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Athabasca University

Study Skills Guide

These notes were first developed by Val Smith a tutor at Leeds University for a distance learning course run for the Transport and General Workers Union. They have been revised for use at Athabasca and have benefitted from comments made by colleagues Lois Hamiester, Carol Shafer and Jeff Taylor.

Dr. Bruce Spencer, Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies, FHSS.

Developing Your Study Skills

Before you tackle the first unit of your course, think about the study skills you will need. This section reviews:

Getting Started

These notes are guidelines only. You may have a different approach that works well for you. There is always more than one way to approach studying and essay writing.

If you feel you need more help with your study skills, there are a number of good texts available—one of the best is by A. Northedge, The Good Study Guide (2005), published by the Open University. In many locations there are educational counsellors who run study-skills workshops and Athabasca University also offers study skills support.

If you live alone, it may be easier to find time to study, but you still need to make time available. If you live with others, you need their support. Discuss the problems that your study may cause and try to agree on a time and place for your study.

You will find it much easier if you can organize a place—a desk—where you can keep books, a computer, and course materials. You can save time and get started right away if you don't have to get out your materials and put them away after each session. Your local library may have places to study; this may be a good alternative when you need to do some extended reading and note making or draft an essay.

Finding a time to study is the biggest problem for most adult students. It seems that no one ever has enough time for everything that needs to be done. Get a piece of paper and write out your typical week (or month, if you are on shift work or have varied activities). Commit yourself to particular times for study. Be realistic; ask yourself how much time you can set aside for study. Ten to twelve hours a week should be adequate for most courses. If necessary, you may need to cut back on other activities for a time so that you can complete the course.

If you are at home and have less than half an hour, don't try to study. Catch up on something else—wash the dishes or play with the children! If you are alone, use short periods of time for rapid reading, filing/checking references on-line or rewriting some notes. If you are away from home—on the bus or waiting for the dentist—carry a book or tablet so you can skim read.

If you have more than half an hour, you can undertake more serious study such as note taking from a book or working through a section of your course materials. If you are tired, you might want to concentrate on reviewing material you are already familiar with, rather than tackling something new.

If you have several hours available, use the time to write a first draft of an essay, presentation or case study response - whatever has been set as an assignment. If you are reading and taking notes, you can get stale and tired after an hour or two, even with a coffee break. If this happens, change the topic or the activity. Do some filing or sorting, whether it's electronically or otherwise, and then return to your original study topic.


Taking Notes

Usually all of the course materials, including your own textbook, are yours to keep so feel free to write in them as you wish. Many students find it helpful to write in the margins, underline key phrases or highlight important sections. You may also want to make separate notes in a binder or on your computer/laptop/mobile device. Obviously, if you borrow books from the library you cannot write in them; you will need to make separate notes on the sections that interest you.

Try to organize your work from the outset; make notes in such a way that you can find and understand them when you need them. The notes you make for one course can help on the next course, so develop a filing system either by hardcopy or on computer/mobile device.

Check the contents of the book and skim through the sections you might need, noting the page numbers. Then, read through those sections and make notes on them.

For each item you read, write down/type the author’s name, title of the book or article, place of publication, publisher, and date of publication (for articles or chapters in an edited collection also note the first and last page numbers). For example:

Alexander, A. (1997). The Antigonish Movement: Moses Coady and Adult Education Today. Toronto: Thompson Educational Publishing.

You will need this information when writing a reference list for an assignment, and you will be very glad that you were clever enough to write it down when you had the book or article in front of you. If you are quoting from the book, remember to note the page numbers from which you quote.

Write down key points and ideas in the material you are reading, using subheadings and lists if you find them helpful or necessary. For example:

From page 15 of Welton, M. (1987). Knowledge for the People. Toronto: OISE.

The role of the state in adult education—three considerations:

  1. Low profile of adult education within educational policy formulation linked to the “structural location” and the “lack of power” of some adult students.
  2. In general a capitalist state does not want to promote participatory democracy.
  3. Social movements can practice “participative learning” and make gains within the state.

Do not copy out long excerpts from the material you are reading. It is far more effective to write down some key material that you may wish to quote. Be sure to use quotation marks to show that you are quoting the writer’s actual words. Double check the quoted material to be certain that you have recorded it correctly. It’s amazingly easy to miss a word or drop a line. For example:

On page 3, Welton (1987) claims: “Adult educational thought and practice has been largely invisible to the Canadian historian.”

For longer sections, you may want to photocopy the material (or if digital, store it on your electronic device), as it is quicker and more accurate. You can make a copy of the material for your private study, but there are copyright restrictions on how much you can copy.

