How to study

Lecture to KCL Department of War Studies undergraduates

The question recurs every year: How do I get a high mark.  This advice will hep.  But –this lecture not really about getting a high mark. The topics we discuss today – how to write clearly, how to find valuable sources and read them in a useful way, and start to critique them, how to reflect on our own work and working methods – these are not just nice ways to get a high mark. These are the reasons that we come to university – these are the tools that we have come here to learn. After you’ve graduated, forgotten your IR theory, after you’ve put your text books away, these are the skills that will stay with you. 

 

How to read a book

Useful to learn how to get the most you can from a book without having to read all of it – there will never be time. You need a range of books and essays. May sound obvious – look closely at the chapter titles. Go through the index. Don’t just read the conclusion – read one chapter. After you’ve read it, take a little time to absorb it – go for a short walk, make a cup of tea, talk it over with someone. Think about how the work supports or challenges your view. How to take notes: try to paraphrase the argument, and make a note of any quotes that might back up your argument or be useful. Note the page number.

Majority of this lecture is based on commonly asked questions from previous years.

One Q in particular – I want to get a high mark in the Group Project, how do I do that?

If you follow this advice you should have a greater chance at a high mark.

But – this lecture not really about getting a high mark. The topics we discuss today – how to write clearly, how to find valuable sources and read them in a useful way, and start to critique them, how to reflect on our own work and working methods – these are not just nice ways to get a high mark. These are the reasons that we come to university – these are the tools that we have come here to learn. After you’ve graduated, forgotten your IR theory, after you’ve put your text books away, these are the skills that will stay with you.

These may all sound a little daunting – or maybe not. They are things that take plenty of practice, and that is what you are here to do.

If you want to frame it that way – these skills set you apart in the eyes of an employer from those who do not have a university degree. But they are also valuable skills in any setting, and invaluable in a world where the very concept of expert knowledge is seen by many as highly suspicious.

Section 1 – Essays and titles

The essay – still the most common way of assessing your understanding of a topic, as well as your ability to synthesise information and argument, and present your findings in a piece of academic writing, including references and a bibliography.

First of all, select an essay title – or in the case of the Group Project create your own.

Find an essay title that matches your interests, then read the title lots of times – spend time working out exactly what the title is asking you to do. The title is not asking you to describe something. It is asking you to analyse: how successful, to what extent, how significant, and so on.

Circle the key words of the title:

How significant was the role of the Russian intelligence service in the outcome of the US election in 2016?

Note on definition of terms – always be clear on what the main terms of the question are and define them clearly, early on in the essay, so everyone is clear what exactly is being discussed, some other terms that may sound obvious but repay careful defining include: – ‘Interwar Britain’, ‘Cold War’, ‘intelligence failure’, ‘covert operations’.

For your definition: contextualise, don’t use dictionary definition. So when you define ‘significant’ make sure it is within the context of the question, rather than what the Oxford Dictionary online has to say.

Sub-questions

One way to begin to really understand the question that you have been set is to make a list of sub-questions that you think you need to answer that stem from the main question. In this case, the sub-questions could be along the following lines:

How would you define ‘significant’?

Who are the Russian intelligence service in this context?

What is the main impact the Russian intelligence service had on the US election?

How did the Russian intelligence service influence the US electorate?

How can you measure the extent of the effectiveness of their influence?

Why was it (not) effective?

What examples can you provide? What do they demonstrate?

What other domestic and international factors influenced the outcome of the election?

What historical precedents were there for this type of activity?

What does this tell us more broadly about the way that the Russian intelligence service operates?

Are there other global examples of similar interference? How are they similar or different?

Group project: parameters for your questions

You define the question, you deliver the answer. One way to get a good fit between question and answer is to work out what you want to say first, and then frame your question around that. This is difficult in this case, as there are time constraints, but it is not impossible to test out some ideas in the early stages and work out a question that will fit well.

Common problems:

The question and the answer do not connect

Part of the question is left unanswered or unaddressed

The question is so broad that it generates a weak essay

The question is overly ambitious and difficult to research

The question is so specific that it does not leave the author(s) room for reasonable analysis

The sources for the question are scarce, or are untrustworthy

You have a clear question, but present an undirected, unclear answer

Any more?

Section 2 – Choosing reading and sources

Your bibliography tells me how you have put the essay together. An essay that is based on plenty of sound academic sources has a very different bibliography from one where the author has just googled the subject, you get marks for doing proper research. It is rare to see a project with a long, detailed bibliography that gets a low mark. Not impossible, but rare.

What are sources? Why are they important?

Accountability – lets others check what you are saying.

Acknowledgement – the debt we owe to others.

In practice, what does this mean?

For the most part for this course, books are your main sources.

Where to look for books that will be useful?

When you first start to search for books resist the urge to google the keywords of your project title.

Look at the reading list. Go to the KCL library and ask for help with your topic.

http://libguides.kcl.ac.uk/warstudies

The library also has a live chat facility, find through the ‘contact us’ page on the library website: https://www.kcl.ac.uk/library/contact/index.aspx

Go to the library. Do an online library search. You have an advantage in that London has the exceptional British Library, a very short distance away. Use their library and online search.

What texts are most valuable to you? What is not so valuable?

Use monographs – a detailed study of an aspect of a subject or a single subject, usually by one author. In our context, this is by an academic. This should usually be the first pieces of reading that you do. Read one or two general texts on the subject and get to know the period and the important information.

Use journal articles – academics write journal articles to accompany their more in-depth research. Sometimes, they write them to flag up an important piece of research that they have discovered, other times because they have found something interesting that they feel will contribute to an ongoing debate. They are up to date and short, but they can be very esoteric and take a while to get your head around.

Think about perspectives – books by different genders? Younger scholars as well as professors? Different natio