About a year ago, I posted this shortlist of things I wish I’d known before doing my master’s degree. I’ve just shared these learnings, plus some more ideas that have occurred to me since then, at the English UK teachers’ conference.
And in the spirit of sharing top tips, I asked a colleague of mine from my MA to contribute a guest post to this blog with her own ideas. So here it is!
Guest author: Laura Laubacher
I am a teacher at Embassy English in London Greenwich. I also do a bit of teacher technology training and some examining work as well. I completed an MA in ELT and Applied Linguistics from King’s College London in 2012. I blog at http://eltlaura.wordpress.com/ and I tweet as @LaubacherLaura.
1. How to read
I totally agree with the point in your original blog post that the sheer amount of reading is intimidating and time consuming. I had no idea how much time it would take to read and then write up (by write I mean re-write and re-draft) the assignments.
One ‘short cut’ I found was to read the most recent journal articles first, then notice which articles and books kept being referenced and use the bibliographies as a reading list.
2. When and how to get some work done
I found it was difficult to focus and really needed to give myself a big block of time, like a Saturday or Sunday, to really focus because if I worked in short bursts, I’d end up repeating and re-reading things I had already done because I had forgotten. I needed something to block out background noise and distractions too, but what worked for me was my iPod with classical music.
3. Nothing is ever done.
There is always one more thing you wanted to say, one more thing that has to be re-written, one more article you desperately need to read and reference, one more thing to transcribe, etc, etc. But don’t. Just let it go.
Nothing is ever perfect. There is always more to say. Let it go.
Your reader doesn’t know what you didn’t say, only what you said. So does that make sense (or at least a bit of sense)? Yes, so let it go and move on to the next assignment.
I had a really hard time with this, but it’s important, especially for the dissertation when there are so many other steps that have to be done after you are ‘finished’.
4. I was worried about word counts…
How could I possibly write 3,000 or 15,000 or whatever the limit is on these topics? But after I started doing the assignments I realised it was the opposite–how could I possibly say everything I needed to say in only 3,000 or 15,000 words?!
I became an expert at editing out words (we rarely need to use the word ‘that’ and often a gerund will do, never use a singular noun when you can use plural–learners/a learner) and saying things in one word rather than two or more (e.g. must/have to, can/are able to). My essays are full of acronyms. I mean, ELF is one word but English as a Lingua Franca is five.
But the most useful thing I learned how to do was insert text boxes. If you have a long quote (either from a source or your own research) or if you include a table, these can sometimes be inserted as text boxes and then don’t count in the word count. Definitely a Word tool worth learning. I went to some help sessions by Chris Tribble [who helped organised academic writing support as part of the King’s College London MA course] and he taught us that. So I’d also recommend going to any writing help tutorial sessions. Did I feel like I was cheating? Yeah a little bit, but it was a useful strategy.
5. Choosing my own topics
Another really useful thing I learned was that I didn’t have to do the assignments as the questions were written but I could negotiate the topics with my tutors.
For my first assignment I just answered the question as written and I did alright, not brilliant but not bad; but I didn’t get very much out of it. I hadn’t really learned much that I could apply to my learners and my teaching wasn’t really changed by any of the ideas.
For my second assignment, I asked my tutor if I could answer a similar question to the one assigned but skewed a bit in way that was relevant to the class I was teaching. I got so much more out of it (and a much better mark).
I negotiated all the rest of the assignments, making them personal and following my own curiosity, and I got so much more out of the MA. I mean, really, why are you doing an MA in the first place? I was doing it to develop my teaching, not tick boxes.
But a word of warning: you have to feel out what kind of person your tutor is. I was lucky to have good tutors for the subjects I was interested in who supported me and the direction I wanted to take things, but not all tutors are necessarily willing to negotiate and may be insecure and feel threatened by a ‘challenging’ student.