using your academic 'soldiers' to counter-attack and strengthen your thesis. Thus by predicting and counter-attacking your enemies' game plan with counter-evidence, you strengthen your own case.

Stage 2:

Some of these arguments of course, may be directed towards the views or evidence presented by your academic supporters. The most effective critical responses in academic writing take this into account, and involve the evaluation of not only the evidence and arguments presented by critics of your thesis, but also the evidence and arguments of your own supporters.  So, if you spot a weakness in the evidence presented by one of your ‘soldiers’, then it is important to acknowledge and address this without undermining your thesis. You can do this by finding further sources that answer or refute these criticisms and so continues to support and further strengthen your thesis.

Argument/counter-argument structure therefore  allows you to explore, analyse and evaluate all sides of the issues around your thesis. This approach also strengthens your argument as it shows that you have thought of every angle, whilst providing a compelling and convincing case.

The following diagram illustrates how argument-counter argument works in practice.

argument graphic 6

Writing an Abstract - A Six Point Checklist ( with samples)

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The abstract is a vital part of any research paper. It is the shop front for your work, and the first stop for your reader. It should provide a clear and succinct summary of your study, and encourage your readers to read more. An effective abstract, therefore should answer the following questions:

Why did you do this study or project?
What did you do and how?
What did you find?
What do your findings mean?

So here's our run down of the key elements of a well-written abstract.

  1. Size - A succinct and well written abstract should be between approximately 100- 250 words.
  2. Background - An effective abstract usually includes some scene-setting information which might include what is already known about the subject, related to the paper in question (a few short sentences).
  3. Purpose - The abstract should also set out the purpose of your research, in other words, what is not known about the subject and hence what the study intended to examine - (or what the paper seeks to present).
  4. Methods - The methods section should contain enough information to enable the reader to understand what was done, and how. It should include brief details of the research design, sample size, duration of study, and so on.
  5. Results - The results section is the most important part of the abstract. This is because readers who skim an abstract do so to learn about the findings of the study. The results section should therefore contain as much detail about the findings as the journal word count permits.
  6. Conclusion - This section should contain the most important take-home message of the study, expressed in a few precisely worded sentences. Usually, the finding highlighted here relates to the primary outcomes of the study. However, other important or unexpected findings should also be mentioned. It is also customary, but not essential, to express an opinion about the theoretical or practical implications of the findings, or the importance of their findings for the field. Thus, the conclusions may contain three elements:

The primary take-home message

Any additional findings of importance

Implications for future studies 

abstract 1

Example Abstract 2: Engineering
Development and validation of a three-dimensional finite element model of the pelvic bone.


Abstract from: Dalstra, M., Huiskes, R. and Van Erning, L., 1995. Development and validation of a three-dimensional finite element model of the pelvic bone. Journal of biomechanical engineering, 117(3), pp.272-278.


And finally .. A word on Abstract Types & Styles


Abstract types can differ according to subject discipline. You need to determine therefore which type of abstract you should include with your paper. Here are two of the most common types with examples.

Informative Abstract

The majority of abstracts are informative. While they still do not critique or evaluate a work, they do more than describe it. A good informative abstract acts as a surrogate for the work itself. That is, the researcher presents and explains all the main arguments and the important results and evidence in the paper. An informative abstract includes the information that can be found in a descriptive abstract [purpose, methods, scope] but it also includes the results and conclusions of the research and the recommendations of the author. The length varies according to discipline, but an informative abstract is usually no more than 300 words in length.

Descriptive Abstract
A descriptive abstract indicates the type of information found in the work. It makes no judgments about the work, nor does it provide results or conclusions of the research. It does incorporate key words found in the text and may include the purpose, methods, and scope of the research. Essentially, the descriptive abstract only describes the work being summarized. Some researchers consider it an outline of the work, rather than a summary. Descriptive abstracts are usually very short, 100 words or less.

(Adapted from: