Introduction to Academic writing and Study Skills

Reference as: Mkandawire, S. B. (2015). LTC1100 Introduction to Academic writing and Study Skills, University of Zambia Lecture notes for week 2. Retrieved from

1.0 Introduction
This unit provide definitions of academic writing, Academic Literacy and study skills. The unit is important as it prepares us to appreciate that there are many definitions and ways of interpreting terms.
1.1 Unit Objectives
By the end of this unit, you should be able to:
(a) define academic writing, academic literacy and study skills
(b) explain the meaning of academic literacy
(c) describe characteristics of academic writing
(d) find different sources of data for academic writing
(e) understand the format of an academic essay

1.2 What is Academic writing?
Academic writing is any form of writing that university or college students and researchers are expected to utilize in a particular field using a specific referencing style. It is usually argumentative and expository, written in prose form, used to convey information on a particular subject matter. Academic writing is all about what the writer think about a subject matter and what evidence has contributed to that kind of thinking. Academic writing is also used in different documents such as essays, dissertations, thesis and various academic publications (books, research papers, journals and conference papers).

1.3 What is academic Literacy?
Academic literacy refer to the knowledge on how academic papers or discourses are structured, presented and produced. It is generally about knowing how to write academic works, which type of language to use and the style of presenting the material at hand. A person who is academically literate is able to understand and communicate in various ways using academic language. The concept of academic literacy is specific to academia. Icelda at Angalia Internet Solution lists the following aspects as key in academic literacy as published online at Academically literate person is one who is able to:
understand a range of academic vocabulary in context; interpret and use metaphor and idiom, and perceive connotation, word play and ambiguity; understand relations between different parts of a text, be aware of the logical development of (an academic) text, via introductions to conclusions, and know how to use language that serves to make the different parts of a text hang together; interpret different kinds of text type (genre), and show sensitivity for the meaning that they convey, and the audience that they are aimed at; interpret, use and produce information presented in graphic or visual format; make distinctions between essential and non-essential information, fact and opinion, propositions and arguments; distinguish between cause and effect, classify, categorize and handle data that make comparisons; see sequence and order, do simple numerical estimations and computations that are relevant to academic information, that allow comparisons to be made, and can be applied for the purposes of an argument; know what counts as evidence for an argument, extrapolate from information by making inferences, and apply the information or its implications to other cases than the one at hand; understand the communicative function of various ways of expression in academic language (such as defining, providing examples, arguing); and make meaning (e.g. of an academic text) beyond the level of the sentence.
An understanding and application of many of these aspects highlighted above is a typical feature of academic literacy.
1.4 Characteristics of Academic Writing
Academic writing is characterized by a number of text features. These features may vary in different types of works written in academic writing style. The following are some major characteristics of academic writing. Some of the features and characteristics discussed in this section are taken from Lennie (2010:15-16).
(a) Academic writing uses a formal language with short and clear sentences. This means that there are certain words which must be avoided in academic essays. Avoidable words or phrases may include figures of speech, idioms, technical words and others. You do not use slang words, jargon, abbreviations, or many clichés in academic writing.

(b) The nature of writing in academic works is generally argumentative and expository mainly presenting the authors opinions about a particular subject matter and the evidence presented that made the write to think that way.
(c) An academic writing follows a specific referencing style used in a particular work such as American Psychological Association (APA) referencing style and Modern Language Association (MLA) referencing style both in-text and the way the publications such as books are referenced at the end. This means academic writing must document all its sources of data both inside the essay and at the end.
(d) Academic writing apply good reasoning and logic. Deductive reasoning is a big part of academic writing as your readers have to follow the path that brought you to your conclusion. One form of reasoning is based on another or certain observations. For example, if you have two situations involving John and Andrew; where john used to smoke heavily and died of cancer. And Andrew used to smoke a little but also died of cancer. Then the writer decide to generalize that ‘people who smoke die of cancer’. This generalization is logically true based on the two cases cited above but might be misleading in other circumstances which lead us to the next feature of academic writing.
(e) Academic writing must have enough evidential support to convince others for any line of thought or idea presented. Lennie (2010:15) notes that:
Support in academic writing takes the following forms: (a) The primary source for support in the critical essay is from the text (or sources quoted). The text is the authority, so using quotations is required. ( b) The continuous movement of logic in a critical essay is “assert then support; assert then support.” No assertion (general statement that needs proving) should be left without specific support (often from the text(s)). (c) You need enough support to be convincing. In general, that means for each assertion you need at least three supports. This threshold can vary, but invariably one support is not enough.

