Study skills lecture

How to study

One 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. 

12 Oct 2018


What this lecture will cover and why.

  1. Choosing an essay title
  2. Sources
  3. Methodology
  4. Essay writing
  5. Critical thinking

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.


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.

The library also has a live chat facility, find through the ‘contact us’ page on the library website:

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 nationalities.


Don’t use too many websites – as a guideline I would say no more than two.

Although here be very discerning – many resources are online that are very useful, especially those from intel sources themselves – CIA reading room etc.


CIA website:

Reading list on intelligence:

Butler report:

Chilcot report:

CWIHP: and nuclear history:

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.

Section 5 – What is critical thinking?

This is a part of the criteria for reaching the higher grades – how you approach the sources that you have found.

Essays in secondary school in UK – you weigh up two or three arguments, pick out different aspects, attempt to synthesise. At this level you want to start to approach the sources in a different way – to think critically about the arguments that are being presented to us.

What is not crit thinking?

When we see a text book or an academic monograph, it is very difficult and daunting to be asked to think critically about that text. Everything about the book: the cover, the bibliography, the contents page, the photograph of the author, all tell us that this is a serious book, written by someone who knows more than we do about the topic in question.

To be asked to think critically about this book might seem impossible, until we really understand what critical thinking is.

There is a lot of general guidance that you can find about critical thinking in the library – many resources there. But for the purposes of this lecture, let’s focus on the application in our particular academic context.

Critical thinking in this context does not mean giving criticism, identifying factual errors, or finding a totally alternative argument. It certainly does not mean that you should be derisory or mean about the text.

Starting points

What it does mean is starting to go beyond accepting the argument at face value:

  1. Making yourself aware of the argument in the text – how is the author trying to persuade you to believe about her or his evidence? What tools are they using – rhetoric etc? Have you read other accounts that differ from this one? How can you start to account for those differences?
  2. Who is the author? Where are they from? What is their intellectual baggage? When are they writing?

Questioning bias or interpretation. At this stage, just to show an awareness is enough. Why is a text written about the Cold War in the mid-1970s different from one written in 2010? Scholars like to suggest that they are completely objective, but can this really be true?

These questions become even more important in the context of Intelligence Studies, when so much info remains secret. If we accept the arguments of a source in Intelligence Studies without showing an awareness of the context, we are diminishing our own insights.

Crit thinking and intel studies

The question who is the writer becomes more important.

  • Is the writer someone connected with the intelligence services (many scholars in the field are retired intelligence officers)?
  • Is the source an official document, released by a national government? If so, what are the considerations here? Declassified documents – what remains classified? How does the document chosen for declassification add to a narrative?
  • What other issues are there to official documents? My favourite story of a secretary to the JIC writing minutes – his superior checks them and says horrified something like – you can’t do this – you’ve written exactly what they said in the meeting. You have to make them sound professional and make them make sense.
  • What is the writer’s nationality and how might this have an impact? Ie if you’re writing about Russia, but all your sources are by British or American scholars, what impact might that have on the evidence that you are using?

Critical thinking is a great tool to use in seminars – sometimes we think, I don’t have the right answers, but if you have the right questions you are on your way to a useful discussion.

Again, as with all these skills, this is a skill that you can only learn with practice, so don’t worry if at first it feels hard. And of course get in touch with your seminar leader if you have questions on any of this.

Impact for Growth, 2018
Building Compatible Teams
San Francisco, CA

Section 3 – Methodology

As you will see when you get closer to the time, you will be asked to write a methodology section for your Group Project. This is something that most students struggle with – they either come to us and ask what it is, or ignore it all together and lose marks.

Your method + WHY. Why did you do it the way that you did? Starting to take responsibility not just for your work, but also your working methods. Broadly, it is a good exercise in reflecting on your work. Why did I do it like this? Was there a better way to do it? What worked? What didn’t?

Why is this useful?

This is about the level of learning that we expect from you at this level.

Some of you may have heard of Bloom’s taxonomy of learning. Developed by Benjamin Bloom in the 1950’s and a well-established underpinning theory of how people learn – in schools, at university and in work.

Bloom identified different levels of cognitive skills that you apply to learning.

Lower order skills include knowledge retention and recall – e.g remembering the countries of Europe or the kings and queens of England.

Beyond this, we have comprehension – understanding text, and then analysis, and synthesis – bringing ideas together.

Even higher than this we have Reflective learning. This is an important, higher order process of learning.

This is essentially getting you to step back from the subject you are learning and getting you to think about how you are learning it.

It is like stepping out of your body and looking at yourself learning.

Sometimes we call this metacognition – it is a critical awareness of

  • how you think and how you learn, and
  • Yourself as a thinker and learner

You do this by gaining a level of awareness above the subject matter.

That is, you don’t just think about the subject you’re learning but how you are learning it. You are reflecting on your learning.

For many at this stage it might seem superfluous. You are going to sit there and think ‘my method was to read some books’ – how can I possibly write a meaningful, academic section on the fact that I went to the library?

That’s ok, because what this is about is getting you into a habit of mind. When you write your dissertation, you’ll need to reflect on your method. If you decide to do an MA or PhD, you’ll also need to use these same skills. Whatever work you end up doing, reflective practice is going to help you.  If you start to practice these skills now, it’s going to be all the better when the methods that you are using are more complex.

