The Study Skills Handbook

Fifth edition

by Stella Cottrell


Click on the letter links below to access definitions of all key terms from the textbook.

A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z


Academic year The teaching year. In the UK, for most universities and colleges, this starts in September and ends the following summer for most courses. Many distance learning courses and professional courses such as nursing or teaching can start at multiple points in the year.

Accelerated degrees Full time degrees studied and completed in fewer than the standard number of years for that award, such as a typical three year degree completed in two years. This usually involves studying over the summer when students are usually on vacation or in part-time work.

Access to higher education courses These prepare students for entry to higher education. They are usually designed mainly for mature students who do not have the standard entry qualifications as well as for others with a gap in their formal education.

Accreditation Formal recognition of a higher education course, such as by a professional body.

AP(E)L (Accreditation of prior (and experiential) learning) Credit given for previous learning experience.

Alumnus (plural : alumni) The name given to graduates of any particular university.

The Ancient Universities A term used to refer to seven British and Irish Universities that were founded between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries. These are: Oxford and Cambridge in England; St Andrews, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh in Scotland, and Dublin in Ireland.

Anonymous marking Most institutions have a policy of requiring students to remove anything that reveals their identity when submitting work, except for a student number or equivalent. This is to help ensure that the work is marked without bias. On some courses, it is harder to ensure anonymous marking, such as when there are small numbers of students and tutors can get to know the style of a students’ work.

Assessment/assessed work Assignments that are undertaken by students, and marked and/or graded by the teaching staff.

Assignment A written piece of work such as an essay, usually marked or graded.

Assistive technologies Technologies designed to assist disabled people.

Asynchronous conferencing Online communication whereby individuals leave messages and make contributions at times that suit them, rather than in live discussion.

Autonomous study See independent study.

Awards The name given to degree and other qualifications offered by a university.

Awarding body The body responsible for the oversight of an award is known as the Awarding Body. Universities are usually awarding bodies in their own right and award their own degrees. They might also be the awarding body for higher level awards taught at other institutions such as local colleges.


BA Bachelor of Arts (a first degree qualification)

Blended learning A combination of e-learning and conventional learning approaches. Increasingly, technology is used to ‘blend’ or personalise most learning.

Blog (weblog) A web-based log or diary that can be seen by other people. Some students use blogs to keep friends up to date with their news.

Bibliographic database A database of details about published books, journal articles, research papers, and conference proceedings and books, with links to the text.

Boolean operators Search terms (such as AND, OR, NOT) to help limit or extend online searches.

BSc Bachelor of Science (a first degree qualification)

Bursary Financial support offered by HEIs which does not need to be repaid. Each HEI decides how much financial support to give as bursaries, and to whom. At some universities these are referred to as ‘scholarships’.


Campus The site on which the majority of a university’s or college’s buildings are located. Some HEIs have several campuses, sometimes spread across a single city, sometimes in different towns and cities.

Chaplaincy Typically a place on campus which provides space for students to exercise spiritual practice such as prayer, meditation, quiet time or attend led religious services and/or receive spiritual guidance. Originally mainly for Christian students, it is more typical for chaplaincies now to provide services and facilities for many denominations and faiths, as well as support for students of no religious faith.

Citation Referring to source material in a text, such as student assignments, giving the surname of the author and date of publication (e.g. Smith, 2013). Full details of the source would be given in the list of references at the end of the document.

Classification Typically, degrees in the UK are classified as first class, 2.1, 2.2, 3rds and fails.

Combined honours degree A higher education qualification that consists of two or three main subjects. Typically, these are studied alongside each other and there may be little formal connection made between the areas studied.

Completion This refers to finishing your course, having stayed until the end. At that point you can either pass or fail.

Conferencing Linking up with others via the Internet for classes, discussions or project work.

Course Short-hand for your ‘programme of study’.

Core subjects or modules Compulsory units of study (as opposed to options or electives).

CPD Continuous Professional Development This usually refers to courses taken following graduation, typically as a requirement for ongoing training and updates within a professional area.