This evidential support may be quotes from authorities (writers of books, articles and other publications). Evidential support must have at least three sources or views from different authorities or cases. The example cited in (d) where the two smoking people died of cancer that led to a generalization that ‘people who smoke die of cancer’ may be ruled out if another person provide more than two cases with different results. If Sarah, Kennedy and Yona used to smoke heavily but did not die of cancer, it means that the generalization that ‘people who smoke die of cancer’ will not be logically true because there are other people who smoked heavily but did not died of cancer. Implying that there could be other causes of cancer other than smoking.
(f) Academic essays are well organized when written. Well organized because all academic essays must have “clear introduction, body, and conclusion. As you support your point in the body of the essay, you should “divide up the proof,” which means structuring the body around clear primary supports (developed in single paragraphs for short papers or multiple paragraphs for longer papers)”, Lennie (2010:15).
(g) Lennie (2010:16) further gives another feature that academic writing must have “Grammatical correctness meaning that, your essay should have few if any grammatical problems”. Generally whenever the author moves from one main point (primary support) to the next, the author needs to clearly signal to the reader that this movement is happening. This transition sentence works best when it links back to the thesis as it states the topic of that paragraph or section.
(h) Academic writing usually have unit of purpose. The title of the subject matter is maintained in the essay with each idea well developed and exhausted. There is coherence in the way information flow.
(i) The language also need to clear, impersonal and words need to be chosen for their precision. A thesaurus is a good tool to help you pick just the right words to explain the issues.
(j) The Point-of-view in academic writing is generally third person, as the focus of academic writing is to educate on the facts, not support an opinion.

1.5 What are study skills?
Study skills refer to a series of activities which help an individual to take and organize the new information for easy remembering and retaining it for future usage. This helps an individual student on learning how to become an effective learner and how to manage their own learning. Study skills also include your personal organization, planning, study times and how you manage different aspects when studying. In other ways, any skill which help boost a person’s ability to study and eventually pass exams can be termed a study skill. The following are common study skills applied in different disciplines:
1.5.1 Personal organization and management of studies.
This skill focusses on the following issues:
(a) Create your own study area and develop your own approach to studying.
As a student, you must create a study a good study area such as a library. Some students use bed rooms, dome rooms with doors open, dining halls, TV rooms, bars and others go to the library, others use other places such as common room, surrounding bush, kitchen, on the bus and other places. Be aware that some of these places are not conducive as they may disturb your focus e.g tv rooms, common rooms as they condition you to do something else.

Developing personal approach means that you must know when you think you can focus and study in a day. This will help you realize what works for you what does not really work. This entails that you must get organized right from the start. No one knows you more than you do.

(b) Study time. Effective study time takes between 25 to 40 minutes after this take a five to eight minutes break. If you planned to study for three hours, break your study time into chunks of sessions and take three to four breaks of not more than ten minutes by doing something else that you enjoy such as listening to music, taking a walk, checking the environment and others. This is an important factor because a good student must have a good and flexible time table to study which must be respected. Have specific time when to study specific subject areas. In line with point (a) above, remember that what may work for one person, may not for you. For instance, let’s say someone like studying every afternoon at 4pm, this may be convenient or the time that works for them but it may not work for another one who may be studying at 20;00 hours or at 04:00hours.

(c) Study actively and know what you are studying. Before you start studying, you must clearly understand by asking yourself what you are studying. Learning falls into two categories: Its either Concepts or Facts. Concepts are things associated with behaviour and you have questions such as what does this do and how is it done and these is are very important to remember. Facts are about how things are and these can change over time but concepts does not change easily. To understand concepts, you need to try to explain them on your own by writing it down on paper or speaking through it. As you are studding, highlight important concepts and make sure you must understand them. Another way is writing these concepts on separate papers like a collection or summary of key facts on one sheet. This is what we call data condensation study skill.