Set the information out in a form that is easy to read and easy to find when you need it again.

If you are working through a set of questions in one of the units of your course, write the question first and then write/type out your answer. This method is better than simply numbering your responses, because it ensures that the question is always with the answer and saves you or the reader the confusion of flipping pages/screens back and forth.

Working Through the Course Materials

As a distance learning student you may have to study pre-prepared material or you may have a key introductory text. Read the introduction and work out the aims/objectives for each section of the material. They indicate what you should be looking for in the readings and should guide your study strategy. For example, if you are studying Chapter 1 of Education for Adults: An Introduction:


After completing this unit, you should be able to:

  1. outline the basic tenants and purposes of adult education;
  2. discuss different philosophies of adult education; and
  3. relate historical examples of Canadian adult education practice.

If a list of important terms is given, that may also alert you to the key concepts so note those.

If there are study notes or thought questions for the section you are working on, read them in conjunction with the required reading for the section. Check to see that you have an understanding of the section. For anything you are not sure about, reread the relevant material. You may find that reading the entire chapter of the text, or the assigned reading, then rereading specific parts as you answer the study/thought questions is a good strategy to follow.

Work through each segment of your course systematically, section by section. After you have completed all sections of a unit you are working on, consider some review questions, or other activities including the questions raised in the on-line discussion forums if there are any, and record your own responses to the reading. At this point, you may wish to try to define any key terms or concepts you have come across.

If after rereading a section you have any problems with the questions, readings or assignments, make a note of them and discuss them with your fellow students or tutor/instructor/professor.

Tips on Writing Essays

If you experience difficulty in writing essays—as many students do—you may find the following tips helpful. Most people find writing difficult; even people who have been doing it for years and who do it for a living. If you follow the tips given here, you may find the task of writing an essay a bit easier to accomplish.

Collecting Information

Collecting information may include taking notes from your own reading, or the instructor/tutoring/on-line lessons, or from discussions with others.

Collecting the information and answering questions as you go along can be fun. There is always one more book or article to read or one more source to consult. At some stage, however, you must decide that you have enough information and begin organizing the information you have.

Planing Your Essay

This stage takes time. Don't be tempted to skip it and start writing. A good plan can reveal itself in the finished essay. Planning your essay will help to structure your arguments clearly and keep your information organized.

Jot down the different ideas you have for different sections. Use headings to organize your thoughts. You may want to develop a detailed outline with main headings, subheadings and lists of points made under these. Consider the different sides of the arguments presented and assemble the evidence to support the different ideas. Spread out your information and identify which points go where. Not all of the information you have collected will fit into the essay.

Don't assume that the reader of your paper has any background on the subject of your essay—provide sufficient information to allow a reader to identify the issues in question.

You may want to run some ideas past your teacher to ensure that you do not have an essay plan that is off-base.

Writing the Rough Draft

Ideally, you will sit down with all your notes organized into sections and write the rough draft in one session. If you cannot do this, try to write a number of paragraphs in one sitting. Do not worry about spelling or alterations at this stage. Just try to get a rough draft of the whole essay.

For a 1,200 to 1,500 word essay, you will need eight to ten paragraphs. This includes an introduction and a conclusion (one paragraph each) and the body (six to eight paragraphs).

The introduction should be brief—usually no more than three to five sentences. It should state concisely what your essay seeks to examine and should explain the approach you intend to take. You may be able to reword the assignment question into a statement that becomes the topic of your essay. For example: Discuss the statement that “today's unions are the product of the legal system.” This assignment can be reworded into a number of sentences clarifying the essay topic:

The way in which unions organize in the workplace and negotiate with employers has been profoundly influenced by the legal system. However, unions are not only legal creatures, they are also voluntary associations created by working people to promote the economic and social interests of working people—they are social movements. In this essay I will examine the argument that unions are the “product of the legal system” and argue that unions need to be understood as independent associations of working people capable of acting outside of their legally prescribed role.

The body of the essay is the main section in which you must present and develop your ideas. Your essay must be solidly based on the topic in question. General statements should be supported with specific examples and evidence. Choose only information that has direct relevance to your discussion and explain what relationship exists between the concepts you are presenting and the topic of the essay. In other words, link the individual points and paragraphs back to the essay topic. Transitions between paragraphs should be smooth, and the presentation of ideas should flow easily from one paragraph to another. Sometimes the connections are established through similarities in content, sometimes through contrasts; sometimes the development is chronological, sometimes logical. You must choose whichever approach is most appropriate for your topic.