Credit In Britain, each full year of study is the equivalent of a number of credits. A three-year undergraduate degree is the equivalent of 360 credits; a four year course 480 credits. Each credit is assumed to be roughly the equivalent of 10 hours of study. For some degrees, you can take larger or smaller modules or units of study, each equivalent to different amounts of credit. You would need to check that the total amount of credits achieved at each level was appropriate. Other countries also use credit, but one credit could be the equivalent of a different number of study hours, and more or fewer credits might be required to gain the equivalent level of qualification.

Curriculum vitae (CV) A CV is a document used to summarise up-to-date key details about your education, qualifications, employment to date, skills and experience; you submit this to employers when applying for jobs.


Dean The senior member of staff in charge of a faculty compromising several departments or equivalent.

Degree A qualification gained through higher level study. These may be at undergraduate or post-graduate level. There are other qualifications that you can gain in Higher Education that are less than a degree, such as a Certificate of Higher Education or HNC (equivalent to one year of full-time study) or a Foundation Degree, HND or Diploma (equivalent to two years of full-time study). Typically, students at university study for honours degrees, which involve successful achievement of a given number of credits at levels 4, 5 and 6.

Discipline A name given to a subject area at university. Students read for a degree within a particular subject discipline.

Discussion board An online tool that you can use to communicate with others and share information. It is also referred to as a ‘notice board’, ‘chat room’ or ‘message board’.

Dissertation A longer piece of work, usually based on your own research, typically undertaken in your final year of study.

Distance learning Courses for which you can undertake most or all of the study off-campus such as online.


E-learning Learning that makes use of electronic tools and information. Most courses now include this. See also blended learning.

E-portfolio An electronic portfolio or folder in which you gather records of your learning and experience, including your academic and non-academic activities. It may be linked to a portal or VLE. (See The Study Skills Handbook, p. 56 for a list of typical portfolio contents.)

Elective Some HEIs allow you to make up part of your year’s study through a free choice of units or modules. These may be unconnected to the rest of your programme.

Engagement Students are expected to ‘engage’ with Uni life: joining in, participating in class, completing surveys, giving feedback, being a course rep, mentoring, volunteering, etc.

Enrolment Once you have registered for a programme, you may also have to enrol on particular modules or units

ERASMUS (The European Region Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students.) A European Union exchange scheme that supports and enables study abroad. It enables UK students to spend time studying in Europe as part of their study for award at their HEI in the UK.

Essay A typical assignment in Higher Education. These have a particular structure and are used to check students’ ability to present reasoned, written argument and demonstrate their understanding of the subject.

Exam boards These are formal events where academic staff and external examiners go through the proposed marks, grades and/or classifications for each student. They clarify any apparent anomalies and check that all is in order. They confirm marks and awards.

Examiners The lecturers who mark and grade your work and exam answers. These might (or might not) be the same as the lecturers who taught you. See also: external examiner; second marker.

Extended essay An essay that is longer than the usual length of essays for the course, involving more research or thought. It enables the student to focus in more depth on an area of interest and to develop a specialism.

Extensions Some Unis and Colleges give additional time to complete an assignment – but usually only if requested well in advance.

Extenuating (or mitigating) circumstances If there are special circumstances likely to have a negative impact on your work or exam results, you may be able to ask for these to be taken into consideration. The request, with supporting evidence, usually has to be submitted in advance.

External examiners Each course will have one or more external examiners. These are usually lecturers from other institutions drawn from the broad subject area who teach, or are familiar with, similar courses. Their role is to check that assessment processes are appropriate and fair, and to help ensure that the same standards of work are upheld from one HEI to another. Typically, they will ask to see a representative sample of students’ work rather than ‘second mark’. They usually meet with students, attend the Exam Boards and write a report each year.


Faculty Large academic units in universities, typically with oversight of several academic departments or subject areas, led by a dean or a ‘PVC/Dean’. The term is also used to refer to the academic staff who teach and research in the faculty. Every university has a different organisational structure. Some organise departments or ‘subject areas ‘or ‘fields of study’ into Schools or Colleges. At some universities, a faculty may consist of several Schools; at other universities the School is the equivalent of a faculty.