(d) Take and make effective notes
Note taking is from an oral source to written form such a lecture, speech and a church session while note making is done from a written material to written form. In both you need to take and make effective notes by focusing on key points only that are important. These can be written on a separate sheet or book so that as you revise later, you mainly focus on key issues noted. Both note taking and note making can use abbreviations, shot cuts and written in bullet form. If you are not clear on anything, you must ask your friends who took good notes and share at that level. If you cannot get from your friends either, you can ask your lecturer in the next lecture before starting another topic or whenever you are given a chance to ask questions.

(e) Use the text books you read correctly.
Sources of data for many college students include lecture notes, text books, modules, internet,
(f) Know where to get data to expand your notes.
Sources of data for many college students include lecture notes, text books, modules, internet, magazines, journals, articles and many other sources. For certain topics, you should not rely on one source of data only as it may be misleading sometimes.

1.5.2 How to retain or remember what you study.
There are many ways people use to remember what they study. These include the following:

(a) Memorization study skill.
Memorization is a deliberate mental process undertaken to compel some data or anything else to go into your memory. It also refer to the saving or putting of data on a memory device such flash disk, CD and external drive. This is done so that you can store or keep information in memory for later remembering. Study activities that facilitate memorization include reading notes many times, verbal rehearsing, drawing diagrams or pictures or map to help remember, writing something down and talking about it to someone, rote learning and other visual or auditory activities. The type of information to remember may be stories, facts, experiences, names, appointments, addresses, telephone numbers, lists, poems, pictures, maps, diagrams, facts, music and many other things. Rote learning means you are repeating the same information several times. This include reading over notes or a textbook, and re-writing notes several time to retain them.

(b) Mnemonic Study skill.
This method is actively used to organize and store factual information for later recall. There are three forms of mnemonics categorized as follows:
(i) Acronyms such as ZESCO for remembering Zambian Electricity Supply Company. Roygbiv for remembering colors of the rain ball as shown in the figure below.


(ii) Coined Sayings such as For example, if you wanted to remember the nine planets, you construct a sentence in your real life to represent the planets such as MY VERY EARLIEST MOTHER JUST SEND US NINE POTATES. Equally, if you wanted to remember to the geographical compass, you would say NEVER EAT SOUR WHEAT or NEED EVERY SUPER WOMAN. Starting with Mercury or North in the two examples given above, the first letter of each word relates to a planets and compass point respectively and in clockwise order round a compass in the second example.
(iii) Create drawings that you think can help you remember. Any drawing created is associated to things you know or those you can easily relate to in daily life. For example, if you wanted to remember which months of the year end in 31 days and which ones end in 30 days, you can draw this image below commonly known as the Knuckle Mnemonic.


Another example is if you wanted to remember the ten commandments in the bible, you would use this drawing below.


Mnemonics therefore may be acronyms, symbols, routes, objects, drawings or anything that you do every day that is used to remember some data. It is done by allocating some factual information to specific points of issues that is usually done.

(c) Data Condensing Study Skill
Data condensing is a study skill where you summarize key information in your own language which you can recall later. The way you summarize depends on the nature of the topic, but most involve condensing the large amount of information from a course or book into shorter notes. Often these notes are then condensed further into key concepts and facts. Activities used to condense information include drawing some structure such as spider diagrams, mind maps, a house, a tree and an animal with key words to help you remember the frame of the data.

Another way of summarising what you learn is try to explain in summary form what you learnt to your friend who was not there in class. This will help you master the content discussed and this will help you teach your brain to recall what you learnt. If you can explain without a book to show your understanding the same day after the lecture is better. If you explain it to someone who has no idea about the subject, it shows you fully understand the subject matter. Data condensation may be done by taking notes or making them from the reading materials.

(d) Audio Comprehension Study Skill
This involves reading and listening skills. A student may decide to play notes on soft copy into the computer or any other gadgets to read notes or a book for them and they are there listening and taking note of key information. The reading can equally be done by someone else siting in the same room or probably discuss what has been ready with others. When the reading is repeated frequently, information automatically goes to the mind. This method is heavily used by visually impaired students in different parts of the world.

