Academic skills for wellbeing

When starting a university course, there are a whole range of new experiences, relationships, challenges and expectations. Read our advice on how to manage these changes.

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Overview

Getting used to a new environment can affect how happy or stressed you feel as a student.

Developing good strategies to deal with the challenges of your course can help make student life more enjoyable and reduce stress when you have assignments or exams to prepare for. 

We consider four key elements of being a successful independent learner and how you can achieve a good balance to your study skills.

This will help you to feel in control of your studies, manage your workload and become confident and happy as a student.


Personal control

One of the biggest challenges of university study can be the freedom and expectation on you to manage your time and use your academic skills to achieve the course aims.

Different disciplines give you different levels of control.

Will your course only have a few contact hours with lots of independent study time or will you have a busy taught timetable with small chunks of independent study slotted in between? Will it be mostly assessed by coursework, mostly by exams or a mixture?

Whatever the format, it will require you to develop your skills to manage and learn the content and then prove your knowledge.

This balancing act can be tricky – you have lots of choice to study when and where you want, you can choose what topics to give the most time and you can find the revision techniques and writing styles that suit you.

However, you also have to conform to the rules and conventions of your discipline.

Handling too much personal control

Sometimes this freedom can be a bit overwhelming and it can be hard to know where to start and when you have done enough. Having a lot of decisions to make without guidance can lead to a feeling of being disorganised.

So how can you gain some personal control over your studies within the rules of your programme? Here are some suggestions:

  • Structure your time, starting with the essential demands first, in a timetable or diary.

  • Look for gaps between timetabled lectures and other commitments and plan in your independent study time.

  • As you progress, look at your feedback and reflect on your progress- make sure you prioritise areas that you find most challenging in your study time.

  • As deadlines or exams approach, work backwards from key dates and share out your study time between topics so that everything can be covered.

  • Check your department's guidance to remind yourself of the rules and requirements of your course- you might not have as much freedom as you think.

Handling too little personal control

On the other hand, you might feel like your course format is restrictive and you don't have many opportunities to make your own choices. Sometimes, this can feel like you can't be creative on your course.

Here are a few things you can do to exert control over your experience:

  • Make the most of the choices you have- module choices, essay and dissertation topic selections, even the pieces of research you draw upon in your assessments can reflect your interests within that field.

  • Look for outlets for your creativity outside of the University- use your skills in hobbies, sports and societies, to help friends or to volunteer in your community.

  • As an independent learner, how you make sense of what you are learning is unique and in your control. Take a look at the remote study web page for more details on finding the time, place and methods of study that suit you.


Goals and requirements

Everybody needs goals- these might be long-term hopes and dreams or short-term tasks on your To-Do list.

Goal-setting encourages us to look ahead and see what we want to achieve in the future. Working on goals reminds us that we are striving towards something important and gives us a healthy challenge in the present.

When we look back, completing and celebrating those goals reminds us of how far we have come since we started.

During your degree, a lot of goals will be set for you by other people, which can make them seem more like requirements. However, they are all related to the overall goal of achieving your degree.

Feeling overloaded is part of a healthy and successful life- it's inevitable that occasionally goals will make us feel under pressure.

In addition, if goals conflict with each other they can lead to strain, especially if moving towards one goal takes you further away from a different goal.

Handling too many goals and requirements

Having too many goals can feel like you are trying to juggle too many different balls at once. The effort of focusing on several goals and trying to make progress on them simultaneously can lead to feelings of stress and overload.

Goals that seem manageable on their own might now feel too difficult or become a burden when added to all the other things you need to do.

This kind of stress is common when more than one coursework deadline or exam date is approaching in a short time.

How to tackle too many goals and requirements:

Prioritise. If each goal is a juggling ball, which ones are made of glass and can't be dropped and which ones are more flexible like rubber and will bounce if you let them go for a little while?

