Dept of Earth and Planetary Sciences | Current students | Hints on how to study geology at Birkbeck
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Hints on how to study geology at Birkbeck

It's not really possible to tell students how to study a subject - we all approach studying in different ways. The following is a collection of hints, ideas and information suggested by our academics that you may find helpful.

You and your lectures

  • The purpose of studying a topic is:
    • to gain knowledge
    • to improve your understanding of your chosen subject
    • to increase your interest in the subject
  • As a result of your study, you should feel more confident and gain a sense of satisfaction from mastering the topic.
  • Many students have difficulties in understanding a subject a first. If you find this is the case - Don’t Panic! - be positive and determined to overcome the initial difficulties.
  • Perhaps the lecturer goes too fast or speaks too quietly; then have a private word with him/her after the lecture.
  • If your interest is not captured by the lecture, look the topic up in the recommended textbook, and if this is still no better, look in other textbooks.
  • Sometimes you will need to look in elementary textbooks because you have not really grasped the basic ideas.
  • If you are still lost, ask your tutor for help.
  • A particular problem in first-year geology is the new vocabulary and the jargon. There are several very good Dictionaries of Geology available now (see the Departmental Pamphlet: Description of Courses: Introduction to Geology). Get access to one of them.
  • Most lecturers do not mind being interrupted during the course of a lecture, but do not ask too many questions because other members of the class may become impatient with you.
  • Lecturers are always available to be consulted outside lecture hours - do not be afraid to ask them.

Study basics: at home

  • As a Birkbeck student you already have (probably) a full-time job to do, domestic commitments (if only to yourself) and, now, a programme of study to fit into your life. Most of us benefit from a routine, because it is usually an efficient way of getting things done.
  • The first thing to do, therefore, is to set aside a time, or times to study during the weekend and those evenings when you are not attending College. Once you have evolved a pattern which suits you and your dependants and friends, do your utmost to stick to it. The key to success at Birkbeck is:
    • Regular study.
    • A little, but often.
    • The basic pattern of studying a subject can be summarised as:
    • Think Plan Organise Read Write Revise
  • So you need to
    • think about, and identify, what tasks you have to do;
    • organise your spare time to tackle those tasks;
    • read your lecture notes, textbooks and references;
    • write, re-write, or add to, your notes;
    • revise again, and again, and again.

Study basics: at College

  • Try to attend all lectures and make good notes.
  • Try to attend all practical classes, read the background information.
  • Do not be afraid to discuss problems with fellow students and staff to find answers to your problems. Remember, especially, that the demonstrators are paid to help you in practical classes.
  • Keep up-to-date with your work.
  • Do not put off till tomorrow or next week/month what you ought to do today. This is easier said than done and requires you to be strong willed and dedicated to making the very best of your ability. Only you can learn and get to grips with the work - for it is your own responsibility. It is too late to be angry and depressed with yourself when you receive your examination marks and you have not done as well as you could have done.

Making lecture notes

  • You should keep a neat set of lecture notes. Some students prefer to use a ring folder for their notes, where others prefer a notebook.
  • Whichever you decide, many students find it helpful to leave the left-hand page blank so that additional notes can be added from textbooks etc. at a later date where you think your notes are insufficient.
  • Do not use narrow line paper because the page soon looks a jumble of tiny scrawl and becomes difficult and time-consuming to decipher. It can also be an advantage to write only on alternate lines. Keep a list of abbreviations that are commonly used in geology; do not invent your own except for your personal use when taking lecture notes.
  • Always record the title of the topic, who gave the lecture and the date the lecture was given. This information may save you time if you encounter a problem when you are revising for an examination.
  • A good set of lecture notes should:
    • show the extent of the topic
    • show the level and depth of the subject
    • emphasize and illustrate important points
    • explain difficult points
    • show examples
    • give the lecturer’s interpretation of geological evidence (this may be different from that found in textbooks)
  • To achieve these targets you should record
    • the main points as they occur
    • brief summaries of the important details
    • all relevant examples given
    • simple sketches (do not waste time carefully drawing detailed diagrams, graph and sections, because you may miss important points raised by the lecturer, and detailed illustrations can often be found in textbooks)
    • definitions, especially those dictated or written by the lecturer
    • references to books and journals that can be looked up in the library or at home
  • Most lecturers give hand-outs of important sets of data, graphs, maps, sections and complicated diagrams. Do not waste time during a lecture frantically copying detail from the board or projector screen. Instead, listen and concentrate on what is being said, and record the title of the information and comments about the illustrations used by the lecturer. Sometimes a word, keyword or a short phrase will be sufficient; but ideas and concepts often need a sentence or two which can be expanded at a later stage after the lecture, perhaps using your textbooks to amplify the information. If necessary a diagram can also be copied into your notes from a textbook.

