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Why does my mind work like this?

(14 Posts)
SarfEast1cated Fri 10-Mar-17 10:03:33

I am currently studying at university and having real problems with essay writing. I just don’t seem to be able to think the way they want me to. I have a tendency to read all I can on a subject and then be unable to structure it properly in an essay. I seem to be able to think in broad brushstrokes with a lot of information, but not deeply enough. My mind skirts over the top of stuff rather than delving deeply into it. It’s really frustrating, because I used to consider myself quite clever, but now I feel really superficial and stupid.

Can you help? Do you think it might be a learning disorder, or am I just shallow!

Parietal Fri 10-Mar-17 10:17:08

essay writing is hard. some things that may help

- make a spider diagram. when you've done your reading, write down the central idea and then other related ideas so you can see how things fit together.

- make a plan for your essay. write out a heading for each paragraph in order.

- try to identify the core question you need to answer. with a tight word limit, you need to be selective so pick the bits of information that really address the question. you might have to leave out things that seem great but don't fit - that is OK.

- be critical. If you describe a famous study / bit of evidence, add a sentence to say why it might be wrong or what is limited about it.

- come to a conclusion at the end. say what you actually think. 'more research is needed' is a very dull conclusion - try to have an opinion.

SarfEast1cated Fri 10-Mar-17 14:56:02

Thank you Parietal - very useful. All of the other people on my course seem to find it quite straightforward (darn them!) so I thought maybe my mind was wired slightly differently.

StealthPolarBear Fri 10-Mar-17 14:57:50

Would it help in terms of main headings and then under each heading come up with a list of questions to answer

WhoDoDatLikeDat Fri 10-Mar-17 15:04:44

Sarf Ah, but how well are other people on your course doing? Sometimes the most vocal people and those who seem to find it easiest are those who are actually not getting it at all. They might have lots to say in class and might even be getting the good grades but whether or not they're truly thinking in the way needed for their discipline is a very different matter.

I always advise students to make notes after they've read a paper. Don't highlight all the way through and don't make notes as you read. Read a full paper, then make some notes. But keep these notes no longer than three or four lines;
What's the work about?
What's it's core argument?
How does it advance the field?
What's wrong with the paper?

That's all you need to know about it. Don't over-complicate it, just make notes of key points and then think reflectively about it (i.e. what's wrong with it?). After a while you will begin to build up a sense of papers that can be compared or contrasted or mashed together to make a new point.

I also advise students not to read too much. There's a tonne of academic work out there and it's impossible to read everything relevant for each essay. Start with your core readings on your reading list and a few others but you don't need to read everything.
It's much better to write an essay which draws deeply on a small number of readings and really critically engages with them than to write an essay which is just a dispassionate list of everything you've read that's remotely relevant.

As PP said, have an opinion as well. What do you think is the over-riding issue? What do you think the field needs to look at next?

Pippone Fri 10-Mar-17 15:10:26

Glad I saw this thread in active. I'm trying to write an essay on the cerebral cortex. Love your name by the way parietal wink

FinallyHere Fri 10-Mar-17 15:25:02

Great outline, paretial

You may just be undergoing the usual crisis of confidence that comes ( for me anyway) with academic study. How do you usually like to communicate? Would you rather tell someone about it? Could you think of the outline paretial suggested, as if it were for a presentation , or even just a chat. What would you want to tell someone about the topic?

I have a bear, very long suffering, who used to be told about any topic I was preparing. He seldom, if ever, said anything but just telling him out loud helped me spot where I was missing out on an important step in the process. Talking out loud works for me, hope you find what works for you.

Anyone would be stopped by the fear that it isn't good enough, that is pretty much universal. Don't fall for it, do something, anything to ignore that fear. It isnt real, you just go on regardless. All the best.