A ‘first’ The highest classification of an honours degree. Other classifications are 2.1, 2.2, 3rd, pass.

Flipped classroom’ or ‘flipped learning’ Classes for which you are given material to watch or listen to, as advance preparation.

Formative assessment An assignment, mock exam, test, quiz or trial run that is used to develop your skills and understanding and does not count towards your marks or grades.

Foundation Degrees A two-year qualification in its own right and an alternative route to gaining a degree. These are the equivalent of the first two years of full-time study for an honours degree, usually with a strong workplace element. Students can then opt to take a ‘top up’ year to complete an honours degree.

Foundation level These programmes prepare students for higher study and are pitched at the same level as ‘A’ level study. Foundation level programmes are common for some subjects such as Art. They are also helpful if you decide late on at school that you want to study a science or medical programme.

Freshers New undergraduates when they first arrive at university/college.

Freshers’ Week A week used to welcome new students, typically the week before formal teaching begins.


Gap year A year taken away from formal study, typically between school and University level study, or between Uni and employment or post-graduate study.

Grade Point Average (GPA) Some HEIs use a final formula to provide your average grade in addition to, or instead of, a degree classification.

Graduate Once students have been awarded their qualification, they are referred to as ‘graduates’.

Graduation The ceremony at which students who have successfully completed a qualification are awarded their degree.


Hall; Halls; Halls of Residence Many HEIs refer to student accommodation as ‘Halls’ or ‘Hall’. Some also refer to their formal dining space as ‘Hall’.

Head of School or Department, etc Typically, this is a senior academic responsible for the overall management of several related subject areas. A School might consist of several departments in some HEIs, each of which offer many programmes of study.

HEAR (Higher Education Achievement Record) A term used in the UK for a formal record of achievements gained on-course and, in many instances, through activities undertaken alongside formal study.

HEIs Higher Education Institutions, such as Universities, University Colleges and some Colleges.

Higher degrees Degrees at a higher level than undergraduate, such as Masters and Doctorates.

Hilary term Spring term at some universities.

HNC; HND Higher National Certificate; Higher National Diploma

Home students Students who are normally resident in Great Britain and Northern Ireland; the term is often used to differentiate a student from ‘international’ students. Students living in the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands are not designated as ‘Home students’.

Honours degree Most full-time three-year undergraduate degrees (or part-time equivalents) lead to Honours, provided you earn 360 credits at the appropriate levels. There may also be Ordinary degrees awarded if you gain fewer credits at the higher level (level 6).


Independent study Study undertaken by the student outside of formally scheduled lectures, classes, workshops and equivalent. Students in higher education are, typically, responsible for organising most of their own time and resources for study.

Integrated Masters A four year course (or five with a placement year) that integrates undergraduate and masters study into one course.

Internships HEIs often have arrangements with employers for their students or recent graduates to undertake a workplace project or placement so that the student gains experience of that kind of work. Sometimes employers pay for the work undertaken but this is not always the case. There is usually a lot of competition to gain each internship, even if not paid, as students want work experience that can help them to find a job later.

Intensity (of study) Refers to how many credits a student is studying towards in a given year. This is especially relevant when deciding, as a part time student, whether to take 60 credits a year and complete a course in twice the time, or to take more credits and study at a greater level of intensity, completing the degree more quickly.


Joint Honours degree A programme of study comprising two or three main subject areas such as History, English and French, or Business and Middle Eastern Studies.


Knowledge Transfer or Knowledge exchange Typically, this refers to partnerships with businesses, organisations or communities for mutual sharing of information and experience. It could include research, practical applications of research or special events. Sometimes, students are involved, such as through taking part in science fairs or sports coaching or art residencies in schools or through work placements.


Labs. Short for ‘laboratory’. Laboratory work is a typical feature of science programmes.

Lecture A method of teaching typical in Higher Education. These usually consist primarily of a lecturer talking about the subject, often providing an overview of a topic, and students listening and making notes. Lectures are often given to large numbers of students, possibly up to 500 or more. Typically, these are followed up by smaller group teaching such as in seminars or workshops, where the issues raised can be discussed.

