Education: Lose the Fear, Love a Process!

I totally understand why even the thought of undertaking any kind of education fills security professionals with dread. It’s a rational response to being faced by an experience which is regularly made almost impossible by the people who instruct on courses and degrees.

But of course, the students who flood off to colleges and universities in their late teens and twenties are rarely bedevilled by such thoughts! So why, when it comes to learning later in life, to undertaking vocational-related training and – of course – distance-learning, do we find it so difficult to succeed?

In short, we overthinking the problem. Again, for totally understandable reasons. We invest time, energy, sacrifice leisure activities and sometimes absolutely need to pass a qualification for professional reasons. This adds so much pressure onto us, and with pressure comes stressors on the brain that make most of us incredibly inefficient and ineffective. Yes, some of us will grind our way through – but it won’t be fun. And we then share dark stories and cautions about this with our circles of family and friends.

The over-thinking is really formed around not being able to see beyond the smokescreen of confusion that lecturers in higher education often specialise in creating. Ultimately, and this will be news to many readers, assignments can be seen as easy. If we maintain an iron grip on what we’re being asked to showcase in an essay, project or portfolio – we can’t really go wrong. If your navigation skills are sound, no matter what smokescreen or whirling fog that surrounds you – keeping the faith with the process of getting to the next waypoint cannot fail to work for you.

The specialism that I and my team bring to the higher education sector is a passion for process. Those who love study may not know it, but they are deploying a process to access great grades with the least possible effort. What do you need to do to clone this success? Annoyingly for me, there is no simple answer to which expensive tutorials and self-improvement courses can be nailed. Instead, it’s a matter of, firstly, allowing the fear to subside. Only when the majority of stress hormones drain away can you think and write clearly enough.

Secondly, fire up the process. Let’s see assignments and assessments for what they are. They are a vehicle for communicating that you meet the requirements set by the institution. So, for example, on the Masters in Business Administration (MBA) pathway that I am most familiar with, each assignment has, let’s say, ten Assessment Criteria. Each one of these is listed in student guidance as a bullet pointed sentence. Each sentence has some additional guidance which specifies that, if you are being asked to apply some models or theories, how many should be used and what the result should look like.

“No one wrote a rule that says an assignment has to be completed in a linear fashion! That’s when the grip on the handrail of the structure and faith in your process kicks in.”

For a process, then, my prescription is to take each assessment criterion and convert it into a sub-heading. Write underneath it what the additional guidance is. Then open each section by defining any new ‘technical’ terms from the sub-heading, ideally by using a direct and referenced quote from an academic author, business leader, specialist journalist or trade body (to name but a few). So one or three paragraphs under each of the subheadings delivers the required content, with the concluding paragraph of each section probably linking through to the next one to ensure the document has ‘flow’ and ‘build’ for the reader. And overall, the assignment will need a framing introduction and capping conclusion. The military adage of ‘tell them what you will do, do it, tell them what you did’ is a reasonable test for the final draft!

Even when study and assignment writing seems challenging, with the skeleton of sub-headings in place, when one section isn’t working for you – you can skip on to another. No one wrote a rule that says an assignment has to be completed in a linear fashion! That’s when the grip on the handrail of the structure and faith in your process kicks in. Doing things differently, focusing on the ‘building blocks’ of the assignment – the definitions, examples, observations, a bit of criticism, checking-off against the tick list – is the key to success. In the same way that master craftsmen and women create their own tools, so too we need to realise that we can each have our own approach to academic study.

As an added bonus for you, academic assignments need to be understood as the tests that you totally understood the assignment set, that you deployed the correct forms of examples, analysis, insight and logic to reach sensible and evidenced findings. They are a demonstrator for your intellectual skills, ability to meet the task set, provide the marker with what’s expected and deal really well with a limited amount of material from a topic area. What assignments aren’t is a container that you have to use to demonstrate how much you have generally learned (stuffing in distracting content) and how intelligent you are in the abstract (using high falutin’ and confusing language)- as many of my students often assume. Keeping the style and presentation of your work as crisp and clearly aligned with the assignment criteria is vital.



Dr Mils Hills is Head of Knowledge at the BBA-recommended private training provider Minerva Elite and heads up a Masters of Business Administration (MBA) pathway which links from Minerva to university graduation. An anthropologist by training, Mils has worked since 1998 supporting defence, security and related professionals through research, consultancy and education. Contact him with any questions or comments at:

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