(e) Examination study skill (The PQRST study method)
This study skill focusses on getting key information when studying and visualizing how examiners will ask them to use that information. This method prioritizes the information in a way that relates directly to how they will be asked to use that information in an exam, (Stangl and Robinson, 1970). PQRST is an acronym for Preview, Question, Read, Summary, Test which has been summarized in the following manner by Stangl and Robinson (1970).
(i) Preview: The student looks at the topic to be learned by glancing over the major headings or the points in the syllabus.
(ii) Question: The student formulates questions to be answered following a thorough examination of the topic(s).
(iii) Read: The student reads through the related material, focusing on the information that best relates to the questions formulated earlier.
(iv) Summary: The student summarizes the topic, bringing his or her own understanding into the process. This may include written notes, spider diagrams, flow diagrams, labeled diagrams, mnemonics, or even voice recordings.
(v) Test: The student answers the questions drafted earlier, avoiding adding any questions that might distract or change the subject.
The examination study skill is also called ‘The Black-Red-Green method’ (developed through the Royal Literary Fund) to help the student to ensure that every aspect of the question posed has been considered, both in exams and essays by the Royal Literary Fund. The student underlines relevant parts of the question using three separate colors (or some equivalent). BLAck denotes ‘BLAtant instructions’, i.e. something that clearly must be done; a directive or obvious instruction. REd is a REference Point or REquired input of some kind, usually to do with definitions, terms, cited authors, theory, etc. (either explicitly referred to or strongly implied). GREen denotes GREmlins, which are subtle signals one might easily miss, or a ‘GREEN Light’ that gives a hint on how to proceed, or where to place the emphasis in answers, (Rwehumbiza, 2013). .

The examination method is also similar to the P.E.E method. The PEE letters stand for Point, evidence and explain. This method is said to help students break down exam questions allowing them to maximize their marks/grade during the exam. They study with many different examination questions in mind and many Schools encourage practicing the P.E.E method prior to an exam. Using the PEE method, students study with all possible questions on a particular topic, (Rwehumbiza, 2013).
(f) The Cue Study Skill
The cue study skill is all about the student creating visual cue cards or flashcards where they write summarized key information on a small piece of paper to remind them, which they easily carry or move around with for revision. Many times, sstudents make their own flash cards, or more detailed index cards designed for filing, often A5 size, on which short summaries are written.

(g) The Loci and Visual Imagery Study skill
This method demand that students present whatever information they are studying in a real visual physical environment. This can be a drawing somewhere or visualize any locus location such as a room or a certain root they like. They assign certain information to certain locations in a room or a root to they like so that it is easy to remember. Many students use diagrams to bring all the information they want together. They can be used to bring all the information together and provide practice reorganizing what has been learned in order to produce something practical and useful. They can also aid the recall of information learned very quickly, particularly if the student made the diagram while studying the information. Pictures can then be transferred to flash cards that are very effective last minute revision tools rather than rereading any written material.
1.7 Format of an academic essay
Most academic essays have the information page, an introduction, main body, conclusion and references or bibliography at the end. Brief details on each of these phases are given below with examples where necessary.

1.7.1 Information page
An information page is the first sheet of paper that your lecturers or markers see before they go into the actual essay. This page contain names of the institution where the student is based, information about the student including names and institutional identification number, course code or details of the course in which the assignment is sort. Names of your lecturers or professors and assistant lecturers or tutors are also reflected on the first page. The date when the essay question was given and the due date are all reflected on the information. The question you are expected to answer and your contact details are also expected to be found on the information page. This page is commonly called the cover page.

1.7.2 Introduction
Introduction as the name suggests, is a starter or an opening point into answering the essay question. It gives readers an overview or rough guide of what the essay intends to focus on, how you as a write plans to proceed in answering the question given. Note that there are different styles of introducing you essay. For instance, if you are given an assignment question such as “Discuss the view that literacy and language are inseparable”. Look at how the following students introduced their essays to the question.