Step-by-step notes

  • This is the most commonly used method of making notes in science because scientific details tend to unfold in a logical and sequential order; the first step is necessary before the next can be understood and learnt. So when you make notes about a geological topic it is often helpful to number each paragraph.

Expanding your notes

  • As soon as possible after a lecture, say the next weekend, read through your notes and make any corrections, simplifications or helpful additions from textbooks. Do not leave this process of reviewing and organising your notes until just before the examinations; it is too late then.

Choosing textbooks

  • Your copy of the Departmental Pamphlet Description of Courses contains a list of recommended textbooks.
  • Before you buy a textbook, however, check with the lecturer concerned that the text is still strongly recommended for the course in question. A better text may have been published since the last revision of the pamphlet. Before borrowing an unlisted book from the library, ask yourself the following questions:
    • Is the book sufficiently up-to-date for your purpose? Look at the date it was published on the inside cover.
    • Is it at the right level for your course or the stage of your course?
    • Does it contain the information you need? Look at the table of contents or the index.
    • Is the book likely to be generally useful to you?

Making notes from a textbook

  • Read the passage through first before you write anything. Make short notes, recording important words, phrases or a sentence to summarise a paragraph. For important detailed passages and detailed diagrams note the page number.
  • Do not waste time re-drawing complicated diagrams, copying out long paragraphs or complete tables of figures, but note the pattern or trends of values in tables. Try to store as much information in your memory as you can.


  • Time in the evening at Birkbeck is limited so make good use of the time set aside for practical classes. Do not waste your own and that of the lecturer’s time by failing to do problems or the practical tasks set by the lecturer by the date required. It is not always easy to assess how you are getting on unless you complete the work set, and have it marked.
  • Make use of the expertise of any demonstrators (as well as the lecturer) during practical classes. Use the time to raise any questions you may have about the substance of the lecture which preceded the practical class. Try not to be inhibited about asking questions. If there is something which you have not understood, either in the practical class or the preceding lecture, you can be sure that the same goes for others too.
  • Lecturers are willing to help students individually, but please make an appointment with the lecturer, and do not waste the lecturer’s time by not turning up.


  • We all need to memorise things from time to time and very few people have a photographic memory. Shakespearian actors have a formidable task and usually learn their lines by going over them again and again until they are word-perfect.
  • In the same way, many stratigraphical sequences, mineral formulae etc. have to be learned exactly; repeating them aloud (as if you were an actor) several times a day will help.
  • You should also use a pad to sketch essential diagrams because much can be encapsulated in a well-drawn, accurately labelled diagram. Most answers to geological questions require such diagrams.


  • You must concentrate when you learn and are trying to commit something to memory.
  • How long can you concentrate? You will probably find that it varies from day to day and from topic to topic. If you are interested in what you are doing you will not notice how the time flies by, but if you find yourself losing interest then take a break - or change to another topic.
  • Do not have the radio or TV on at the same time. The brain is distracted by the sound and you are not using your mental faculties to the maximum. Thirty minutes of quiet, concentrated study is far better than 60 minutes only half concentrating.

