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Expert guidance from Study Advice at the University of Reading

Commonly-used terms

Coming to university can feel like visiting another country. Not only do people do things differently, but they also use language differently - sometimes using completely new words that you haven't heard before, sometimes using words you're used to but giving them a different meaning! It can feel as if we're deliberately making things difficult for you, but actually it's just that we're all used to using these words and forget that you might not know them yet.

This page explains terms that are commonly used at university. It is organised in alphabetical order. If a word is in italics, you can look up its meaning elsewhere on the page.

If you come across a term that you don't understand but isn't listed here, do let us know at and we will add it if appropriate.


Active listening

Involves the listener being fully aware and concentrating on the speaker

Active Voice

Used to indicate that someone/something is taking action (Joan kicked the ball), as opposed to the passive voice where an action is being applied to something/someone (the ball was kicked by Joan).

Asynchronous Not occurring at the same time
Argument In writing or other assignments, the overall message you are aiming to convey in response to the title, question or brief.


A piece of work that you have been assigned to do by your tutor. Assignments can be written (e.g. essays, reports, dissertations), or may include more visual and oral elements (e.g. presentations, webpages, posters).


An unsupported preference for one viewpoint over another which is shown in a lack of balance and objectivity when considering evidence. Bias should be avoided in academic writing, and you should consider whether it is present when you evaluate the texts you read.


List of texts (books, articles, websites etc) used when preparing a piece of writing or other communication, placed at the end of the text and usually in alphabetical order of author’s surname. See also Reference list.

Blended learning

A learning approach that combines traditional and online learning

Call number Combination of numbers and letters used to organise books and other texts on shelves in the Library. Found on the spine of books, in the online Library catalogue and on reading lists.


The bibliographic details of a book, journal article or other source presented in a given format when you include a reference in your writing. Citations are used in two places: at the place in your writing where you refer to the source and in your bibliography.


Carrying out a task (e.g. writing or research) with another person without disclosing this when you’ve been asked to work independently.

Contract cheating

Paying or commissioning someone else to write an assignment for you, even if you have changed or added some of the words. This is treated as very serious misconduct.


In writing, thinking and reading, being critical means being thoughtful about: how an idea works; whether it is well-supported; how it connects to or has an effect on other ideas or information; how appropriate it is for the task you are undertaking. It does not mean finding all the bad points about something; it’s as important to think critically about the ideas you agree with as those you disagree with.

Degree classification The final mark that you will receive for your degree. Degrees are classified as First Class, Upper Second Class (2.1), Lower Second Class (2.2), Third Class or Pass.
Digital literacy A set of digital skills that refer to an individual's ability to live, learn and work in a virtual environment.
Digital tools Applications, programmes or online resources that promote productivity

Direct quote

Repeating in your writing the exact words someone else has used. Direct quotes should be presented in quotation marks and the author should always be acknowledged with a citation.


In writing, an exploratory approach which brings together a range of ideas to develop a broader understanding and produce a balanced discussion.


A piece of writing which selects appropriate topics to explore in order to answer a question, respond to a title, or convey an overall message. Essays usually have an introduction and conclusion, with the main body being structured and organised to group points together and build a coherent discussion. They do not usually include information in bullet points or headings.


To make a judgement about the value of something; in the context of university study, this is its value as an appropriate tool for academic study. You may need to evaluate a text to decide if it's at an appropriate level or of appropriate rigour to support your discussion or research. You will also need to evaluate the arguments that an author is making to decide whether they are well-argued and well-evidenced.


Information from your reading, research or experience which you use to support your points and discussions.


A response from your tutor or other members of staff to your work, ideas or performance, designed both to explain what you have done well and help you improve in areas where you could do better. Feedback may be directed at an individual or a group, and may take many forms including formal written comments on a marked assignment, an informal discussion, or guidance within a lecture.

Figure (as diagram or number)

Used in academic writing to describe a graphical illustration (e.g. an image, diagram, graph or table). It is also used, usually abbreviated, in the caption for the illustration alongside a number that can be used when referring to it in the body of the text (e.g. Fig. 4).

1st person

Writing which uses your own point-of-view. In 1st person singular you might use 'I', 'my', 'me' and 'mine'. 1st person plural would include 'we', 'us', and 'our'. Writing in the 1st person is used when writing reflective accounts of your own experience, and can sometimes be used in other academic writing. It is less usual in scientific writing.