Student 1
The aim of this essay is to discuss the assertion that literacy and language are inseparable. The essay starts with this brief introduction, then proceeds to the main body where the discussion of the subject matter will take place before a concise conclusion is given at the end.

Student 2
It is impossible to conceive of literacy without implying the existence of language as the two are inseparable. These terms are many times intertwined as they both focus on the welfare of the child as he or she grows. This essay attempts to discuss the view that literacy and language are inseparable. It will begin by defining key terms in the question and then discuss in the essay which will end with conclusion and proper references.

Student 3
This assignment is going to talk about literacy and language. The answers will see if literacy is related to the language and then discuss them.

Note that the three students above have different ways of starting their essays. Student 1 has outlined almost all the parts he will have in the essay and left out references. Student two started the essay with an opinion supporting the question and then highlighted what readers expect to find in the essay. The third student has incomplete introduction with unorganized structures in the text.

Remember that your introduction must attract the reader’s attention. It must be interesting enough to entice the reader to read more of your paper and it should tell the reader what the paper will focus on.
One literary trick is to open your paper with an attention grabber (Jacobs, 2015). She further noted that some common devices used to provide the attention grabber are:

(a) Provide surprising information
Surprising information must be fact-based and backed by scholarly evidence. It is a hook or attention grabber. Providing startling information in your introduction could be pulling a few surprising or powerful facts or statistics from your research and then tying them into why you are writing the paper and why the reader should keep reading.

(b) Tell an anecdote (story)
An anecdote is a short and focused story about your topic. Stories make an interesting opening for a paper and serve to get the reader’s attention.

(c) Create a dialog
A dialog can be a simple exchange between characters on your topic. Provide summary information. Creating an introduction that provides a general summary of your topic in an interesting manner.

(d) Open with a quote
Open your paper with an interesting quote that you tie to your topic. Interesting quotes are based on the subject matter or topic you expected to write on in your essay. This usually come from scholars that have written materials such as books, articles and magazines.

(e) Ask a compelling question of the reader
Ask a question of the reader that is designed to peak their interest and make them want to learn more about your topic in order to answer the question for themselves.

(f) Finish the introduction paragraph with your thesis statement.
This way, you have an attention grabber to “hook” the reader and this leads naturally into your thesis statement which is the main point of your paper.

1.7.3 Main Body
This is where you are expected to answer the question and your focus here should be on answering the question given. Do not be overtaken by the information you find on internet, books, articles journals or any other sources that looks similar to what the question demands.
The main body of the essay is where you are expected to build up your essay with respect to the topic and your planed essay layout points. The main body is divided into paragraphs and each paragraph needs to have a topic sentence that identifies what part of your argument the paragraph will support. In general, each paragraph should be at least three sentences. If your paragraph gets too long, re-read it and see if you can break it into two paragraphs, (Jacobs, 2015).
1.7.4 Conclusion
Conclusion is the summary of your argument or of the main points raised in your essay. It is the section where the writer highlights the key issues discussed in the essay in a special way. As a writer, you are also expected to state your opinion or stance on the topic given.
1.7.5 References
When you have completed writing your essay, you need to compile a list of references consulted in your essay. References are materials referred to in your essay and it is written using different styles. You need to consult your Lecturers which referencing style they need for the course. If they have not specified, you can use any one you know. In Zambia, many institutions prefer the APA referencing system as compared to MLA, Chicago or Harvard.
1.8 Academic Sources of Data
In the University or College, when researching an assignment topic for academic purposes, acknowledging sources of data is very important. An essay with sources carry more weight and authority, and are likely to be more convincing because academic sources are authoritative in nature as they help in identifying the qualifications and expertise of the writer. Writers are careful to credit the origins of information and ideas, usually by means of a reference list or bibliography.

The aim of academic sources is to examine a topic fairly. This does not mean that they never take a side, but that the source does not ignore alternative positions on the topic. Many times, academic sources target university lecturers, students, and professionals interested in the theoretical side of a topic.

