Academic Notes


These notes are intended principally for 1st year undergraduates, to help you prepare your first essay. They are not meant to be prescriptive: there is no ‘right’ way to study and you will evolve your own methods during your time here. But these notes draw on the experience of previous year groups and may be a useful starting point in planning your work.


You will be expected to read considerably more at university than will have been the case at school, so you will need to establish good working patterns in order to get through the volume of reading. But you will also need to develop good techniques, in order to make the most of the time available.

What to Read

Reading lists usually contain three types of material:

Textbooks or general overviews. These are designed to give you an introduction to the subject. They are often a good place to start, so that you have a framework into which you can insert the more specialised literature. But make sure you do not limit yourself to this kind of material. Though they are usually the easiest things to read, they are inevitably somewhat “broad brush” and may not give you a sense of current historical debates.

Monographs. These are research-heavy volumes on specialist subjects: eg D. Cameron, Oxford Social Clubs and Conservative Politics, 1985-1988. Students sometimes steer clear of these volumes because of their bulk. This is a pity, because the best monographs will define the state of the debate in their field. It is not usually necessary to read them from cover to cover: your lecturers may direct you to particular chapters, and you can also use the index to find the parts most relevant to your needs. “Gutting” a monograph is a valuable academic skill: often the introduction and conclusion are most useful (except where the former simply survey the specialist literature). Focus on the argument and interpretation on offer, while looking out for key pieces of evidence that support or problematise those arguments.

Research articles – e.g. E. Miliband, ‘Labour Politics and the One Nation Tradition’, Journal of Political Cross-Dressing (2012). These usually address precise aspects of a topic – e.g. religious responses to an imperial crisis – and sometimes take the form of debates over several issues. They represent the main activity of most research historians and are the form in which most new research is published.

Resist the temptation to ignore the suggested reading in favour of wikipedia articles, school books or textbooks that seem to give more direct answers. Module convenors put a lot of care into drawing up their reading lists and will have identified these items as especially important. Having said that, do tell your lecturers if you have found other material that you think could usefully be added to a bibliography.

Above all, remember that what you read is only as important as how you read.

How to Read

Reading should always be active: rather than faithfully copying down the pearls of wisdom on the page, you should come to the text with questions in mind. What is the author’s central argument? How do they support that argument with evidence – and do you find it compelling? How does their argument differ from other things you have read? How might we explain that difference? (It is rarely simply the case that one author is right and the other wrong.) The more you read, the more you will generate new questions – and you should use these questions to chart a course through the reading list. After reading an introduction to the empire, for example, you might want to explore how people justified colonial rule, or why enthusiasm for empire varied over time. Were some classes more ‘imperial’ than others? Were men more likely to be imperialists than women? Use those questions to guide you through the reading list and the monograph literature. Be critical: ‘Saunders says X’ is not a compelling argument, for Saunders may be an idiot. Does Saunders persuade you of his argument? If so, how? Good reading should be like a conversation; it is not a passive activity.

Do not throw away your reading lists after the seminar! Make a note of what you have and have not read, and anything that your lecturers or seminar partners have suggested for further reading. You will find this invaluable when you come to revise the topic later on.

Taking Notes

It is essential that you take good notes on your reading – you will need them when you come to prepare for your exams and when you write your coursework. But it’s important that you don’t simply copy out what is in front of you: your notes should be part of an active engagement with your reading. You should also resist the temptation to take too many notes – you are scholars, not stenographers! It is usually best to read an article or a chapter all the way through, before taking notes. When you have done that, try to distil the overall argument: what has the author been trying to say? Look for key pieces of evidence that they have used to support that argument. What kinds of ideas or prejudices might lie behind the text? Does the author have an obvious ‘bias’? This need not be a ‘political’ bias – it might mean a preference for some kinds of sources over others, or an assumption that, say, ideas are more important than economic forces in driving change.

As you take notes, keep your essay question in mind. What issues do you need to think about in order to answer it, and how might the reading help with that? It can be useful to create a separate document of ‘thoughts’, where you can jot down ideas or questions as you go along.

Make sure that your notes are always clearly labelled with the name of the author, the full title and page numbers. This will help with referencing and will reduce the danger of unintended plagiarism [copying].

Writing Essays

There is no single way to write a good essay. Everyone has a different style, and I hope that you will experiment with and develop your essay technique over the next three years. There are, however, some good practices that you may find helpful.


(1) Plan your essay. If you follow the guidance above on note-taking, this should start to develop naturally while you read. As you identify the key themes and issues in a topic, as you break down the questions within your essay title, the skeleton of an essay plan should start to emerge. You will then need to set aside a good period of time to firm up that plan and to go back over your notes looking for evidence. Planning is essential to a well-structured essay.

(2) Allow plenty of time to write. You should also build in time to re-read and revise what you have written, preferably after a break in which you can clear your head. If you come back to your essay with fresh eyes, you will find it easier to identify weak points in the argument and unnecessary material that can be cut.