The conclusion of your essay, like the introduction, should be brief. It should summarize your ideas and present any conclusions that have emerged from your discussion. Your concluding statements should add strength and credibility to the ideas presented in your introduction. If they do, and you have supported your argument throughout, then you will have succeeded in writing a good essay.For example:

The evidence presented does support the contention that since the 1944 PC Order 1003 unions have largely acted within their legally prescribed role. The legal support for free collective bargaining ensured, at least until the early 1970s, that unions had a legitimate presence within the economic and social life of Canada. However, the evidence also illustrates that labour unions, and more specifically union members, retain the ability to act without regard to their legal restrictions. The independence shown by some unionists, coupled with the broader vision of some unions, should ensure that Canada's unions are not just a legally prescribed representative of labour within the bargaining system. In the context of a global economy and the pressure to further limit union activity, the interests of Canadian workers may depend on the union movement's ability to break free of legal restrictions and restore their social movement's vision and activity.

If you find the introduction difficult to start with, try to write another section. Do anything to get started. When you have a rough draft of your essay, you may want to leave it alone for a day or two. When you return to it, you should be able to take a fresh view of what you have written. This can help you recognize errors and omissions in the content, or awkwardness in style.

Reread, Sort Out, and Write the Final Essay

Reread your draft, sort out any muddled ideas and rewrite any awkward sections.

Copy it out. Spread it out on the page or screen. Use subheadings if you like. Clear, simple sentences and paragraphs will help the reader understand your meaning. If you have constructed the work on your computer you may want to print it off to re-read it and see how the sections can be moved around. Be aware that on the computer screen it may all look neat and tidy but only a careful reading will indicate if it is well constructed.

If you feel your essay is a hopeless mess at this stage, don't give up or struggle on your own. Try talking to your teacher or ask someone else to read it over—remember education should be a social activity and a learning process. The final product should be yours but there is no harm in asking for advice.

Don't forget to give credit for all sources of quotations and ideas. This practice not only indicates intellectual courtesy and honesty, but also enables the reader to pursue any reference that seems particularly interesting.

For the convenience of your teacher, allow fairly large margins and double or 1.5 spacing between lines. This will make your essay easier to read and the teacher can then insert corrections and comments. The ideal margins are approximately 4 cm (1.5 in.) at the left and 2.5 cm (1 in.) at the top, bottom, and right-hand side. A typed/computer-generated or printed paper is always preferred, but if you have to write in long-hand, please be sure your paper is legible, double-spaced and written in ink. Before submitting your essay, take the time to proofread it carefully to catch any spelling mistakes, computer errors, repetitions and the like.

Planning and Drafting a Graduate Assignment

Graduate work is designed to be more demanding than college or undergraduate study, but the basic studying and writing skills are similar. Although graduate students usually have the experience of many years of studying and writing, completing a graduate paper can still be a daunting task. Very few students, or for that matter faculty, find academic writing easy. Structuring an argument, developing a critical, reflective approach to evidence and ideas, thinking theoretically and being analytical are all hard work. Writing generally improves with practice, although you will have days when your writing does not flow or you have a topic which is particularly troublesome. The notes that follow are not comprehensive; they are designed to help you think about some of the key aspects of writing graduate assignments.

Writing a good assignment requires careful, focused research of the issues. You should be thinking in terms of answering the study question from the outset. What is the central argument—or thesis—that you are expounding? What other viewpoints will you have to refute? What evidence is available to support or challenge your arguments? In many graduate courses you can choose your own topic for your term paper. Try framing the topic as a question. You will need to develop a good grasp of the issues and develop a point of view about them. A survey “essay” may be appropriate at some stage of your knowledge exploration, but a survey or overview will not score as highly as an original thesis that incorporates the survey material. Therefore, you should turn your topic into a question, as in this example:

You may be interested in the topic of “adult education within Women's Institutes.” If you use that as your essay heading and are simply going to describe what goes on, you may write a competent paper, but it would have no central thesis and you could not expect to score well.

If you pose a question such as, “To what extent were Women's Institutes able to develop independent adult education?” then you will still write about WIs but with more purpose, since you are now exploring an argument.

Having set your question, you need to develop your own argument. If you feel that you agree with everything said about the WIs in the Welton (1987) edited text, then there may be little point in writing on that topic. If you have something original to say, and have some evidence to back it up that will demonstrate a solid analysis and the superiority of your interpretation over others, then write. For example:

In reading about the WIs, you formed the view that the BC institutes were not as independent as those in Alberta. You consider that the independence of the organization reflected a number of factors, such as the particular location and farming community, the role of provincial government, the proximity of other more independent women's organizations.

