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Getting Started at University

If you're new to university or returning to study after a break, this guide includes our top tips and guidance on finding your feet and information on how to develop your core academic skills.


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Looking for sessions and tutorials on this topic? Find out more about our session types and how to register to book for sessions. You can view our full timetable on our website, or view up-to-date availability in UniHub Appointments and Events

Not sure where to start developing your academic skills? Take the SkillsCheck for personalised recommendations on how to build your academic writing and study skills alongside your course.

Develop your academic skills

Develop your academic skills

The Skills Centre offers academic skills development to all students at SHU. We offer interactive workshops, small group forums and drop-ins for all students to help you to develop your academic skills throughout your studies. For students based off-campus, we run online webinars and phone-call tutorials, as well as evening sessions (5-7pm) for students with work and placement commitments.

We cover a wide range of academic skills topics, such as:

•           Assignment planning
•           Critical writing

•           Presentation skills
•           Research planning
•           Literature reviews
•           Time management

View our calendar and book a session

Reflecting on your strengths

Reflecting on your strengths

Whether you're starting university straight from school or college, returning to study after a period of employment, or studying in the UK for the first time, your past experiences, qualities and skills will be invaluable in helping you to make the best start. Even if it's your first time writing an essay in 20 years, the self-organisation, open-mindedness and curiosity involved in academic writing are skills that you will no doubt have developed outside of education. This process is called metacognition - it's all about recognising how you learn and what approaches and strategies suit you best.

Top tip - Get to know how you learn
Getting started at university is all about figuring out how you learn best and working to your strengths in these areas. We recommend you a full Metacognition Awareness Inventory at the bottom of this box to kick start your reflection.

Reflecting on your skills, qualities and knowledge

If you only have 5 minutes on the train into Sheffield, or as you walk onto campus, here's a quick reflection tool that can help you to plan ahead and build confidence around a specific task:

Choose an upcoming task that you need to complete. It could be related to your course, like writing an assignment or going on placement, or something more personal, like getting fit or feeling more organised. Think of this as your mission statement.

Then, reflect on the skills, qualities and knowledge you think you will need to complete the task successfully. Think outside of the box, particularly when considering your qualities - what is it about you, and how you've dealt with challenges in the past, that lets you know that this task is something you can complete. Here's an example:

Mission statement - I will run the Sheffield half marathon next year.

Skills - I have built up to 8k on the treadmill, I can pace myself when running.

Qualities - I am determined and organised, so I feel like I can find time for training if I set my mind to it. However, I don't like running alone (could I find a training partner or text a friend who is also getting fit so that I don't skip exercise?)

Knowledge - I know the course and run around Sheffield often; I don't know much about training for a long run, so I'll need to ask someone about this or look at running blogs online.

Think of these three key aspects separately - it can help you to break down the task and identify your next step. While some people will plan out a task from start to finish, others work shorter-term - the most important thing is that you recognise where you are now and identify your next step(s).

Develop your reflective skills
If you would like to find out more about reflection and reflective writing, you can:
Attend a reflective writing workshop or webinar
Book a 1-1 with an academic skills tutor, for advice on managing your workload or feedback on reflective writing.
Visit our online study guide and e-resources.


Effective independent learning

Managing your time

Here are a few of our top tips and resources for organising your time and balancing work with study:

  • Create a schedule, finding time first for your non-negotiables - lectures, taught sessions on your course, part-time work, travel time… Treat study, work and personal priorities equally - if you know you need time in the evenings to relax, find a slot in your calendar and think of it as a permanent 'task' in your calendar.
  • Break your tasks down into SMART goals. These should be:

Specific - Identify a clear goal or objective
Measurable - Find a way to track and review your progress
Achievable - What skills, qualities and knowledge can you draw on to feel motivated to complete your goal?
Relevant - Find what makes the task worth doing
Timely - Set deadlines and stick to them. If you miss one, review you timescales and aim for the next deadline you set.

  • Be accountable. Whether you use a paper diary, an outlook calendar, or keep track of your to do list on scrap paper - find a way to keep track of deadlines and your progress. Set aside 30 mins at that start/end of the week to decide on one 'must-do' task for the week and review your progress.
  • Treat yourself! Find incentives and reward yourself for completing tasks, particularly those that you find challenging or daunting.
  • Keep focused. Find spaces where you can work without distraction - hide your phone, use timers to work in short bursts, or find study spaces that work for you. Two hours of focused reading can be as effective and productive as spending 4 hours multi-tasking.
Looking for a session on time management?
Our time management workshops offer a range of tips for managing your time effectively, or you can book a 1-1 tutorial with an academic skills tutor to discuss and plan out your schedule together.

Assessment and feedback

Assessment types

You may hear lecturers talk about summative and formative assessment - but what do these terms mean?

Summative assessment

Summative assessment is what you might think of as a 'traditional' or formal mode of assessment. It is designed to assess your learning against set outcomes, which will be outlined in either your module guide or assessment criteria. The outcomes of these assessments are recorded and will be used to decide your overall module mark.

Some examples of summative assessment include:

  • Formal exams (whether written, verbal or practical);
  • Essay;
  • Portfolio;
  • Dissertation;
  • Presentation (may be peer-assessed and/or tutor-assessed);
  • Placement performance.

Formative assessment

Formative assessments are designed to give a picture of your progress, offering feedback on how you might improve or build your knowledge and skills. While some formative assessments may have an indicative grade or mark attached to them, this is not formally recorded and is used to help you to identify your strength and weaknesses. Formative assessments also help lecturers to identify areas that are new or challenging to a large number of students so that they can update their teaching practice.