Reassess your goals. Some goals and deadlines are set by your lecturers and you can't control them, but are the goals in your control realistic? Can they be modified, delayed or extended whilst you focus on a more important goal?

An urgent/important matrix (PDF, 75.5KB) or a prioritised to-do list (PDF, 73.4KB) can help with assessing and prioritising your goals.

If you prefer to focus on one goal at once, dedicate a set amount of time each day or week to that particular goal or deadline.

Handling too few goals and requirements

Without goals, it is easy to feel adrift, with no way of knowing if you are making any progress. Not having the challenge and motivation of clear goals can lead to underload and boredom.

This is more common when working on in-depth projects such as a dissertation or a PhD thesis. The deadline feels a long way away and vague.

Some things that might help:

  • Use your personal control (see the previous section) and set your own goals. Break larger goals like a dissertation project into small manageable chunks using our SMART goals guidance.

  • Make a list of all of the deadlines, goals and requirements you have. If you don't feel like you have enough goals to focus on, try to make sure you have short-term, medium-term and long-term to keep you motivated, using our goal planning template (PDF, 89.6KB)

  • Get some inspiration for new goals by talking to friends in your year, your tutors or graduates from your course about the kinds of goals that have worked for them and that would be realistic.

  • You may have an overall goal that brought you to university- a desire to help people, to be successful, discover something new in your field or make your family proud. These goals can be nourishing at times of stress- remind yourself of them often and use them as motivation.

  • If you would like support in pursuing your career goals, the Careers Service offers resources, workshops and 1:1 appointments to help you succeed.


Contact with others 

How often we spend time with other people and the quality of those interactions has a big impact on our wellbeing.

During university, there will potentially be several groups of people you interact with, such as course mates, academic staff, housemates, family, friends and work colleagues.

Spending time in contact with other people- whether it's online or in-person, can enrich the university experience. It's a chance to positively support others and be supported ourselves and is fantastic for wellbeing.

Sharing the challenges with others can reduce feelings of isolation and build a sense of community, where everyone is trying to learn something new whilst enjoying everything the University has to offer.

Contact with academic staff and course mates is a chance to clarify and discuss your subject, family and friends might give you tips on their experience in education and when you need it, spending time with people socially can help to switch off from deadlines and just relax.

Spending a lot of time alone can make it more difficult to judge how well you are doing compared to other people and lead to feeling disconnected.

However, spending too much time with other people can be distracting, a drain on your time and can spread stress and worry without helping to tackle them. So where is the balance here?

Handling too much contact with other people

Sometimes you might just want to be left alone! When we're looking for that balance of contact with others, too much contact can be overwhelming.

Maybe you're trying to get some advice about your course but each of your friends has a different answer or maybe you know you should be studying but you are procrastinating by browsing social media.

Whatever the cause, if you feel like you need to reduce your social interaction, here are some ideas:

  • Switch off social media at study times. Social media is great for staying connected, but it can be hard to break away. Often people exaggerate their successes and hide their challenges, which makes it seem like everyone else is living a perfect life. Apps can help: Stay Focused can block specific apps and websites to help you avoid distractions and the app Forest plants a tree when you are studying – if you use your phone early, you have to kill your lovely tree!

  • In the physical world, take yourself away from people when you need quiet time. Put a "do not disturb" sign on your door, sit in a quiet corner of a park, work on your own in a cafe or head to the silent area of the library.

  • If you are getting conflicting information on something on your course, ask the experts! Check your module and course handbooks or speak to your personal tutor or lecturer.

  • Manage your social time like you manage your academic time. When you are planning and prioritising, make time for studying and socialising and make sure you are happy with the balance in order to meet your long-term goals.

Handling too little contact with other people

Everyone is different- like all of these areas, you only have to find the right balance for you and your wellbeing.

If you prefer your own company and that makes you happy, you don't need to change anything. Arriving at university can feel like a lonely experience until you get settled, so if you decide you want to spend more time with people these are some things to try:

  • Look out for communication in your University emails about opportunities to meet- social and course-related inductions, peer-learning schemes and the many sports clubs and societies at the University will be using email to reach out. You can opt in to receive Announce emails about events.

