Basic study skills

Basic study skills

for students to develop at degree level


This is an essential study skill for students to develop at degree level. The following guidelines are designed to assist you in the process of efficient and useful note-taking:

  • Be selective and try to take down only the key points, arguments, or examples rather than summarising a whole article or book. 
  • Pay close attention to introductions and conclusions.
  • Be sure to take down the full reference details (title, author, date, publisher, page number, library reference). You will need to cite these in your essays and/or dissertation. Please refer to the section on plagiarism.

As you take notes, get into the habit of summarising key points whilst also making connections with other things you have read and/or heard in lectures. This will gradually help you to develop your critical cross-referencing skills.

Writing a good essay

A good essay is generally characterised by the following features:


The essay has a clear introductory paragraph. This outlines how you are going to tackle the question. Remember that a good essay is analytical not merely descriptive. You can answer a question in a variety of different ways. In your introductory paragraph you will generally state how you are going to answer the question and provide an outline of the essay (e.g. which issues you will examine and in which order). This means that the reader knows what is going to be addressed and how. You may want to pose questions that you will answer in the course of the essay.

Body of the Text

The structure of the essay will be clear and one part will follow logically from the next. Your argument will be well supported by research evidence and/or other literature. You should include references to support statements that you make – unsupported generalisations or assertions are not going to earn high marks. 

A good essay will make reference to wide ranging literature sources – preferably including those that you have found independently, which may well include contrasting and conflicting evidence and/or interpretation. All this will show that you have a good understanding of the key issues and literature relating to it.

The evidence can be of different types - theoretical or empirical, depending on the essay question. It is important that wherever possible you include a range of evidence. In social science research, as you will know, there are frequently problems with the research design, conduct and analysis of research. Thus if many research studies point in the same or similar directions, you can be more sure that there is some 'truth' to a particular finding. You need to be aware of shortcomings of different studies. Note that material reported in the press may or may not be accurate. Also you should be cautious about accepting government pronouncements as statements of 'fact'.

You should avoid simply describing theory, policy or practice; for a good essay you need to analyse the material presented. 

Many questions require good knowledge of empirical research. Others may require a sound understanding of differing policy contexts – as conveyed by commentators.  This you need to acquire through reading books, journal articles and high quality material from the worldwide web.

Your essay should seek to be unbiased in its presentation of different perspectives; it should question and it should show evidence of independent thinking. So you may be able to make inferences or deductions on the basis of evidence that you have examined, but you need to consider the strengths and weaknesses of all perspectives, including those you are most inclined to agree with.   You need to be clear that you have made particular inferences - so you might say 'on the basis of the evidence reported it would appear that…'. Showing originality of thought is generally advantageous, but conclusions that you reach must be based on valid assumptions - they must be arrived at logically through a process of deduction. If you assume that the reader agrees with your own biases and perspectives, this will not generally result in a convincing argument.

In terms of the content of the essay, the following points need to be considered:

  • say how you are going to interpret the essay question;
  • try and ensure that the content is balanced, relevant and that there is adequate description (but not too much);
  • make sure that you have answered the question asked or discussed what you were asked to discuss – not something quite different.


The conclusion will bring together the main points that you have addressed and will relate to your introductory paragraph and indeed to the question posed. It should take into account the different strands you have addressed, relate to the broad issue that is being discussed, and should not simply summarise the essay. You may be able to draw out implications for theory, policy or practice.


Text should be clear, readable, and follow standard academic publishing conventions. Your course organiser may request a particular style but here is a suggested format that you could use if no course-specific guidelines are provided: 

  • Times New Roman or similar small serif font
  • 12 point font
  • Line spacing at 1.5 or double
  • Text left justified or fully justified

Citation and referencing

Please also refer to the section on Plagiarism. By following these basic guidelines you can ensure that your coursework (both formative and summative) is always adequately referenced. 

Using Quotations and Citing Sources 

  • Direct borrowing of text must be put in quotation marks.
  • Use single spacing for quotations, and indent long quotations.
  • A quotation must be direct, that is, you do not alter the quote to suit your own purposes.
  • You must use the original punctuation of the quote.
  • All quotations must be cited.
  • Paraphrases must also be cited.
  • Page numbers must be provided except where they are unavailable (e.g. when citing a webpage) or when you are referring to an entire work, for example: The ideas laid out in The Wealth of Nations indicate…(Smith 1776).
  • Cite all sources using a consistent pattern. 
  • The simplest form of citation is in-text. Standard Chicago Manual of Style citation is author-date-comma-page. So if citing Dean 2006 page 38, write (Dean 2006, 38). Other examples include author-date-colon (Dean 2006: 38). See also "Suggestions for Writing a Good Essay".
  • If you state the name of the author in the sentence, you do not need to put it in the citation. For example: As Robert Pinker has noted, "conservatism is as much an attitude of the mind as a doctrine of a political party" (2008, 69).
  • Footnotes can be more cumbersome than the above.
  • Do not mix footnote citation and in-text citation.
  • Note that a chapter within a book (e.g. a chapter from one of the course texts) must be attributed to the author(s) of the chapter, not the editor(s) of the book.
  • Your citation should be accompanied by an a full reference at the end of the piece of work.


A reference is complete information on a published work, given at the end of a document. It enables others to find the works you have used.   All sources cited in the essay must appear in the reference list.

Reference lists should be labelled with a header in bold text stating "References". References must provide the author(s), year of publication, title of the work, title of the journal (for articles) or edited volume (for edited works), location of publication, and publisher. List your reference alphabetically and use a consistent style.

Some examples:

  •  Book, one author

Blogs, Joseph (1972) Radicalism in the 60s. New York: Harper Collins.

  • Book, two authors

Doe, Jane and James Blogs (1973) The Rise of Disco. New York: Harper Collins.

  • Article in a journal (Includes the journal name, the volume and/or issue number, and the pages of the article):

Doe, Jonathan (1999) "Russia After Yeltsin: Looking Towards the Future" Foreign Policy Review, 27:5-31.

  • Chapter in a book

Gladstone, David (2008) "History and Social Policy" in Peter Alcock, Margaret May, and Karen Rowlingson, eds. The Student's Companion to Social Policy. Oxford: Blackwell.

  • Website

Must include author (if available), year of copyright or last update (usually at the bottom of the page), page title, URL, and date of access:

World Bank (2008) "Urban Rail Programs Represent New Frontier" Viewed 23 November 2008.

Seminar/class presentations

The following guidelines are designed to help you prepare for seminar/class presentations. However, please note that not all courses adopt the same procedures and you should also consult the relevant course teacher for advice.

  • Read the specified texts and use them to construct an answer to the set question. Use other texts from the reading lists to supplement this, where necessary. Try to limit your focus to the information that is relevant to the question.
  • Confer with your co-presenter (if any) beforehand and agree how you will divide up the presentation. For example, one person might do the introduction and part one, the other part two and conclusion. You will need to work together to ensure a cohesive presentation.
  • Do not make the presentation any longer than 20 minutes. This will allow plenty of time for discussion, during which you may make further points. Test out your material amongst yourselves beforehand to check the length.
  • You should prepare a single page summary setting out your argument. Do not exceed this one page handout.
  • Conclude with some further questions for discussion.


Please note that you can ask the seminar/class group and/or leader for feedback on your presentation