Study Skills

4. Part two: Get stuck in

How do you learn?

If you head to the study skills section of your local library you’ll find all sorts of theories about how people learn. Some use extremely complex terminology to describe the ways that different people like to acquire knowledge. Essentially, they’re all saying the same thing: people learn in different ways, and it pays to remember that when you’re studying. The same is true when it comes to people worshipping or engaging with sermons.

One of the most famous ways of describing different learning styles is outlined below. It is a mix of various theories about learning preferences, but owes a great deal to a paper published by Neil Fleming and Colleen Mills in 1992, “Not another inventory, rather a catalyst for reflection” (To Improve the Academy, 11 (1992), pp. 137-155):

  • Visual learners are people who like to receive information through their eyes. They will find it best to look at pictures or diagrams, and to visualise what they are learning about.
  • Auditory learners prefer to receive information through their ears. They are likely to enjoy attending lectures and seminars, and gain information by listening to the radio or a spoken-word CD.
  • Kinesthetic learners acquire knowledge using their emotions. They like to feel the truth of something, to develop a gut understanding of it. They often like to learn by talking to people about ideas, and trying to set them within the context of their own lives. 
  • Digital learners are those who work best with logic. They are often scientists or engineers – people who are used to dealing with facts and relish the chance to acquire knowledge that is not open to question.
Consider your preference

Take some time to read the information explained above. You may like to conduct a brief internet search for a bit more background information. Then think about the ways you prefer to acquire information. Can you position yourself in one of the categories outlined?

5 - 10 minutes


Understanding how you prefer to learn does not mean that you should immediately discount the chances of picking anything up when information isn’t presented in your favoured format. But it does mean that you are able to prepare more effectively when information is presented in a way that doesn’t come as naturally to you.

If you’re a visual learner, for example, you may find that a lecture on the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is a real test. By understanding this in advance, you can prepare accordingly – perhaps by undertaking some background reading in advance of the lecture, or looking at pictorial presentations of the Trinity such as Andrei Rublev’s famous icon.

The challenge of studying on a course like this is that, although we make every effort to present information in a variety of formats, you won’t always be able to learn in the way that best suits you. Knowledge is power in this regard: understand yourself, and you’ll be able to make sure you get the very best out of every learning opportunity.

Gaining knowledge, testing understanding

It’s tempting to think the process of completing your assignment portfolio is about demonstrating all the clever things you have learned as a result of your studies. To an extent, this is true, and your work will be marked according to criteria that assess the quality of your understanding. But this is an over-simplification, because assignments are about so much more than showing what you know. Let’s return to the meal conversation analogy mentioned above. In the conversation, the best participants are those who offer something up to the discussion, almost on spec, as a way of carrying it forward. It’s a bit like they’re saying: “This is what I make of the subject we’re discussing. What do others think? 

That’s how decent conversations really get going, and the conversation about God is no different. When you produce items for your portfolio, therefore, we encourage you to think of them as a contribution to a discussion – an attempt by you to move the conversation on a little, to try out ideas and find your voice.

Portfolio work isn’t principally about showing your knowledge, then; it’s about testing your understanding and applying it to your worship leading (and preaching). It’s your chance to put something out there and see what others make of it. And when the topic under discussion is God, that’s one of the most exciting things imaginable.

 Here’s a quick summary, which may help you as you prepare assignments.

Gaining knowledge is about reading, listening, watching, thinking. It’s about putting new ideas and understandings into your head and heart, so you’re better able to participate in the conversation about God.

Testing understanding involves writing, speaking, drawing, composing. It’s about expressing your ideas in a way that carries the conversation forwards, and invites a response. It is open-ended, therefore, and necessarily dialogic (meaning the assignment portfolio doesn’t end once you submit it, because it’s part of the ongoing theological conversation).

Gaining knowledge, testing understanding

Consider the poem below, written by theologian and journalist Tim Gibson.