So, for many of you, your methodology for the GP will be a discussion of why you chose the books that you did. If you’ve followed the steps outlines earlier and planned carefully your sources, where to find them and how you went about finding sources to fill any gaps in your argument, you’re going to have an easier time writing your methodology.

Start by thinking what is missing from the picture in terms of sources? Where are the main focus points of the debate in the literature and what is absent? Is your topic the subject of a large body of literature, or is the literature sparse, and in either case what is the impact on your argument? Did you use sources from the media, and if so what are the issues with that? In intelligence studies, there is always something that we are not seeing, so discuss that too.

It may be that you will use other sources for your Group Project, and this is when it is particularly important to make a good case for your methods in your methodology section. It may be that you read primary sources – documents? What is available/what is not – particularly important in the discipline of Intel Studies. How are documents made open to public? What are we not seeing?

Other examples of when it is important to take care over your methods include: interviews, primary research, field work, use of theory. These all need a significant amount of reflection, and there is a large amount of academic literature and guidance on how best to do this, a lot of which you can find in the library.

For example, with interviews: Why did you interview the people that you did, to the exclusion of others? What interview technique did you use? What problems are associated with interviewing certain groups, such as those in power?


Section 4 – Essay writing

Planning your answer

Write a plan, you can use the initial list of sub-questions to guide you, but you should aim for a list of points that will build an argument. Each point should demonstrate an element of your argument, and should have evidence to support it from your reading.

As you go through, this planning process will through up gaps in your reading, and show you where you need to do further reading.

As you go back to the sources, you will probably find that your original argument will need some fine-tuning. In that case, consider whether you can adjustment your argument. If not, it might be worth going back to the drawing board. It is better to start over than write an unconvincing essay that lacks supporting evidence and conviction. Add any new supporting information and adjustments to your argument to your plan.

With a clear idea of your argument, you can begin the first draft.


Outlines how you are going to answer the question – start with an impactful opening sentence or two that demonstrates your confidence in your argument to the reader. Follow this with a general paragraph on your line of argument.

Also methodology – spell this out, but will be near your intro: any comments about your source material that may be relevant (more for the GP than the summative essay, as more likely to have used a wider range of sources). If you believe that your specific approach is important, perhaps you have used a particular theory, then outline this here as well.

Main body

The main body contains the evidence that supports your argument. Each paragraph should, in some way, defend or state an element of your argument, use evidence to support it, and then relate it back to your overall argument. Some academics suggest that one strategy is to use ‘topic sentences’, which signals the topic of the paragraph. Try not to be too clunky and formulaic when writing the first (topic) sentence of a paragraph.

One method that was used to some effect to influence US voters in 2016 was social media. One such example of this was posts on the social networking website Facebook. These posts used a number of different tactics, including trying to convince people that they could vote via social media, others spread misinformation about the Democrats campaign, while others simply stoked concerns about issues such as gun control, Islam or the Black Lives Matter movement.

The sentence above in italics highlights the topic sentence, which effectively introduces the topic of the paragraph and highlights its relevance to the argument. The use of evidence is then signposted in bold at the beginning of the following sentence.

A caveat: I think that putting a formula on good writing can be helpful, but it can also really weigh the writing down and become overly formulaic. If you feel that these sentences work for you, then use them, but don’t if you feel they are too constrictive, or if you already have a style of writing that works for you. I certainly don’t start each para with one in my own writing. But what can be useful about these is to bear in mind the idea behind them as you edit your work – how is each paragraph supporting my argument?

You can also use quotes as evidence to support your points. If you decide to paraphrase a piece of text make sure that you reference it in exactly the same way as you would a quote.

Conclusion and Refs

Take time to write a clear, reflective and considered conclusion. It should follow logically on from the body and demonstrate that you have successfully answered the question and provided sufficient evidence in support of your argument. Avoid clunky formulations such as: “In conclusion”; “To conclude”; “Finally” etc.

Your referencing should be clear and consistent. Do not agonise about the minutiae of referencing a certain type of source as you are writing.

Advice from the War Studies student handbook states:

Generally any standard form of referencing (e.g. Chicago or Harvard) is acceptable for your War Studies coursework and dissertation; the key is to use the proper form consistently.  Further information is available on the KCL War Studies library page or on Library Plagiarism and Citing general advice pages.   

With your War Studies assignments it is also important to keep in mind that references (whether you provide in-text references, footnotes or endnotes) will be included in your word count. A modified Chicago style where the first reference to a particular source does not include all the bibliographic information but clearly links to a full entry in your bibliography is therefore also acceptable for your War Studies work. Check the link for an overview of the Chicago Notes and Bibliography style.

Rewrite, edit, spell check

If you can, finish your essay and put it aside for a day or two if possible. Come back to it with a fresh pair of eyes. Perhaps you see words that you would choose differently, or phrases that could be more concise. Could the argument be restructured to make it flow more logically? Are the links between the sections clear to the reader, or do they need to be signposted more clearly? Always aim for clarity.

Once revisions are complete, edit for:

  • Spelling
  • Grammar
  • Punctuation
  • Overly complex language
  • Informal language


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