Lecturer The name given to teaching staff at Uni. Teaching staff may also be referred to as ‘lecturers’ and, at some Unis, as ‘dons’.

Level of study All courses are set at a specific level of difficulty and complexity. In the UK, the final year of school is usually pitched at level 3, as are preparation and foundation courses in higher education. The first year of standard study in higher education is ‘level 4’. For a full-time student, a new year of study usually corresponds to a new level of study: year 2 is level 5, year 3 is level 6. Masters study is the equivalent of level 7. For part-students, it might take up to two years or more to complete each level, depending on how much study is undertaken each year.


Masters A post-graduate qualification, normally taken only once you have received a degree in Higher Education already.

Matriculation Formal admittance to the HEI. There are usually minimum requirements for previous qualifications in order to matriculate. The grades that you are required to achieve to gain a place on your programme would usually be higher than that minimum. For example, the HEI may require a minimum of a grade C maths at GCSE whereas the entry requirement for your programme might be an A or B.

Michaelmas term Autumn term at some universities.

The ‘milk round’ A term used to refer to employers coming onto campus to recruit students into jobs for when they graduate.

Mode of study Refers to whether a student studies full time or part time.

Module At some HEIs, the overall programme of study is divided into smaller unit or modules. Typically, students will be taught and assessed separately for each module. Each module carries a number of credits. At some institutions, all modules carry the same number of credits (such as 20 credits) and all students take the same number of modules each year (such as six 20 credit modules). At others, the number of credits might vary greatly, and students need to select sufficient modules to achieve 120 credits at each level.

MOOC Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) are free short courses intended for large-scale public participation, often as a marketing and recruitment device. Typically, they provide organised learning materials and discussion boards and require self-study and peer interaction and feedback. Usually, they provide little or no direct personal feedback from tutors. Usually, they do not provide academic credit, although sometimes this is available for a charge. The standard of the material can be high. However, it is estimated that fewer than 10% of those who start a MOOC complete it


Netiquette Netiquette is an abbreviation of ‘internet etiquette’. This refers to a set of developing conventions and courtesies to guide online behaviour, especially for commenting on blogs and taking part in chat rooms, and for safeguarding others’ information.


Office for Students For more about the Office for students, see

Options As part of your degree programme, as well as compulsory units, you may be able to choose some optional units/modules.

Ordinary degree A university qualification at undergraduate level that requires the achievement of fewer credits at level 6 than for an Honours degree.


PDP (Personal Development Planning) This is an important part of planning and preparing for life after university, including for careers and/or for a further study such as a Masters or doctorate.

Peer In the context of Higher Education, this refers to other students, especially those at the same level of study. The term is used in phrases such as ‘peer support’ or ‘peer feedback’.

Personal tutor Many HEIs provide each student with a named personal tutor who is their main point of contact for the programme. Generally, these offer academic advice and may also be required to offer pastoral support.

PGCE Post-Graduate Certificate of Education A course designed for those who want to gain a teaching qualification once they have completed their first degree.

Ph.D (or D.Phil) Doctor of Philosophy. A post-graduate qualification, typically involving original research, normally taken only once you have a degree in Higher Education and after starting on a Masters-level programme.

Placement year A year structured into your programme of study during which you spend all or most of your time in a placement at work or overseas.

Plagiarism This refers to any attempt, deliberate or accidental, to use somebody else’s ideas, words or work as if these were your own. This could be copying another students’ work, copying from a book, copying art work, etc. Plagiarism applies to taking ideas from another source such as the internet and adapting these slightly and then passing these off as your own work. One key way to reducing the likelihood of plagiarism is to ensure that you always acknowledge the various sources that you drew upon in developing each of your arguments or ideas. Another key strategy is to avoid cutting and pasting from books. Summarising an idea in brief and acknowledging the source is acceptable.

Plate-glass university UK universities established in the 1960s.

Portal Many universities provide personalised access to information, resources and services for students through a single electronic gateway or ‘portal’.

Portfolio A collated set or collection of your work on a given topic, either on paper or electronically. This may be for your own purposes, such as to showcase your work in art, fashion or design, or it could be form part of the assessment of a course.