(3) Always check for spelling and grammar – especially those things a spell-check will miss. Common errors include “it’s/ its” and “principle/ principal”. “It’sonly takes an apostrophe when it is short for “it is” – and you would rarely abbreviate in this way in a formal piece of work. “Principle” is a noun while “principal” is an adjective: so “I believe in the principle of ‘no taxation without representation’”; but “my principal goal is to get my essay in on time”. “Less” applies to a single quantity; “fewer” to a number of items. So “Margaret Thatcher won fewer votes than John Major as Prime Minister, but Major enjoyed less support in the press”. A recent addition to the lexicon of doom is “abolishment”; “abolition” is rather more elegant.

(4) Always, always, always hand in your essay on time. If you are sick or circumstances make it impossible to submit the essay on time, you must inform your tutor and advisor by email as soon as possible.

It can be a good idea to read your essay out loud to yourself before handing it in. This is a very effective way to check for errors and to remove convoluted prose. If you find yourself running out of oxygen, it’s time to insert a full stop.


Always have an introduction and a conclusion. A good introduction can take many forms, but it should give the essay a clear sense of direction. You might, for example, use it to open up the question, identifying key issues and setting out the structure of the argument. Or you may have a good quotation or incident that illustrates the complexities of the problem you are about to address. Avoid grand statements of the obvious (“Religion was very important to the Victorians, and they often disagreed about it”) and dictionary definitions (“The Oxford English Dictionary defines “religion” as…”).

A well structured essay should not need a lengthy conclusion, but it can be useful to draw out your main lines of argument. A reader should be able to summarise briefly and clearly the argument of the essay; the conclusion helps them to do this.

Focus on the question set. An essay title such as, “How successfully did organised religion respond to the challenge of evolutionary science?” is not an invitation to write a general discussion of religion in the 19th century. It asks a specific question – within which lurks a set of subsidiary questions: ‘what was the challenge of evolutionary science?’; ‘how did religious organisations respond?’ (remembering that different groups might respond in different ways, at different points in time); ‘what would be our criteria for “success”?

Make an argument. By the end of the essay, you should not simply have discussed these issues; you should have offered a clear answer. It should be possible to sum up the argument of your essay in four or five sentences – and this can be a useful exercise to set yourself. Seminar leaders may ask students to sum up their essays at the start of a class. A good response will summarise what the student has argued (eg ‘the Church accommodated the challenge to the Book of Genesis by reinterpreting the creation stories as parables, but struggled to explain the evolution of the soul’). A weak response will list what the student has talked about (“I had a page on Darwin, then a paragraph about Wilberforce, then a bit on ghosts”).

Don’t just list ‘factors’. In a sense, the answer to almost any historical question is, “it was a variety of factors”. But for that reason, you need to go further. How would you put those factors in order? How do they relate to one another? Take, for example, the causes of the First World War. Important factors might include the naval race between Britain and Germany; the break up of the Ottoman Empire; the rise of the Social Democratic Party in Germany; the ‘Blank Cheque’ to Austria; the French desire for revenge after defeat by Germany in 1870; bad military planning; and so on. But would Germany have been so keen to challenge British naval domination if its government wasn’t so unpopular at home? Would Austria have needed a ‘blank cheque’ if its border had not been destabilized by the break up of the Turkish empire? Think about the interplay between different factors, rather than simply listing them – and try to decide which you think most important.

Similarly, don’t just regurgitate the arguments on both sides of a question. An essay is not a literature review. Students often write things like this: ‘Dr Bieber argues that church attendance was in decline over the 19th Century. Professor Green, by contrast, suggests that it was rising. Either way, some people went to church’. It’s good to show awareness of both sides of an argument – indeed, this is essential – but where possible, you should also show which side you agree with or how the two views might be brought together.

Don’t panic! An essay is always ‘a work in progress’; it could always be better with a little more time. It’s a developing skill and will continue to evolve right through the course.

If you have trouble organising your essays, you could try a technique called ‘marginalia’. Go through your essay with a pen, and write in the margins a short summary of each paragraph. E.g. ‘the case for reform’; ‘the case against reform’; ‘changes over the period’. If your essay is well structured, this will be easy. If the argument is jumbled up, that will show in your marginalia – and you’ll see bits that would be better placed elsewhere. I’ve found this technique helpful and still use it when writing for publication.


Some tutors will ask you to footnote all your work; others will not. My own view is that it is a good habit to get into. It prepares you for assessed work later in the course; it makes it easier for you to look things up again when you come to revise; and it guards against unintended plagiarism. The standard Queen Mary system runs as follows:

J.K. Rowling, The Casual Vacancy (London: Little Brown, 2012), p. 55. Note that the title only is italicised and that both the place of publication and the publisher (Little Brown) are given.

E. Presley, ‘Well Bless My Soul, What’s Wrong With Me?’ Journal of Shakin’ Studies, 46/4 (1969), p. 7. The title of the article appears in inverted commas, the journal title in italics, followed by the volume number and year.