You want to argue that Alberta was more independent because of the existence of these variables and you are going to show how that affected the provincial WIs and their educational output.

Having determined your argument, you need to undertake (or return to) your research. You need to critically review key and recent sources, interrogating the data. You should be able to explain the complexity of debate. For example:

The account of the government role in the life of BC Institutes reproduced in the 1925 County Life in British Columbia (see Chapter 1) provides direct evidence contrary to the argument of the Welton (1987) text. Both viewpoints need to be evaluated and interpreted—to what extent was the WI “incorporated” by the “state?”

Motions proposed to the annual Alberta WI provide evidence of membership opinion and activity. They would need to be considered against other evidence and interpretations of Alberta activity to see to what extent they can be used to support your thesis. You might want to discuss whether the motions provide evidence of “counter-hegemonic” education.

A graduate paper which has all these features will receive a good grade. Grading is always a subjective activity, but in general terms, a paper that makes an argument that uses an original and interesting thesis (and research), is critical (including self-critique), theoretical, analytical, well-structured, and has a strong introduction and conclusion, will be successful.

For more information, see the chart that illustrates some of the elements included in a graduate marking scheme. It is suggestive but should, nonetheless, give you an idea of the factors which influence grading. Graduate students should score an “A” or “B,” while a student who scores a “C” may be asked to rewrite the paper.

  A+ to A- B+ to B- C+ to C-
Thesis Original. Logical interpretation and criticism to establish unique perspective. Analytically superior to other interpretations. Clearly stated. Establishes a perspective which accounts for its selection. Clear analysis. Clearly organized and presented. Some weaknesses.
Research Contains key and current sources. Grasps complexity of debates. Critically reviews all sources and perspectives. Contains appropriate, detailed data. Includes a range of sources but treated unproblematically. Appropriate information. Limited range of research. Requires more sources.
Argument Pros and cons of evidence presented. Uses detailed sources, examples and/or statistics. Juxtaposes social theories. Evidence used to reinforce points. Pro/con arguments poor. Uses some social theory. Evidence used sparingly. Little con argument. Opinion replaces theory.

This marking scheme has been adapted from one developed by Jerry Kachur, University of Alberta.

Keeping a Learning Journal or Blog

Many courses ask you to keep a “learning journal” or a “blog.” Below is an example of a learning journal entry:

This has been an interesting week's discussion on social purpose adult education. Prior to this course I had not heard about the Antigonish Movement. Janet's comments about the reasons why Antigonish failed got me thinking about the conditions which exist today and whether co-operative community development is a viable option today and, if so, what should be the role of adult education.

The account of Coady's work in Jarvis (1987) and Welton (2013) shows that he was fully aware of the forces of opposition and the radical nature of what he was proposing. I will have to think some more about the debate on the significance of Antigonish: Was it deflecting more radical actions which could have brought even greater social change (as argued by John) or was it real social change in itself (as argued by Mary)? I will read some more -- probably Welton's biography of Coady (2001) -- and then put an entry into the computer conference.

I was particularly interested in the adult education methods used in Antigonish. I can see links between those and Freire's (other points: both Catholics, community-based education, confronting oppressive social conditions).

This week I also read Fraser and Ward (1988). It is a useful account of urban community education in the Leeds/Bradford area in the UK. It provides detailed information on the work undertaken and evaluates it. Some of the ideas and examples could be applied to my own community college if only we could escape the need for “cost-recovery” on all our community programs. I will tackle this issue when I have finished the course.

Final thought: this is the fifth week, I'm exhausted. That instructor expects a lot!

As you might have guessed, this is not a real journal entry, but it includes some of the elements that go towards good journal writing: reflection, commentary on learning, reminders for action and a brief summary of reading. If you want to know more, check the library for books and articles about journal writing.

Preparing a Book Review

Many courses also ask you to undertake a book review. In brief a good book review should:

  • help the reader decide if a book is worth reading;
  • provide a brief overview of the contents; and
  • critically evaluate the book.

The evaluation can include an assessment of:

  • the strengths and weaknesses of the main arguments;
  • the organization of the arguments and text;
  • the quality of the ideas and scholarship;
  • whether or not the author succeeds in meeting stated objectives; and
  • how the book compares with other similar works.

You can conclude your review with a recommendation stating who you think would benefit from reading the book and why. If you cannot recommend it, give your reasons.

Before tackling this kind of assignment, look at some academic adult education/work and learning journals and see how their book reviewers write reviews. You will notice a variety of approaches and come to appreciate what a good review looks like.

Updated December 17 2014 by Students & Academic Services

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