Pre-sessional courses Short preparatory, foundation or language courses that run before the main programme of study begins.

Professional bodies The organisations responsible for setting the qualifications and/or curriculum or skills required for entering particular professions. Universities and colleges offering a degree in a related area usually liaise with the professional body and gain recognition for their awards from them. This then enables successful graduates to continue into approved routes into the professional area. Not all courses gain professional body recognition.

Professor A member of the university teaching staff with significant research, teaching and/or management experience.

Programme Your programme of study may be referred to as either your ‘programme’ or your ‘course’ for short.

Progression This refers to movement onwards to the next stage or level of your course. You usually need to undertake, complete and pass a specific number of credits in order to be eligible for progression to the next level of study or to the next stage in a course at the same level. In some instances, a specific grade or mark is needed in order for you to be eligible to progress.

Podcast One or more audio files which are published on the Internet in a file format, and sometimes used by lecturers to record lectures. You can subscribe to these using podcasting software or tools. You can also produce your own.


Quality assurance (for teaching and learning) This term is used to refer to a wide range of arrangements, opinions and practices, all of which are intended to promote better teaching and an excellent student experience. Most universities and colleges have internal processes such as a quality assurance framework or equivalent, to ensure that their arrangements for quality and standards are kept under review. They are also part of external arrangements that regulate or promote quality. Arrangements for external regulation or oversight vary from one country to another. Typically, in higher education, the external examiner system is a key aspect of quality assurance. Student surveys and ratings, both internal and national, are also common. The Office for Students maintains broad oversight in the UK and Teaching Excellence Framework offers one means of promoting quality.


Reader A role for senior academic staff, usually recognising their work in a given area of research, accomplished over time.

Reading week A week set aside during the term or semester to enable students to concentrate on reading and studying for their course. It is often midway through a term to enable students to catch up on missed work and reading, and/or to prepare ahead for the rest of term and exams. Typically, no lectures or seminars are provided during this time.

Redbrick’ UK universities founded in the late 19th and early 20th century (often, though not always, built originally from bricks.)

‘The REF’ / Research Excellence Framework An exercise that takes place every few years to assessing the quality of research in UK HEIs. It awards ratings to research, individuals, subjects and institutions. These are then used to inform decisions about public funding for future research, as well as in league tables.

Reference At the end of your assignments, you are usually expected to provide the full details of the source materials you cited in your assignment (see ‘citation’ above). These are known as ‘references’.

Registration If you have been accepted as a student at the HEI, you usually have to register for the programme in order to be recognised as a student for that year. You would normally register each year. You may need to enrol separately onto individual modules or units of study.

Regulations (‘the regs’) Each institution has its own set of regulations. These clarify, in broad terms, what students need to do in order to gain its qualifications. The regulations usually contain details of what would happen under a range of non-standard circumstances such as if a student is ill, needs to take a break from study, has already studied part of their course at another institution, or is found cheating. It is important for students to look through the regulations that apply to them so that they know what these contain and so that they do not inadvertently contravene them.

Resit The opportunity to take an examination again, usually following a failure the first time around. The marks or grades for resits are usually capped at a basic ‘pass’, which can affect the overall grade for the module, year or award.

Retention This term usually refers to students who continue on a course beyond the first level. Published ‘Retention data’ such as in league tables often refer only to those students who completed the first year of study and continued into the second year of study (at the same or a different institution). At other times, retention can refer to students who stay on course until the final year. See also completion and progression.


Sandwich course A course that includes a set period of time out of study where you undertake a period of employment. This might be for a whole year on placement, or for shorter work placements.

Scholarships ‘Scholarships’ are usually awarded to recognise academic achievement or excellence; depending on the HEI, scholars may be awarded money, accommodation rights or other privileges. At some HEIs, the term is also used to refer to bursaries offered to support those on low incomes.

Schools Large academic units in universities, typically with oversight of several academic departments or subject areas, led by a dean of School or Head of School. At some universities, a faculty may consist of several Schools; at other universities the School is the equivalent of a faculty.