The twenty-first century does purgatory

They sit in silence,

and wait with eager longing

for their time.

Pictures of the jungle

flicker, noiselessly, before

their eyes. And nurses,

with stripey convict gowns, 

take notes, and sup at tea.

This is their new world:

purgatory, where they count

their sins. The Priest

comes round for supper,

and counts with them.

One, two, three, four, five.

And when they have paid,

they are released. And we sigh,

and wipe our eyes,

and sleep again.

© Tim Gibson, 2014

You can listen to the poem, read by the author, here:

Tim Gibson wrote this poem in response to his experience of visiting elderly people in nursing homes and hospitals. He writes: “I was struck by the fact that society finds it easy to forget such people, and that this diminishes their humanity. But also I was struck by the idea, experienced when my own relatives have been in these places, that we come to a point where we are relieved that a loved one passes away in such circumstances, because it ends a period of intense discomfort for them, and often for us, too.”

Gaining knowledge

As you read the poem, think about its meaning. What is it trying to communicate? What is the key idea at its heart? What do you like about its rhythm, the images used, its structure? What do you find difficult in the poem, or challenging to your perceptions of the world? What theological content does the poem have?

5 minutes

Testing understanding

Now, try to produce a brief response to the poem – a response that takes the conversation forward. You may wish to write a few sentences in response to the questions outlined above. Or you could be creative and write a poem of your own, or paint a picture, or record a song. The possibilities are endless, and it’s entirely up to you what you choose to do. You may wish to share your responses in the “Explore” session, or with a friend or family member. That’s how the conversation will move on again, and you’ll be a part of it.

15 -20 minutes


Reading and comprehension

The exercise you’ve just completed is a taster of some of the work you’ll be doing in this course. It involves analysing a source, reflecting on what you make of it, and trying to set it within a wider theological framework, then testing your understanding of it by reporting your reflections – often in a creative manner.


When you put it like that, producing work for your portfolio doesn’t sound too scary at all. It is, in fact, a process that we all go through on a daily basis – of engaging with information, chewing it over in our minds, and offering our response to it.


Of course, for most of us the way we imbibe information is usually rather more straightforward than reading densely argued works of theology. But we will be doing some of that in this course (though not all the time!). So in this section, we will introduce you to the fundamentals of reading theological texts, and engaging with their content, before inviting you to put into practice what you learn.


Finding sources

First things first. If you’re going to play a part in a conversation, you need to know something about the subject matter. If you were attending a party in a new social or cultural environment, you might mug up on some things before you go on the assumption that this would give you something witty and interesting to say. You might speak with someone who is already part of this social world to see where the conversation has got to. There might be many sources you could consult; some might be more reliable than others.

When it comes to talking about God, the sources that Methodists take seriously are the Bible, tradition (such as, among other things, what the Church has taught over the centuries, theological writings, prayers and hymns), our experience of God in the world, and our collective reasoning together. Don’t get too bogged down with this right now; you’ll have plenty of time to think about it in more detail later in this module. But here are a number of reference points for you, which will equip you to orient yourself make your contribution.

 On this course, a number of those sources are signposted for you, so you won’t have to spend hours trawling library shelves to identify them. But if you want to expand your knowledge, a good place to start is by following the references (footnotes and endnotes) in the book excerpts and articles you read. They’ll be a good guide to other relevant material for the topic you’re studying, helping you to broaden your knowledge and engage with a wider variety of perspectives.

There’s one more thing to say about finding sources for producing pieces of portfolio work, and it has to do with their reliability. One of the disciplines of academic study is having your work examined and critiqued by other people. It happens at every level, and is a way of ensuring the quality of what’s produced. When you’re selecting sources, then, it pays to look for those that are clearly involved in this process: ones, that is, which make good reference to other texts, have credibility, and are referenced by other people.

