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How to survive essays and exams in your first year

Senior nurse lecturer, Gareth Partington, spills the beans on how to avoid common first year academic pit falls

Starting a nursing degree can be as daunting as it is exciting as it provides a unique combination of academic study and clinical practice.

A fundamental aspect of any higher education is the essays, exams, presentations and assignments. For some this will be embraced and enjoyed, for others it will be a cause of great anxiety which normally manifests itself in panicked emails to personal tutors

How can the first year student achieve the best from their academic work and importantly see the benefit of academic study to their practice as a nurse?

Read up

Before writing your first assignment or exam there is something more important to consider, reading, reading and more reading. Put simply nursing students don’t read enough and the more you read the better your academic work will be.  Don’t limit your reading to assessment deadlines, read widely throughout your course.  You will be provided with reading lists; however it is up to you to find the text books and articles which would suit you or your particular reading style and interests. There are also lots of books which can support you in developing yourself academically.

Talk to the librarian

An unavoidable element of academic work is searching for material to read or use as supporting references to be included within your work. The best people to help you to do that are librarians. So as part of your first semester at University make sure you have booked yourself time with a librarian on how to conduct literature searches. 

Plan ahead

Once you have done this you can think about constructing your work.  Some broad principles apply.  Firstly don’t leave things to the last minute. Most students need to put a lot of hard work into their assessments. Those who do will usually produce better work and gain higher marks. 

Think about structure

Once you start your assessment, structure it in a logical manner. This helps to demonstrate that you understand your subject matter and also, quite simply makes for a better assessment.  Structure is as important as content (especially in assignments).  If good content is all over the place the assessment won’t work as well as it could.  Ask yourself does this part fit here? If not get rid of it or move it to where it is better placed. All text or diagrams wherever they end up should flow and add something to your work. If not discount it!  

Ask for help

Ask your tutors for support – that’s what we are here for. Think of your assessment as a recipe. You bring the ingredients (your ideas and thoughts in draft format) and we will help you to put it together.  It is much better to seek tutorial support beforehand rather than after if you are not successful.

Answer the question

Next may sound like the obvious, but it is amazing how many students don’t answer the question. You may be unfamiliar with academic language and therefore are not sure of what is being asked of you. So always make sure you understand what was asked of you, taking note of any accompanying assessment criteria from your lecturer.  Ask if you are not sure.

References, references, references

Academic work involves using supporting literature - the references.  Students may neglect that fundamental aspect of their work, by not referencing at all, using too few or inappropriate references or not constructing a proper reference list. Poor referencing can ruin an otherwise good assignment. Make referencing a priority before you hand in your first assessment. 

Spell check

Another thing that can hamper a good assessment is poor grammar and spelling. Always proof read your work before you submit. If appropriate, get someone else to proof read it for you.  Ask them to check for flow, grammar and spelling. 

Practice

Finally, practice makes perfect. Make up your own questions or title and complete practice assessments.  This way you can perfect all the searching, reading, constructing, writing, referencing, proof reading and or rewriting before you submit the real thing.  After all you should be your own best critic.  If you think it’s good, be proud of what you have done.  Conversely if you don’t think it meets the assessment criteria don’t submit it in the hope that the process of submission will miraculously change it.

Gareth Partington is a senior nurse lecturer at UCS in Ipswich.

Readers' comments (3)

  • michael stone

    'References, references, references

    Academic work involves using supporting literature - the references. Students may neglect that fundamental aspect of their work, by not referencing at all, using too few or inappropriate references or not constructing a proper reference list. Poor referencing can ruin an otherwise good assignment. Make referencing a priority before you hand in your first assessment.'

    I'm not about this, but I'm interested in the answer.

    Are student nurses trained to read references critically - to point out 'it says this there - but that can't be true, because ...' ?

    Unsuitable or offensive?

  • I made appointments with my personal supervisor and with the librarian - I am trying to stay focus as I can get distracted easily. These tips are beneficial; I will use it to help with my assignments.

    Unsuitable or offensive?

  • A good tip also is to conduct ALOT of reading and research before starting your nursing degree, how more comfortable will you feel, seeing a question and already knowing full well, the answer?
    This is what I am doing, and I don't start training till 2013, I am scouring books/articles... questioning Nursing Students in their second year, it will all help.

    Unsuitable or offensive?

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