  • If you are looking for a study buddy or want to set up an informal study group, many of your modules will have a discussion board where you can see who else is interested.

  • Don't be afraid to contact your personal tutor or module leader if you have questions about your course- most lecturers have office hours where you can book a time to meet with them.

  • If you are new to the UK and are missing home, you can check search for a cultural or national society from your home country to maintain your cultural connections whilst in Sheffield. See more about our societies.

  • With over 370 societies and committees to get involved with and a vibrant award-winning Students' Union, there are always lots of chances to meet socially and have a break from your studies.


Skills use and development 

University is a hotbed of opportunities to use and develop your skills. Whether it's specific technical skills you need to go into a certain career or general life skills that come from leaving home and looking after yourself.

Your skills are being tested and refined all the time. Skills equip us for challenges in the future, protecting us from stress in both the short and the longer term.

When you make the transition into a new university course, the skills that you have from previous education might not perfectly match your current needs.

This is totally normal- if you already had all the skills you needed, you wouldn't still be in education! When our skills match the task at hand, we can feel good about doing something well.

The optimum for most people is to have some easy and routine tasks that can be quickly completed, mixed with some more difficult tasks which stretch and challenge us.

However, when we feel like our skills are not equal to a hard task or that our skills are being wasted on easy tasks, this can affect satisfaction with academic progress. So how do we find that balance?

Handling having too many skills going to waste

Before starting your course, you will have developed lots of skills from previous education, work, hobbies and life in general.

Some of these skills might not play such a big part in university life. When you're used to using them a lot, this can be frustrating and some people worry that these skills will get rusty.

Here are some suggestions when you feel over skilled:

  • Keep your skills alive by practising them in different contexts. Used to more teamwork? Is there a sport, society or volunteering opportunity that would be an outlet for these skills?

  • Use your skills creatively in your independent learning. If you have great artistic skills but are doing quite a text-based degree, can you get creative with mind maps and posters in your revision? Check out our mind mapping guide.

  • Share your skills with other students- peer learning is a great way to use your expertise to help others. Set up a study group to swap and share skills with your course mates. Find out more about peer learning.

Handling having too few skills

Starting a new course is a big change and it's okay to feel your skills need a boost to help with your studies. The good news is you are reading this guide from the Academic Skills Centre and skills are our thing!

Remember that your course is a learning journey and it is expected that you will build your knowledge and skills over time. Here are our suggestions on building your skills:

  • Use 301 Academic Skills Centre. Our website has resources on all kinds of study skills and maths and statistics help. We also offer 1:1 appointments, workshops and lectures at certain times of the year.

  • Our Maths and Statistics Help (MASH) service has a large library of resources and offers 1:1 maths or statistics appointments throughout the year.

  • If all the support we offer is a bit overwhelming and you're not sure where to start, take our skills audit to identify your priority skill areas and get direct links to relevant resources.

  • The University has brilliant student support services that can help with the areas beyond what we cover at 301. There is a great summary on the COVID-19 web pages.


Mental health support

Student Wellbeing Service offers single-session (40-minute) appointments with the wellbeing advisor in your faculty.

Student Access to Mental Health Support (SAMHS) is a single point of contact for students at all levels to access psychological support.

You can speak to your general practitioner (GP) at the University's Health Service or at the local GP practice where you are registered.

You can also speak anonymously and confidentially to Sheffield Nightline or Samaritans.

In the event of an emergency or if you are in crisis, visit the SSiD emergency contacts pages.

Any questions? Don't hesitate to get in touch with us, at 301@sheffield.ac.uk.

Students enjoying a workshop at 301

Book a Study Skills Workshop or 1:1 appointment

Would you like to explore a study skills topic in greater depth? Book on for a face-to-face or online workshop or 1:1 Study Skills appointment (current students only).

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