This doesn’t quite argue against using internet sources, but it does underscore the wisdom of handling them cautiously. If you go online for information, check that it has come from a reliable source, perhaps by clicking on the ‘About us’ link and viewing the credentials of the writer, or by evaluating the extent to which it draws on other, trustworthy, sources. Further advice is available here. The same goes for books and articles: check that they are reputable and reliable.

Engaging with a source

Okay, so you’re sat at your desk with a pile of (trustworthy!) books and papers beside you, just waiting to be read. Remember that list of things that might prompt you to put things off? Now’s the time to fish it out and make sure you’re not tempted by any of these distractions.

Got the washing on? Peeled the carrots for dinner? Cleaned the car? Right then, let’s get going.

It can seem daunting to be faced with a number of different sources and have to work your way through them. But once you get going, you’ll find it’s easy to build up a head of steam. You want to be sure you’re really engaging with the material, which is why note-taking (see below) is so important.

Engaging with a source involves more than simply reading it. You need to read it actively, asking questions about its meaning, and about what you make of it, and how it relates to the other things you’re reading in this field. Remember what you did when engaging with Tim Gibson’s poem? You probed it, wrestled with it, lived with it, so that you could offer a genuinely insightful response to it. That’s what engagement means – it requires you to be active, not passive … and that’s exactly why you need to do it in the best possible environment for your concentration.

Taking notes

You’re unlikely to take much in from a text unless you have some means of recording what it says and your responses to it. Note-taking, broadly construed, is one of the most important study skills you can develop, because it provides the raw material for your assignments.

There are lots of ways to take notes, and your preference may well have something to do with your favoured learning style. A visual learner, for example, might like to draw pictures and diagrams to help them store and process information, while an auditory learner may want to record their reflections and listen to them later.

If you’re writing notes, adopt whatever method works best for you. You may want to try a few techniques from the list below. You’ll quickly discover which one is your favourite.

  • Write detailed notes: Write longhand notes about whatever you’re reading, recording the main points and using different colours or quotation marks to identify direct quotations from the source (this is important in avoiding plagiarism, of which more below). It uses a lot of paper, and can be time consuming; but it means you have a detailed record of what you’ve read. Clearly distinguish in your notes between what the author has said and what you made of it, to refer to when the time comes to produce a piece of work for your assignment. There’s an important caveat to this approach, though; the clue is in the word ‘notes’. Try to resist the urge simply to copy everything you’re reading – it will take forever, and won’t give you a chance to digest the information. Go for the main points.
  • Trigger words/phrases: If you have a good memory, you may find it sufficient to write a list of words that will enable you to recall the content of your reading when you revisit your notes. If you’re canny, you’ll also include page numbers for your sources, so you can quickly go back to particular sections and lift quotations from them for use in your portfolio work. 
  • Draw a mind map: Start with a blank piece of paper. Write a word or two to remind you about the first topic or idea you encounter in a source. Continue to do this with subsequent topics and ideas, drawing lines to connect those that seem to relate to each other. You can add further commentary along these lines, perhaps highlighting other sources that make a similar point. By the end, you’ll have a large picture that shows you how your sources interrelate, enabling you to cluster ideas and order your thoughts. To see some examples, click here.
  • Write on your sources: Some people find it sufficient simply to highlight or underline key passages in their sources, and write notes in the margins to jog their memory of relevant thoughts. It depends on you owning the books and papers, of course. And it does make it harder to see connections between different sources, or organise your own thoughts. Even so, it’s good if you’re on a train or in a café, with limited room. 

Avoiding plagiarism

Plagiarism is something you definitely want to avoid. It involves passing somebody else’s work off as your own, and in the majority of cases, it’s committed completely by accident.

Of course, there are some people who willfully steal other people’s material, and that simply can’t be tolerated. These are people who download essays from the internet, or rip off whole chunks of text from books without attributing them. And they almost always get found out.

But there’s another variety that is slightly more common, and it results from poor study skills rather than a desire to mislead.