Book Chapters
A. Mitchell, ‘Oops, I Did It Again’ in P. Plod (ed), Politicians and the Police (London: Cops Press, 2012).

Footnotes should appear at the end of a sentence, not in the middle.

Do not use too many footnotes. You do not need to footnote everything! Simple statements of fact – eg ‘The British Empire was the largest in the world, covering a quarter of the earth’s surface at its peak’ – do not need to be attributed. Only give a footnote if:
(i) You are using a quotation.
(ii) You are taking detailed information that a reader might wish to check (‘47% of Bavarian fishwives had two left feet’); or
(iii) You are borrowing someone else’s argument and wish to give credit.


Seminars are not lectures: they are not about the transmission of knowledge from the seminar leader to you. They are a chance for you to talk to one another and to pool ideas. They also provide an opportunity to discuss the work you have done that week; to tackle any difficult issues that have come up in the course of your reading; and to pursue some lines of argument that have particularly caught your eye. Your seminar leader may have issues they wish to address, but you should also come with things that you would like to talk about. Make a note of anything you found particularly interesting or hard to understand; anything you would like to pursue further; or any arguments you would like to explore.

You are likely to learn as much from the other students in your seminar as you do from the lecturer. Always listen carefully and courteously to what your colleagues have to say: a semianr is not a competition and it is not an opportunity to show off. Feel free to disagree – your lecturer may play ‘devil’s advocate’, to present you with a different way of thinking. But never reject an idea without thinking it through.

Bring a pen and paper to the seminar, as you may find it useful to jot down some points or some suggested reading. But you should not spend the bulk of the seminar writing. As with lectures, it may be better to make more detailed notes afterwards, when you have processed the discussion as a whole.

As long as you have done the reading, you should never feel embarrassed about what you don’t know or don’t understand. Anyone who finds history simple is missing something.


You should attend all the lectures for your module. The lectures will give you a broad coverage of the period and will offer different interpretations to your seminar leaders. You should always be trying to fit your individual topics into a larger understanding of the period, and lectures will help provide that framework.

Do not try to write down everything the lecturer is saying. You may wish to note down the structure of the argument and any particularly interesting facts or quotations. But it is more important that you are listening and thinking, and for this reason you may wish to take fuller notes afterwards. As an exercise, it can be worth trying to identify the three most interesting thoughts or ideas that came out of the lecture. Think of the lectures as a jumping-off point. What do you want to know more about as a consequence? What further reading might you wish to do?

Thinking Across Topics

It can be tempting to think of each topic as a completely separate enterprise. That tendency should be resisted, for these topics are means not ends. The goal, over the module, is not to have several topics that you know something about, but to have a good understanding of the period as a whole. Your seminar topics are like bore-holes: you use them to drill down into the period. So you should always be looking for connections between your individual topics, and between seminars and lectures. This will give you a much more sophisticated grasp of the period and will expand the range of questions you can answer in an exam.

Time Management

This is one of the biggest challenges of your time at university, but it is absolutely essential to academic success. London is a Babylon of temptations – from sports clubs and social activities to friends popping around for a coffee. No one will be standing over you with a stop-watch, and whole mornings and afternoons can easily slip by without notice.

We want you to have an active social life and to do interesting things outside of work. But it is essential that you mark out plenty of good study time, so that you can relax with a clear conscience outside those boundaries. If you had a job, you would expect to be at work from 9 to 5 every weekday. This can be a good starting point. If you take Wednesday afternoon off to play football, or spend a couple of hours in a friend’s room one morning, be sure to make up that time elsewhere.

Find a place where you are able to work without interruption. If you have a Facebook addiction or check your email every 30 seconds, go to the library and leave your laptop in your room.

For most of your time here, you will have to balance a number of different modules simultaneously. Make sure that you are looking down the road, so that you are prepared for deadlines before they arise.

Communicating with your Advisor

As your advisors, we have a special responsibility for your academic progress and pastoral welfare. We will try to give help whenever and wherever we can. It would help us enormously, however, if you would follow a few simple guidelines:

(1) Check your email regularly, and always respond to email and other communications. There are few things more annoying than having to chase students up.

(2) Be on time for all meetings and tutorials and submit all work by the deadline agreed.

(3) If you need a reference, a letter of introduction or a signature on a form, notify us in plenty of time. We are almost always happy to write references, but not at 24 hours notice!

(4) Be honest. If you have mismanaged your time and missed a deadline, say so; do not concoct printer breakdowns, motorway pile-ups or mysterious illnesses. The bond of trust between tutors and students is an important one and can be difficult to repair once broken.


Don’t be daunted by all this! No one has ever written the perfect essay, and few of the big questions of history are susceptible to a definitive answer. Everyone here, from first years to professors, is constantly learning. You all have tremendous potential, and as long as you work hard and make the most of the opportunities available to you, you will make a success of your time. We are really looking forward to working with you, and would be glad to know of anything we can do to help.

Robert Saunders (updated 2013)