Flexible learning A learner-centred approach to delivering teaching. The approach empowers the learner to self-direct their learning with guided choices, promoting greater independence and autonomy.

Formative assignment

A short assignment designed to provide early feedback on your writing which you can use as a basis for improvement before you submit a summative assignment.


Independent learning

Taking responsibility for your own learning at university, using the teaching and learning resources and opportunities the University provides. This includes organising your own workload; planning your own research; evaluating the sources you are going to use; and making your own critical judgements about the information and ideas that you learn, whether in lectures and seminars, through reading, or in your own investigations.

Interactive A two-way interaction between the learner and computer device

Journal article

A short paper on a specific topic, published in issues or parts of journals (also called periodicals) which appear regularly.

Marking criteria

The elements that markers look for in your assignments to decide on the mark that it will receive. You should be able to find the marking criteria for your assignment on Blackboard or in your module handbook. Note that university mark schemes are not the same as those used at school or college: you may be disappointed to receive a mark of 60, for instance, but this would be equivalent to a 2.1 (high Second Class) degree classification.


A visual method for organising information by drawing out the key messages and showing how they are connected. Especially useful for working out a structure for writing or organising notes on your reading.


Cheating to gain an advantage in your academic studies. This might include plagiarism, collusion, or contract cheating. Misconduct can result in serious consequences, up to and including dismissal from the University.


In writing and research, examining a topic without applying your personal feelings about it. See also subjective.

Online core course content Content that may have traditionally been delivered through large lectures and is now delivered digitally.
Online learning Distanced education which has been designed to be delivered online.
Opinion Including your own opinion in academic writing means considering all of the information you have gained from your research or reading, and coming to an informed conclusion. You will need to show how you have reached this conclusion and what the evidence is that supports it.
Parentheses Another word for brackets, like this: ( )

Passive voice

Used to indicate that an action is being applied to something/someone (the ball was kicked by Joan), as opposed to the active voice where someone/something is taking action (Joan kicked the ball).


Passing off someone else’s work or ideas as your own. Note that you can unintentionally plagiarise if you are not careful to reference correctly.

Poor academic practice

Used to describe work that borders on plagiarism: for instance, writing that is mostly composed of quotations from someone else’s work (even if it’s correctly cited), or where citations are incomplete or incorrect.

Primary (sources, research)

Original documents (e.g. letters, historical records, literary texts) or research that you have undertaken yourself.


Delaying the undertaking of a task by doing something else perceived to be easier or more enjoyable.



Using a citation to indicate the author/s of a text you have drawn information from.

Reference list

List of texts (books, articles, websites etc) that have been referred to in a piece of writing or other communication, placed at the end of the text and usually in alphabetical order of author’s surname. See also Bibliography.


Writing or thinking which includes a critical consideration of your own experience, often including how you could have acted differently and why. Often required in placements and group work.


An assignment which reports and analyses research (either primary or secondary) and discusses its implications and any conclusions following from those. Usually structured according to a set format.

Secondary research

Research which relies on other people’s writing or research. It is important with this kind of research to carefully evaluate the sources of your information.

Secondary sources

Writing which relates or is about primary sources or research. This might include textbooks or scholarly books and journal articles. Secondary sources may bring together information from several primary sources or focus on a single one.


Small group learning session, usually focused on a pre-arranged topic and led by a tutor or teaching assistant, but based around discussion by participants.


Text of any kind from which you have drawn information or ideas.


In academic writing, to organise your ideas in order to make a logical and persuasive argument for your reader.


In writing, including your personal feelings or point-of-view when considering a topic. Subjective writing is usually avoided in scientific writing but may be important in reflective writing.

Summative assignment

Assessed assignment that will contribute to your overall mark for the module.

Synchronous Occurring at the same time


Bring together ideas from different sources to create a broader understanding of a topic than would be achieved by only relying on one source.


Any object of communication that you gain information from. Note that a text does not have to be written: it could be a film, sculpture, piece of music, or image.


Often applied to a way of structuring your thinking, notes or writing which uses themes or aspects of the topic as an organising principle. This results in a more sophisticated discussion than presenting argument and counter-argument.

Thesis A premise, statement or idea to be proved through discussion and presentation of supporting evidence. Also used to describe a long piece of academic writing at doctoral-level.

3rd person

Taking an impersonal or external viewpoint; writing as an impartial observer. Writing in the third person, you might use 'he', 'she', 'it' or 'they'. See also first person.


Teaching session which may be one-to-one with a tutor or in a small group. Usually discussion-based.