It’s easy to see what happens … a student includes quotations from the sources they’re reading while taking notes. Sometimes that’s because the content seems so good they want to record it, but they forget to make it clear that it’s not their own words. Sometimes it’s because they don’t realise they’re copying down the content word for word; it doesn’t even occur to them that they’re not putting it into their own words.

Then, when they revisit their notes to produce a piece of work for their portfolio, they’re struck by the elegance and precision of their expression, and so repeat it wholesale in their own work. And the trouble is, the words aren’t their own, and the marker spots the mistake.

Even though it’s unintentional, this error counts as plagiarism. So it really is best avoided, by paying very careful attention to your notes, and making it clear to yourself when you’ve quoted directly from someone else.

Here’s a tip: have three different colours of pen to hand when you’re writing your notes. Use one colour to record the main points the author is making in your own words, and another colour when you copy a quote from a source. [Then, in brackets, note the source, including the author, title and page number, immediately after the quotation]. Using a third colour, write your own ideas and questions or connections you are making as you read. That way, when you come back to your notes, you’ll be able to see at a glance which parts are direct quotations that must be attributed in your text, and which parts are your own summaries of the author’s ideas which you can legitimately use as they are, and which parts are your own ideas and questions.

(NB You don’t have to follow a standard form of referencing in this course, but please be consistent.)

Practice makes perfect

Here’s the chance to put your new-found skills to the test. The exercise below is a reading comprehension task that will enable you to practise taking notes, then using them to write an analysis of a source. Allow for a break (preferably overnight) between the two.

Read the following extract (you will find this excerpt in the Module Reader): David H Kelsey, Imagining redemption (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), pp. 16-19.

While you’re reading the extract, which explores different understandings of ‘redemption’ in contemporary language, use your favoured note-taking technique to record your interaction with the text. Include direct quotations that you can use in the writing task, below.


20 minutes

Writing task

If you have time, take a break of at least one night.

Now revisit your notes from before, and try to write up to 500 words summarising Kelsey’s discussion, using your notes as your guide. You should include quotations from the source where appropriate, as well as expressing the ideas in your own words. If you’re feeling brave, you may also like to offer a critique of his discussion – saying which parts you agree and disagree with, and what you think its theological significance might be.

As a final task, show what you’re written to another person – someone in your church, perhaps, or a friend or family member. Ask if they can understand Kelsey’s points by reading your summary of them, and if they can get a sense of what you made of them. If they say ‘yes’, congratulations! You’re well on the way to being equipped for the task of producing an assignment. And if they say ‘no’, try the exercise again, spending a bit more time reading the extract and taking notes. And remember – you’ll get there in the end. It’s just a question of practice.

20 minutes

Plagiarism and cultural sensitivity

In some cultures people find it hard to understand and accept the concept of plagiarism, especially if value is attached in a particular culture to memorization and repetition of learning without alteration. It has even been suggested that the concept of plagiarism is a ‘culturally-based, Western concept’ (see, for example, Tatum S. Adiningrum, ‘How different are we? Understanding and managing plagiarism between East and West’, Journal of Academic Language and Learning, 5, 2 (2011) A88-A98 - please note: we're not expecting you to read this article now, but this is one place where you could follow up this idea. If you are puzzled by the idea of plagiarism we recommend that you have a conversation about it with your tutor.

What next?

In this section, you’ve developed an understanding of your preferred way of learning, and explored the difference between gaining knowledge and testing understanding. By seeing your portfolio work as a contribution to the conversation about God, we hope you feel enthused by it, rather than anxious.

You’ve learnt how to locate sources and engage with them, how to take notes that guide you when you revisit them to produce an assignment for your portfolio, and how to ensure you don’t accidentally commit plagiarism. Finally, you’ve tested your skills in reading and comprehension, before producing a brief summary of a theological source. We hope that’s given you a taste for writing. In the next section, we’ll explore how to develop this skill.