1.8.1 Types of academic sources
The most common forms of academic source of data are:
Journal articles
Published reports

Sources such as newspaper articles, magazine articles, opinion pieces, and websites are not commonly academic, although there are some exceptions. Many journal articles and reports can be found online, for example. Academic journals are very different from popular magazines, although they bear several similarities. Do not quote any material you find on the street but you need to check who the writer is before utilizing the source. Academic authors are likely to come from a universities or institutes, and academic writing is often published by a university press or a recognized publisher.

1.8.2 Primary, secondary and Tertiary sources
The sources of data for academic writing can be divided into three types, depending on their proximity to the subject of study namely: primary, secondary and tertiary sources.
(a) Primary Sources
On the first hill, Primary sources refer to first hand data with original and direct evidence. These are sources where the researcher or someone has personal experience of something. The examples of primary sources are observation, interviews data, raw data from an experiment, demographic records, works of fiction, diaries, official documents, such as census data and legal texts, objects, such as archaeological findings, numeric data and quantities or corpora.

(b) Secondary Sources
On the second hill, Secondary sources get their data from primary sources and this type of data usually values, discuss or comment on primary sources or its equivalent. They use the data or evidence from primary sources to construct an argument. Secondary sources of data include, biographies, monographs, books or research articles that analyses, critique, or synthesize a range of sources.

(c) Tertiary Sources
Tertiary sources refer to data that summarises or compiles facts and knowledges materials produced by someone else. Tertiary sources many times combine both primary and secondary sources. They are convenient for quick access to summarised facts, but not all sources that belong to this category are considered suitable for scholarly writing. For instance, it is usually not acceptable to use compilations of facts instead of reading the original sources. Therefore, students writing essays are recommended to consult their teachers on the suitability of using tertiary sources in their writing. Sources that would be regarded as tertiary sources include: textbooks, study guides, encyclopaedias and wikis’ indexes and other classification systems
Primary sources are more useful and trusted as they provide a clear first-hand information, but secondary sources have the added benefit of expert analysis and context. Tertiary sources may even be more helpful as they have third hard analysis. All the three sources are important and they differ or emphasized in certain types of writing. Your university assignments are mostly expected to use secondary sources and tertiary sources of data. It is also important to note that the distinction among primary, secondary and tertiary sources is not a fixed one. For instance, in an analysis of an encyclopaedic article, that text would be regarded as a primary source, and in a review of a scholarly monograph, the text under scrutiny would be seen as a primary source, although it would be used as secondary source material under other circumstances.
1.9 Conclusion
This unit defined academic writing on one hand as a form of writing that university or college students and researchers are expected to utilize in a particular field using a specific referencing style. On the other hand, Academic literacy referred to the knowledge on how academic papers or discourses are structured, presented and produced. Study skills looks a series of activities which help an individual to take and organize the new information for easy remembering and retaining it for future usage. The unit also discussed a number of study skills and characteristics of academic writing to help new students cope with university academic life.

1.10 Revision questions
1. Explain the difference between academic writing and academic literacy.
2. Define study skills.
3. Explain the different ways a student can use to study.
4. What are the characteristics of academic writing?

Baker, S. (1985). The Practical Stylist. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers.

Buckley, J. (1991). Fit to Print. Toronto: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Deese, J. and Ellin K. D. (1969). How to Study. New York: McGraw-Hill Book

Bremer, Rod. The Manual – A guide to the Ultimate Study Method (USM).
(Amazon Digital Services)

Jacobs, C. (2015). An introduction, body and conclusion. Available at (Accessed on 4th August 2015)

Jerold, A. W. (1982). Study Skills for Adults Returning to School. New York:
McGraw-Hill Book Company.

Lennie, L. I. (2010). What Is “Academic” Writing? Available at Writing Spaces:, Parlor Press: and WAC Clearinghouse:

Royal Literary Fund: Mission Possible: the Study Skills available at
Rwehumbiza, R. (2013). Understanding Examination Techniques and Effective
study Strategies. Dar-es-salaam: Mikumi.
Stangl, W., Robinson, F. P. (1970). Effective study. New York: Harper &
Row. “The PQRST Method of Studying”.
Retrieved 2009-02-01.


About Sitwe

Sitwe Benson is a citizen of the world based in Zambia. He publishes academically oriented articles.
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