We had a chat with student Ben Phillips-Farmer, who recently completed his Psychology Master's degree at Birkbeck, University of London. Ben shared his thoughts on the learning support that increased his confidence in his own academic skills, the types of academic support on offer and those he utilised and what motivated him to keep going during the tough times.
Let's start with an easy one! Tell us your name, your course and where you studied.
My name is Ben Phillips-Farmer, I actually just changed it because I was meant to be getting married in June. We actually didn't get married [due to COVID19] but we changed our names anyway! I was studying psychology at Birkbeck university.
Congratulations on your name change and forthcoming wedding! If you cast your mind back to when you first started your Masters at Birkbeck, how did you feel about starting your course?
Yeah, I was really excited to start my course just because it is a subject that I'd wanted to delve more into for quite a long time, and I had done various personal research into it, but I'd never approached it from an academic point of view, so I was really excited about that. I was slightly apprehensive about the level that I was stepping into just because I didn't have any academic background in psychology before - it was a definite 'level up'. So it was a mixture of apprehension and excitement, really.
Had you studied at Birkbeck before?
No. That was the first time.
Did you have any concerns specifically around the course that you decided to do, or the level that you decided to study at?
I think my main concern was catching up to a level of academic writing that I was really out of the loop with. I was starting a course that I was actually excited about, whereas before when I'd studied, I wasn't too bothered about that, which meant I didn't pay too much close attention to writing really well or academically. And so I was just really out of practice and had never had the kind of motivation that I'd had this time around as well.
Thinking about the academic writing side, was there any sort of specific support that your university offered?
Birkbeck were great actually. There were a number of different opportunities, whether online through the Moodle network or actual face-to-face seminars as well. I didn't access them too much because I was so busy, I was working as well as studying, but there was a lot on offer. Like I say, I wish that I could have accessed more of the support that was available.
Did you feel that there was a lot of support from your university from the get go of starting your course, or did it kick in more as you progressed?
Good question - I’m trying to remember. I think that I definitely noticed it more on my way through the course, rather than at the beginning. But it just took me a while, I guess, to identify what I had to work on and what would be good to work on, and then once I had done that, there were specific resources available, and things to hone those skills. I had just jumped into this new level of academia and to get my head around what actually what were my blind spots, what could I improve took a bit of time. I was trying to understand the language of the academic world and what was available, and what out of that would help me.
Did you use the Studiosity service to get some feedback on your academic writing?
Yeah, I did. That was actually a really helpful thing to access, because Birkbeck made it really clear that was available, so I knew that I was going to use it from the start, and it was really, really helpful. You can use it at any time, and because I was working full time, studying full time and also working quite a weird schedule as well, and with the evening lectures, it was just really helpful to have something that you could go to at any point in time and get a really quick response from.
What were the biggest challenges for you in your studies?
I think the main one that I realised towards the end of the course was that I only got three rounds of feedback from the uni, so although I had assignments spread throughout the year, I submitted my first four or five before Christmas and then had already finished my next few before I got feedback from them, so it's really difficult to actually identify what I could improve, and that was the biggest challenge throughout the year, is that there was only two or three points of feedback from the uni.
There were points where I was writing my next assignment and had nearly finished, and then I got my last lot of feedback from the time before, and realised that my whole structure was not great the time before, so I had to kind of just reorder everything. So I think it's really, really helpful when you have more access to feedback, each time you're making an improvement in your writing, because there's obviously different feedback for different things. The more you improve, the more honed in feedback you get. It was just a bit of a slow process that happening through the year.
It was really good though because you just kind of had to get on with it, which meant that your mindset was just 'there' for the whole year. Well mine was anyway, because I was just spending every moment that I had on the course. It's not like my mind ever lapsed out, until I went on to my dissertation, where I did have a couple weeks' break. My mind was just constantly in the 'trying to improve' zone.
I'm really hoping that you're going to have a bit of a rest now!
I actually am now, this has been really nice. I've kept my job on a few days a week remotely, part time, which is really, really nice, and I'm going to do just a day a week throughout my course. But I mean, we moved out [to the Netherlands] last week and I've already had five days off, so it's actually weird, it's weird not having anything to do.
What kinds of learning support did you receive from your university during your course? Are there any specific types you can recall?
So I didn't access as much as I would have liked to, but once I realised that there were drop-in seminars at different times, I did manage to go to a couple of them, so I went to a really helpful one on essay structure, which was great because I think I'd kind of assumed that I knew how to do that. I don't know what I was basing that assumption on because when I went to this workshop, there was a set way of ordering paragraphs and stuff which I hadn't really clocked onto before, I was just kind of trial-and-erroring it, and the feedback that I had gotten from the uni hadn't necessarily pointed out to me that there was, you know, a set way of doing that. So that was really helpful. That was probably most memorable one, like I say, I wish that I could have gone to more.
There were various [sessions], I think in the academic writing series, for example, I think once every month or two that was a structure one or a spelling and grammar one or other ones.
So after doing those specific seminars did it increase your confidence in those areas?
Yeah, it is weird because I definitely had an element of confidence with each step, I thought, maybe this is just my personality, but I thought that I could do well even equipped with the level of skill that I had at the start, but then once I had attended these workshops and seminars and learnt a few more specifics about writing, it unlocked a sense of 'ah, so that's why I missed out on these marks there', even though I thought that I was writing well. It almost acted like kind of a crib sheet for how to get higher marks, so my confidence in terms of how I thought my work was going to be graded, went up. So, yeah, all of that is to say it did increase my confidence.