Memorising geological facts, theories and models

  • In recent years some educators have tried to make us believe that it is bad to ask students to spend time memorising things. BUT you cannot be a useful member of the scientific community UNLESS you have taken the trouble to MEMORISE a fairly large body of scientific information. Imagine how you would lose confidence in the ability of your medical practitioner if he had to refer to his medical books every time you went to see him.
  • The field of geology is very broad and it takes time to gain the perspective which comes from the acquisition of a wide body of geological knowledge.

What questions will appear in the examination?

  • As a general rule this year’s examination questions will look very much like last year’s, so have a look at the last few years’ papers for the same course-unit, and try to do the questions as soon as you feel able. Hand them in to a lecturer so that he can mark them and tell you how well you did. Previous examination papers in geology are kept in the Birkbeck Library and can be accessed online via the library website.
  • Most module examinations in geology consist of a theory paper and a practical paper. The two papers carry equal marks so your mark for a particular module unit will be the average of the two. In other words, practical classes are just as important as lecture/seminar classes, so do not be tempted to leave practical classes early or - worse still - skip them altogether.

Written work

  • Take a pride in your written work; write clearly and legibly. A scientist is frequently required to communicate with other people either verbally or in writing. A scribbled, half-legible, untidy piece of work creates the impression of a careless person who does not think sufficiently about his/her work.


  • Study Leave: Some employers will give part-time students paid leave to revise for examinations or indeed at other times during their courses to complete practical and fieldwork projects. Your lecturers and tutors may be able to help you arrange this by writing support letters; do not be afraid to ask.
  • Revising for examinations
  • Examinations in geology module units reflect the modules taught. You will not be asked questions on topics which have not been covered during the modules. However, increasingly after the first year of the course students are expected to read around the topics discussed in lectures and practical classes, and examiners will be looking for evidence of this and giving credit accordingly.
  • Unless you have a photographic memory you should plan and start your revision for examinations several months ahead - January is not too early.
  • Think about which days of the week and at what time of the day you could set aside about an hour for revision.
  • Draw up a revision timetable and allow at least a month to revise the work for each module.
  • Split up each module-unit into topics and estimate how much time you will need to revise each. The timetable should show what you intend to revise on a given day/evening throughout each week.
  • The following is a useful basic plan for revising:
    • Read carefully the notes you have made from lectures and textbooks and journals. Try to form a picture of the pages of your notes in your mind.
    • Read the questions that a lecturer has previously set on the topic you are about to revise. This will help you to establish what is very important.
    • Memorise difficult parts, and try to devise logical thought pathways so that once you have remembered the start of a pathway the steps flow back into the mind without too much effort.
    • After sorting out how you will remember something, put your notes on one side and try to write down as much as you can of what you have been studying. If you have forgotten a step, look at your notes again to refresh your memory.
    • Before starting the next session of revision, write down the essential facts of the work you had revised last time. Look again at your notes for the work you have forgotten. Do not be disheartened because you seem to have forgotten so much. A concert pianist has to practise every day for weeks before the works to be played have been completely committed to memory.
    • You will need to go over the work time and time again. The memory is like a water-storage cistern - it needs to be constantly topped up if it is to supply your needs.