Second markers Most institutions require that either a sample of students’ work or all of it is marked by a second person once the work has been marked and graded. This is to help ensure that the marking process is fair and to help maintain similar standards of marking across courses and over time. Usually, any work regarded as ‘borderline’, contentious, likely to fail or to gain especially high grades are included amongst the work that is second-marked. If the markers are not in agreement, the external examiner will be consulted.

Semester Many universities and colleges organise study over two longer semesters rather than three terms.

Seminar A taught session typical at many HEIs. These can vary in size from small groups through to 60 students or more. They tend to involve more discussion and student input than traditional lectures.

Single Honours degree A degree programme where the student studies for one main subject (such as Physics, Geography, Business or History).

Site Part of a campus. A campus could be split over several different sites.

Standards Institutions are required to set and assess work at the appropriate level for the level of study. The standard of work awarded the highest marks, grades and classifications should be broadly equivalent irrespective of the institution, course, tutor or year of study.

STEAM A term used to refer to combinations of STEM (see below) with the Arts, such as for a research project, or business enterprise.

STEM subjects Subjects in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths.

Student Union/Student Guild Offers services, club, events and campaigns, run by students for students.

Supervisor An academic member of staff who has the responsibility for overseeing and supporting students when they are working on an Undergraduate or Masters level dissertation or a Doctoral thesis. Students studying for doctorates might be allocated more than one supervisor.


TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework) An exercise for making judgements about the quality of teaching, primarily in English HEIs. Panels of academic staff from a range of institutions consider high level data such as national student satisfaction survey results and graduate employment, along with a short report written by the institution. They use these to confer a gold, silver or bronze status on the institution. Unlike some processes for evaluating teaching, the TEF does not involve direct external observation of teaching or analysis of teaching materials and practice. For more about the TEF, see

Term Some universities and many colleges organise study in three terms, similar to the school system. At Oxford and Cambridge, the terms are named Michaelmas, Hilary and Trinity.

Thesis The written piece of work produced as part of a doctoral degree. Candidates research their chosen specialism for three (or more) years and submit an extended piece of work. They are then called for a viva, where they are asked many questions about their thesis by at least two examiners. The process is described as ‘defending a thesis’. If they satisfy the examiners, they are awarded a doctorate. Otherwise, they might have the opportunity to work further on their thesis and re-submit it.

Top up year The final level of an honours degree, taken by students who have previously successfully completed a Foundation Degree.

Transcript A formal outline of study undertaken as part of your course and the marks or grades given for these, as well as the overall classification or Grade Point Average. Some institutions include other information such as skills and experience gained as part of the course of study.

Trinity Summer term at some universities.

Tutor Most teaching staff who have direct contact with students are known as tutors.

Tutorial Teaching or support offered in a relatively small group. In some HEIs, these are short sessions on an individual basis, with your personal tutor or year tutor.


Undergraduate Students are known as ‘undergraduates’ or ‘post-graduates’. When you first go to Uni or college, you are usually an undergraduate. Post-graduate study is at a higher level, such as masters degrees.

Unit At some HEIs, the year’s study is divided up into sections; these may have different names depending on the HEI; typically they are referred to as ‘modules’ or ‘units’.


Validation A formal process undertaken by awarding bodies such as UK universities to confirm the title, academic level, syllabus and standards of a course.

Vice Chancellor Usually, the chief executive officer, or equivalent, of a university. Names vary, so at some HEIs, these may be referred to as the Provost, Rector, Principal, etc.

Viva An oral examination, such as to defend a doctoral thesis.

VLE Virtual Learning Environment. Online learning space provided for organising learning resources for the university or college, typically with dedicated space for each programme of study.


Wiki An online document that can be edited by many users, following given conventions for the site. Wikipedia is one example.

Word limit Usually, a given word limit is assigned to all student assignments. This varies depending on what has been decided for the course or module, and can range from around 500 words to many thousands. Whatever the length, students should aim to complete the work close to that limit, typically within around 3-5% of the limit.


Year tutor At some HEIs, there is a designated tutor to provide oversight of the programmes and support for all students in a given year of each programme.