Was there a particularly challenging assignment or project that you had to do during your course?
We did lab reports as part of the psychology course, and that was very new to me. I had never done a lab report before and I didn't really know what to expect in terms of how to structure them, do the research for them, write up the research, method section, result section, discussion, it was all new, so those two lab reports were challenging. There was just one lecture or a couple of lectures running into how to write them, so that was very much me just trying to get stuff out on digital 'paper' and give it a go, so that was quite challenging as I had no frame of reference for how to do well in that.
And then the most challenging assignments were for the topics that I was less interested in, or captivated by, and then you get a list of essay questions that just, none of them really, get you, so that happened a few times. I was generally interested in the topic, so broadly speaking, I was usually able to find an interest in one of the essay questions for each module. But there were modules where that was more challenging than others, and then that was hard because there was an extra step of generating interest in the topic before getting started as well. It made the research process longer, and it makes it more difficult to understand too when you're reading papers that don't naturally interest you.
That makes me think very much about the motivation needed to keep going - how did you keep yourself motivated during those challenging moments?
I tried to find papers that were within the sphere that also were on things that interested me, so, for example, there was an essay question on phobias, which is generally interesting, but the question was phrased in a way that was just quite boring, like explain the acquisition of a simple phobia through conditioning. Conditioning didn't interest me that much, but if you take that kind of topic at a broader level, there are interesting things in the world of phobias, so it's just trying to find papers that addressed, or were within the realm of, the research topic that also contained something broader that I was interested in, and I was genuinely able to do that.
What kept you motivated throughout your course?
I think what kept me motivated was that I had never taken on a course like this, that I was that interested in, and I wanted to do really well to reflect the bits that I felt like I had learned through the course. I did have an eye on what a good outcome would mean for me in terms of a future academic career or work career, but I think really it was a target that I set myself to do as well as I possibly could and that's probably what motivated me most, because I knew that this was a topic that I wanted to be good at. I wanted to keep interest in and be able to discuss well with people that knew the topic well and so, I think that's really what motivated me.
How did you feel when you completed your course?
The last bit of the course was the dissertation and it felt really different to finishing just an assignment, because there's so much at stake with the dissertation. It never really feels finished, or it didn't to me, and so when I had finished my draft that probably would have been a 'final version' of an essay previously, it still felt like I had to meticulously go through it and then check it, so the whole process of finishing the dissertation was just way longer than anything that had come before.
But when I finally submitted the dissertation, it was very...I think it's just similar to that apprehension, excitement thing again, and a bit of relief mixed in as well. I don't know, it's excitement to get the grade back and have the final 'you've passed' thing in a few weeks, but also apprehension, "am I going to do as well as I'm expecting to do?" and then also relief of, "wow, I've just managed to finish a whole Master's course". Yeah.
Did you use Studiosity during that process to get feedback on the dissertation?
Yes, I finished a first draft of my dissertation and I showed it to my supervisor, and then once my supervisor sent it back with all of her corrections, I did a second draft of it and I basically split it up into three, I split up in an introduction, the methods and results and the discussion, and I submitted each section to Studiosity with a slight bit of overlap as well, actually, because I was interested as to what two different Studiosity reviewers would pick up. The max word limit was five thousand words or so, so I submitted it in three chunks, slightly overlapping.
Which of your learning experiences at university do you think strengthened your confidence in your academic skills?
I think that's I think it's hard to pick out one aspect of what made me feel the most confident, because I think it was accessing a number of different things that built in that confidence, so it was really good to have the main lecture content and try and keep up with that as much as possible. It was really, really good to have good feedback on any bit of writing that I'd done, and it was really good to have the Studiosity instant feedback as well from a slightly different perspective than my university. I think really it was being able to take a number of different perspectives of feedback and input and pick out a thread within them that built the most confidence.
It sounds like Birkbeck provided a lot of great support.
They did, I think they were great.
So what's next for you?
I'm doing a health and social psychology course [in the Netherlands] and it's going to be really interesting to have a really different style to the course that I've just done. It's going to be great going into something that is a specialisation of psychology and they have this problem-based learning style, which is kind of like a group work approach to solving a problem yourself. In contrast to being taught the solutions to something or being taught what research is out there, it's being given something to go away and do, so I'm looking forward to a different learning style, again, to hone the skills.
Last question: how does the Ben on day one of the course compare to the Ben of today?
I'm much cleverer! I think that's actually something genuinely that I am really pleased with is that I do feel like I know the sphere and the topic a lot more, and even just having to complete a Masters I think helps you gain a lot of skills. So, I stand by the 'I'm cleverer' thing! I think that is a big difference and I just feel more, I guess, ready to engage in this psychology world that I was really interested in on day one.
Listen to our webinar: UK student help-seeking 2019 v 2020: what will be COVID-19's impact upon study support this academic year and beyond?
Professor Liz Thomas explores her two cross-institutional studies into the online help-seeking behaviour of students at six UK universities. Results include the impacts upon retention, learning, confidence and student satisfaction amongst students from diverse and traditional backgrounds. What does it mean for the impending academic year?
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