Examination technique

  • Before the examination day: You should make sure you know how long the examination lasts, and how many questions you will be expected to answer in the time. Suppose you will be asked to answer 3 questions in 2 hours; then you should allow 35 minutes to answer each question leaving 5 minutes to check through your answer to correct mistakes, and add additional information that reading through has reminded you about.
  • Collect together:
    • a pen and a spare
    • a pencil and a spare or a sharpener
    • coloured pencils
    • an eraser
    • a ruler
    • your examination entry card with your candidate number
  • If you are allowed to use a calculator, make sure that the batteries are in good condition or are recharged ready for use.
  • Nearly all candidates suffer from pre-exam nerves, and you should not subject yourself to additional stress on the morning of the examination trying to find things you need to take with you.
  • Make sure you know where the examination will be held and when the examination begins.
  • The examination itself:
    • Write clearly - try not to scribble illegibly. A scribbled examination answer may earn less marks than if it had been written legibly simply because the examiner cannot read your writing.
    • Try to write something in answer to the question set. Even if you do not know very much about a question write what little you do know with care; every single mark that you earn counts towards the total!
    • Read the instructions at the top of the exam paper to make sure how many questions you are required to answer. It is also worth checking that you have been given the correct exam paper! Turn it over to make sure that you will read all the questions.
  • Read all of the questions first - carefully before making up your mind which to tackle. As you read each question it sometimes helps to jot down a few words or sketches that immediately come into your mind. These jottings will assist you to decide which questions you know most about, and help you to form a rough plan of your answer either in your mind or on the script.
  • Decide which question to answer first and, before writing anything, make sure that you understand what is required. Try to put yourself in the mind of the examiner to establish what he/she is actually asking.
  • If the question requires an essay-style answer then first of all make a skeleton plan of your answer. Most essays require
    • an opening statement, or introduction
    • a logical development, utilising facts and diagrams (evidence)
    • a conclusion
  • So take a few minutes to list the logical steps and the accompanying diagrams (if needed). Each step will probably become a paragraph; your answer should be an expansion of the skeleton. Write legibly, in good English. Reinforce the answer with labelled diagrams and suitable examples.
  • Answer the question on the paper and not one that you had expected and would have liked to have been asked.
  • Keep your eye on the time and when the time you have allowed for a question has passed you should finish the answer as quickly as possible even if you haven’t included all the relevant information. There may be time at the end of the examination to finish the question to your complete satisfaction.
  • Read through what you have written to make sure that what you have written is what you intended to write. Then go on to choose your second question.
  • The rate at which marks are scored for a question is often very high for the first 15 minutes of writing, but usually decreases rapidly as the time runs out. Bear in mind that it is easier to score 50% on a question that you feel you do not know enough about, than to score 95% on a question that you think you know everything that is required.
  • If you are asked to attempt 3 questions and you only feel confident with 2 you should always make an attempt at a 3rd question, even if you only write a few lines.
  • Start each answer on a new page of the answer book and write the number of the question at the top of every page. Do not take any notice of other candidates who are collecting supplementary answer books when you have only reached the middle of your answer book. These are usually the students who have not organised their thoughts logically, and leave several blank pages after attempting a question in the hope that they may remember some more.
  • Do not waste time using various colours for drawing diagrams unless it is necessary to make a part of the diagram clear.
  • You should not leave the examination room (unless you feel unwell) until the end of the examination time. Go over your work carefully to see if you can recall any additional information that would add to your answers.
  • If you are asked to write short notes about a number of topics then your answer may be in note form, but take care that, in being brief, what you have written makes sense and provides all the information that the examiner requires. Short notes can often be amplified by the use of relevant, labelled diagrams.
  • Answers to calculations should show clearly the method used step by step. Always summarise the final answer to the question and remember to include the units of the quantity if appropriate.
  • Avoid using abbreviations except the common ones such as e.g., i.e. Do not use etc. (etcetera) because it suggests that you do not really know any more but are trying to give the impression that you do. Instead, start a list of examples with the word including or for example.

Faults in writing answers

  • Inadequate knowledge of the subject.
  • Remedy: Revise, revise, revise.
  • Failure to understand what the question is about.
  • Remedy: Read the question carefully and several times before writing your answer.
  • Including irrelevant material.
  • Remedy: Sometimes caused by not reading the question carefully, but often used by students to pad out an inadequate knowledge of the subject.
  • Lack of examples to support the statements you have made.

What do your marks mean?

  • Question papers are marked independently by two internal examiners and a mark is agreed for each question. Papers are then moderated by an external examiner.
  • The honours bands of marks are:
    • 1st class: 70% and over
    • 2(i): 60-69%
    • 2(ii): 50-59%
    • 3rd: 40-49%
    • Fail: under 40%

Aim high

  • With good planning, mature Birkbeck students are capable of getting good honours degrees.