Five tips for Fresher Philosophers

So, the first week of university is starting soon. I am sure the introduction lectures tried to make as tediously clear as possible that studying philosophy at the university level will be an entirely new and unfamiliar experience. Here are five tips that will help you make a success of it.

1) Write notes on the PowerPoint file!

The infamous ‘notes’ feature


The infamous ‘notes’ featureIt is very common for philosophy lecturers to teach with the help of a PowerPoint presentation which contains the key ideas in a (hopefully) concise fashion. The worst thing you can do is make no use of it and instead spending one hour rapidly typing a transcript of the lecture like a fee-paying stenographer. Not only does it prevent you from following the lecture but it is also mostly useless. I guarantee you will end up ignoring it when revising and focus on DUO material instead.

This is where the PowerPoint ‘notes’ function comes in. If you are on a laptop or iPad, under the presentation slides there is a space to write your own notes on each slide. If you prefer hand written notes, print a copy of the presentation with space for writing next to the slides. Take advantage of this to record the few important bits that the lecturer said but did not include on the slide. They can often make the difference between a simple and nuanced understanding.

2) Focus on specific topics

Unlike sciences where you need to know preceding concepts to understand the new ones or history where context is everything, philosophical topics (even in the same module) can be largely unrelated. Take for example the first-year core module ‘Knowledge and Reality’. The Mind-Body duality problem has little in common with the debate between a-priori and a-posteriori knowledge. Your essays will be on specific topics and in the exams, you can pick questions from a wide selection. Instead of trying to understand every lecture on a basic level, deep dive on the ones you find most interesting and your grades are sure to climb.

3) Planning and Structure guarantee marks.

What is the easiest way to net marks in essays or in the exams? The answer is simple, plan and structure for your text. There is nothing markers hate more than an essay that reads like you are dive bombing into the topic. Instead make it feel like you are rowing. Every ‘stroke’ should be pushing you towards a defined finishing point. To achieve that, plan every argument in advance, while making extensive use of bullet points and arrows. Make sure that each segment has a purpose for being included. Use headings for different sections of your essay and clearly state your structure in your introduction. Do that and you start off with a good chunk of marks already in the bag.

4) Discuss more, note less

The most common mistake new philosophy students make in tutorials is treating them like lectures. Showing up with a laptop and writing down everything the tutor says even if it is already in the reading. This results in the tutorial becoming awkward and dull because students are more focused on deciding the titles of their Word file than discussing the topic. That is not to say you shouldn’t do a few bullet points-  but make sure to speak and listen without worrying about recording everything. At the end of the day looking at a screen just makes it seem like you haven’t done the readings. Whether that’s true or not, it is not the impression you want to give.

5) Discover is your best friend

 The holy temple of essay writing


When starting to write an essay there is always the same challenge. How to find sources that are relevant to the question. When doing my first essay, I dived into so many books that were either too general or only tangentially related to the topic. But then I found the Durham search engine ‘Discover’. Just break down your assigned question into a few key words and you will find a wide variety of journal articles which try to answer a similar one. Through their references you will discover even more and before you know it a large and diverse bibliography of short text will be formed. You will be inspired by all the different opinions and the marker will be impressed by your research.

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