Some examples of formative assessment include:

  • Feedback on a draft piece of writing or section of your essay;
  • Essay plans;
  • Research proposals;
  • Blogs and reflective journals;
  • Work-in-progress for portfolios or design work;
  • Informal quizzes.

Making the most of feedback

Whatever form your assessment takes, the most important takeaway is the feedback you receive, whether this is in the form of a numerical mark, written feedback or conversations with tutors. One of the hardest skills to master at university is the ability to respond to and build on feedback. Here are some tips on how to get the most out of the feedback you receive:

1. Take a step back. Receiving feedback is a personal process and whether it's good for not what you were hoping for, it can be good to wait a few days until you read your comments in depth and develop an action plan.

2. Create time for reflecting on feedback. Add some time to your diary to read through your feedback and work through some reflective questions. A good place to start is with a series of questions to help identify your strengths as well as key areas for development - try this short guide.

3. Seek extra feedback. Clarify any points you're not sure on with your tutor, and check your comments against the assessment criteria. This can be helpful way of grounding tutor comments in the criteria, and reminding yourself that these aren't comments on you or your abilities.

4. Create an action plan using SMART goals. When implementing any changes to your writing, make sure you follow the SMART criteria and set yourself Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timely goals. Record these so that you can review and reflect on your progress - download our goal-setting template to get started.

5. Seek advice and further feedback as you develop your skills. The Skills Centre offers a range of workshops, forums and 1-1 tutorials to build your academic skills and discuss your work with an expert tutor - view a full list of sessions on the Skills Centre website. For feedback on your draft essays, you can also submit your work to Studiosity and receive feedback comments within 24 hours.

6. Share your feedback with others. Feedback can often feel quite personal, but comparing your feedback comments with other students on your course can help to place them in context, and to find consistencies in how your work is being marked. It is not always easy to fully understand what the tutor may have meant by their comments. By talking it over with other students on your course, you may gain further insight into how you could interpret the assessment criteria and different approaches to academic writing.

More resources:
-  Find out how to access your feedback through Blackboard

-  Assessment 4 Students toolkit, Sheffield Hallam University
-  Glossary of assessment terms, University of Salford

Academic integrity and plagiarism

Academic integrity and plagiarism
Academic integrity is about ensuring that any evidence used in your writing is referenced and acknowledged, so that the reader can differentiate between your perspective on a topic and ideas grounded in the literature. If you're new to referencing, and want to find out more about what plagiarism mean at university, watch these short videos from Hallam Library.
Along with accurate APA referencing, the following tips and questions will help you to avoid plagiarism and provide enough information for other people to trace and read the sources you include:
  • Are your claims accurate and evidenced?
  • Have you used tentative 'hedging' language? These words - including could, should, perhaps, possibly, potentially – allow you to offer your opinion as just one possible interpretation or perspective on a topic.
  • Is it always clear when you are citing someone else?
  • Have you used your own words (paraphrasing) as well as direct quotations? Paraphrased sentences still need to be referenced so that the reader can easily see which sources influenced your ideas, but these references do not need to include a page number. 
  • Use anti-plagiarism software (Turnitin or other free plagiarism checkers) to help with checking your work.
  • Use Studiosity (an online writing feedback service available via Blackboard) to get tips on your referencing and paraphrasing.
For more on APA referencing
For a full guide to APA referencing at Sheffield Hallam, including workshops and examples of how to reference a wide range of sources, visit the library referencing homepage.

Top tips

Ten top tips for starting at university

  1. Get involved! Try new activities, attend events, join a society, volunteer or represent your fellow students. Even if you're off-campus or learning at a distance, there are opportunities available to all. See the Students' Union website for more details.
  2. Get to know people on your course - be brave and introduce yourself! Most people are nervous on the first day, so sometimes breaking the ice is all they need to start a conversation.
  3. Visit the libraries. Open 24/7, the libraries offer great spaces to work for both working on your own or in a group. Find out more about bookable spaces on the Library webpages.
  4. Commuting into Sheffield? Loan a laptop! Laptops can be borrowed from a number of different sites on campus (both libraries, Cantor, Charles Street, Owen, Heart of the Campus and the SU). For more information, visit the Laptop Loans webpages.
  5. Get to know Blackboard. This is the online home fo your course content and the portal for submitting assessed work - log in via myHallam (from the top right of the homepage).
  6. Ask questions! No question is too small, or too silly. It can often feel like you should know the answers to the questions you have, but speak up and find out the information you need to know. Chances are, someone else was working up the courage to ask the same thing!
  7. Balance study and relaxing. Don't put too much pressure on yourself in the first few weeks to do everything and be on top of your course reading right away. Always set aside some protected time in you calendar/diary to do something you enjoy and decompress. Apps like Flipd or Headspace are great for grabbing 10 minutes of peace and quiet.
  8. Form a study group. If you're feeling lonely, or work better ina group, get together with people on your course and set up a regular meet-up time to prepare for lectures and seminars. Read our online guide to setting up study groups for our strategies and guidelines for getting the most out of group working.
  9. Be patient! Not everything will come together at once. Starting at university is about getting to know how you learn best, and developing the skills and tools that you'll need to succeed. To get started, visit our reflection guide and take a 5 minute self-audit on your study strengths.
  10. Take the SkillsCheck. The Skills Centre is here to help all students develop and build their academic skills, offering workshops and tutorials on a wide range of topics from academic writing and presentation skills, to planning assignments and research projects. This short test allows you to rate your confidence across a range of academic skills areas and create personalised recommendations for how and where you might build your skills.