SarfEast1cated Fri 10-Mar-17 15:37:29

I think it is confidence Finally as I never think I know enough to be able to comment on these academic theories. I don't really feel I have the authority to do it - what do I know?
That tip of writing points on papers after reading is really useful too whododat because I get very overwhelmed with a high volume of highlighted sheets of paper and books with sticky labels sticking out. Is it the same principle for a chapter of a book too?
Thanks everyone!

laurzj82 Fri 10-Mar-17 15:54:19

Placemarking as I find this difficult too

WhoDoDatLikeDat Fri 10-Mar-17 15:58:14

Sarf Definitely. Anything you read. Even a whole book can probably be summed up in half a page. Remember that every paper or book chapter has one possibly two arguments to make. And that's it. If you can identify these and identify how they've made the argument (what previous work they've used, what data they have) then that's all you really need to take from the paper/book/chapter.

I also think academic writing is so tightly bound up with academic reading. The more you read, the better you'll write.
I would suggest reading two papers a day just for 'fun'. So not for an essay but just because they look interesting. You don't need to make any notes or take anything really away from them, just read them to immerse yourself in the style and tone. If you've got a favourite journal then take them from here because you'll enjoy them more.

Foureyesarebetterthantwo Fri 10-Mar-17 16:52:35

I see students fairly frequently who feel rubbish because they get low grades and feel like failures, but they simply lack the skill of critiquing and analysing papers. I use an approach like Parietal's where you have to read the paper, then write a few lines describing the main points (e.g. if empirical, the main theory, the method, the key findings) and then analyse the paper: what is the strength of the argument, where is it weak, are there any obvious logical flaws in it, is there contradictory data, and are there any methods problems that would undermine its reliability? If it's a theoretical paper, then do a summary of the main points of the argument, and again, write out a series of numbered points about what the paper adds, what it lacks, what does/doesn't make sense logically, and where this takes us in terms of your essay.

I have found that once students get into the habit of analysing papers, they get a lot better at writing essays! I would say half to a page per paper to start with, and you only need a few of those to make the bulk of an essay, adding a few additional references to widen the reading.

Analysing papers and writing essays based on them is a skill and can be learned, it isn't a mystical process you can either do or not. I haven't found a student yet who can't master this given clear instructions on what to do. Obviously there are then things you can do at the higher end of the marks to gain really top grades, but the basics of essay-writing can really be mastered by most of the undergraduates I come across. One of my students leaped up from getting 40's to an overall 2:1 last year by following this advice.

HilairHilair Sat 11-Mar-17 13:45:20

It's not a learning disorder.

You need to learn how to analyse - lots of tips in this thread already.

I find a lot of my undergrads have big ideas, but can't give me the step-by-step logical argument to support their thinking. You need to have evidence. Depending on your subject, your evidence will often come from your work in interpreting the primary source materials you engage with.

First of all, work out what the essay question is really asking. Then assemble your relevant primary sources.

So if you're reading EngLit or History or Art or .... , start with a book/text/primary source/document. Work through it, understanding it's implications, its connotations, its sub-texts, its figures of sppech, its visual tropes (as appropriate). Do a 'close reading' or a 'thick description.'

Think about how that text (of whatever sort) produces meaning and how you might interpret that.

Then think about where/how that text is situated in its cultural/historical/social context. What is its significance? What is the cultural work it does?

That tip of writing points on papers after reading is really useful too whododat because I get very overwhelmed with a high volume of highlighted sheets of paper and books with sticky labels sticking out. Is it the same principle for a chapter of a book too?

Thinking & learning & writing (writing is a form of thinking & learning) aren't about collecting "quotes" they're not quotes they're quotations and lining them up.

You need to engage with the central argument or idea driving what other scholars have written.

But the FIRST and most important thing is that you need to have your own driving argument, drawn from your analysis of the primary sources.

dinobum Sat 11-Mar-17 15:01:48

I can't read and then write I have to do it at the same time, so I'll read one paper, wrote down the bullet point structure of the essay based on that, read the next paper, adjust the essay structure accordingly etc I just hold info in my head otherwise

dinobum Sat 11-Mar-17 15:09:04

Can't hold info in my head

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