What are academic skills?

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Academic skills underpin your subject-specific studies. Any list of academic skills will typically include critical thinking, presenting, reading, referencing, reflection, researching, time management and writing. In my experience, first-year undergraduate students can find grasping the importance of these skills and starting to develop them challenging – particularly if they have been out of education for a while. But what exactly are these academic skills and why are they are so important?

Critical thinking

Throughout your time at university, you will be continually developing your critical thinking skills. As a new student, asking questions about the sources that you are using for your studies is a good first step. Not taking information at face value and attempting to establish the quality of the information can help you decide how to use it in your work. To do this effectively, you need to be able to ask the right questions and know what good quality information is. As you progress through your time at university, you will learn about approaches and tools to help you ask the right questions and assess the quality of information.


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Like writing, presentations are unavoidable at university. Presentations can take different forms such as individual, group, live, recorded or poster and you may have to present to the assessors only or larger groups consisting of other staff, students or people from outside your university. Presentations will often require you to utilise visual aids to help you illustrate and explain the points you are trying to put across. Getting the balance between what information you provide verbally and how you use your visual aids to support this is an important skill to develop. Again, like writing, presenting requires practice with the added challenge of having to stand up in front of a group of people and speak. Taking opportunities to speak in front of people will help you develop confidence and rehearsing your presentations will allow you to hone your pacing, timing and use of technology and visual aids.   


You may have heard people say that they are ‘reading for a degree’. Whilst it may be a phrase sometimes associated with traditional old universities such as Oxford and Cambridge, it does emphasise the importance of reading when studying for a degree. You will need to read widely to develop your understanding of your subject, and you will need to learn different strategies for reading different types of sources. Knowing what information is in the different sections of textbooks and journal articles and when to scan, skim and read in-depth will help you become more effective in your reading. You will not always need to read a source from ‘cover to cover’!


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At university, you are expected to become an independent learner. Rather than meaning you have to do everything on your own, being an independent learner means you can identify your strengths and weaknesses, plan your development needs, and know when and where to go for assistance. This is part of the reflective process. There are various definitions and models of reflection, but one consistent aspect is trying to learn from past experiences. Courses will include reflection in different ways and may require you to write reflective essays, complete other reflection-based assessments or reflect on your professional practice and competencies.


Referencing indicates the sources you have used to inform your academic work. Typically you will be required to reference ‘in-text’ and to produce a reference page. ‘In-text’ referencing refers to acknowledging sources within your work and the reference page is a list of these sources provided at the end of your work. Your university will require you to use a specified style of referencing and will provide you with a guide for this style. 

There are several reasons why you need to reference the sources used to inform your work. Referencing indicates the quality and appropriateness of sources (to the piece of work and level of study) and allows you to provide support for the points that you are making in your work; this also helps to show your understanding of the topic. Referencing also allows the sources you have used to be retrieved; for example, a lecturer may wish to check the appropriateness of a source and how you have interpreted it in your work. Finally, referencing can help you avoid plagiarism by indicating the points and ideas you have put forward and the points and ideas of others.  


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Research is an important part of what goes on at a lot of universities. As a first-year undergraduate student your research will more than likely be about locating and identifying appropriate sources to inform your assignments and learning how to critique these sources. There will be reading lists and recommended textbooks, and in most subject areas, you will be guided towards using academic journals.

Whilst academic journals can be found using search engines you are probably familiar with (Google etc.), academic search engines and databases provide a more tailored approach for finding academic journals. These search engines and databases are generally subject area specific. PubMed, for example, focuses on biomedical and life sciences literature, whilst the ACSE Library focuses on civil engineering. Learning to use these search engines and databases will allow you to locate and access journals appropriate for your studies. The extent of access to academic search engines, databases and journals will depend on the subscriptions your university has in place.

Time management

Deadlines are part of university life. Alongside these deadlines, you may also have a job, family and other commitments to manage and you will probably want a social life and time to relax. There are numerous approaches to time management, and what works for one person may not work for another. Working out a system that allows you to plan, prioritise and organise your work and other commitments is crucial – even if it’s just you that understands the system! Identifying when and where you are most productive – coffee shop in the morning, library in the evening, at home in the afternoon – is another important aspect. You may arrive at university knowing when and where you work best or you may need to spend some time working it out. Knowing when and where you are most productive will help you develop your system for planning, prioritising and organising your time.


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From taking notes to writing a thesis, writing is unavoidable at university. Whilst subject areas will have different styles and requirements for producing written work, clarity is important and will help to communicate your ideas and show your understanding. You will also need to develop your ability to write concisely, as you will often have to work to what seem like restrictive word counts. This is where editing comes in – aim to become confident in writing freely and to get your ideas on the page and allow enough time to edit your work before the deadline. Like any skill, your writing will get better with practice, but as any experienced writer will tell you, reading will also help your writing. Reading subject-specific textbooks and journal articles will help you get a feel for the style of writing used in your subject area and reading more widely – biographies, fiction, newspapers etc. – will expose you to other approaches to writing that might help you.


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