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Ace your second year with our top tips

By Newcastle University

At the Writing Development Centre, we often hear from second year students who are worried about their grades, so if you feel the same then you're not alone. Trust us, there is a way forward! You might think that since your first year, you've entered a 'slump' and you're a bit rusty... but it's very common for your marks to change, even when the quality of your work hasn't. This results from the fact that, as we go up a stage, markers' expectations of us change. We typically need to demonstrate a greater level of critical thinking than we did at the previous stage. Let's dig a little more into why...

Bloom’s Taxonomy of the Cognitive Domain (1956, revised 2001) may sound a little dull but it’s the perfect helper when you’re looking to boost your marks. The main thing the taxonomy does is help us understand markers’ expectations as it’s what marking criteria are based on. Every assignment you complete at university will test these 6 levels of learning: 



taking notes

Collecting and presenting information from lectures, seminars and reading. 



taking notes

Demonstrating you’ve actually grasped this information by putting what you’ve learned into your own words instead of merely repeating it.  



laptop work (1)

Putting your knowledge to use by applying what you have learned to a real-world setting. So, applying theory to practice or applying a concept or model to a particular scenario. This also means using your knowledge to actually answer the set question or task, rather than merely giving us an info dump.




Taking something apart to see the component parts and how they work. This may mean examining how a process works, how an argument has been constructed or what patterns you can find in a set of data. Analysis looks at how knowledge has been constructed – both yours and other people’s – so providing and looking at evidence is key here.




If analysis looks at how, evaluation looks at how well, so it involves making value judgements. Good or bad, weak or strong? Usually, the answer won’t be quite as black and white. Evaluation involves interpreting evidence in order to put forward your own viewpoints.


Synthesis (or Creation)

laptop work

Drawing everything together to create an answer/conclusion. 


Now, it goes without saying that some of these levels are more complex than others. Remembering is easier than applying and evaluating. Indeed, knowledge and understanding constitute lower order thinking: you can’t do anything without them, but they’re not primarily what markers are testing. Application is middle order thinking, and it’s analysis, evaluation and synthesis that demonstrate higher order thinking. 

In first year, higher order thinking is the icing on the cake. It’s a bonus, really, if your work demonstrates analysis, evaluation and synthesis because these aren’t skills you’re expected to have right at the beginning of your university career. You are, however, expected to develop them as, over your first year, you gain experience and as the assignments grow in complexity and provide you with greater opportunities to show them off. Higher order thinking thus goes from being the icing on the cake at first year, to being the cake itself in second year. It’s no longer the unexpected bonus; it’s the level of learning you need to show in order to break into the 60s and 70s. 


To recap, then, your performance may not necessarily have slumped along with your marks. It may merely have stayed the same, which is enough to bring the marks down as we transition through the stages and the challenges increase.  

So what can we do to arrest a second year slump and get those marks back up again? Here are some things you can try:

  1. Reviewing recent feedback. What light does this shed on your markers’ expectations? How does this compare with the feedback you received in first year so you can get a sense of what the ‘step up’ is? What specific areas might you need to work on in order to improve?
  2. Rethinking the balance between depth and breadth. Trying to cover less ground – i.e. making fewer points – can open up the space for you to explore your ideas in greater depth. Trying to cram in too much information will only demonstrate lower order thinking and will crowd out the space for analysis and evaluation.  
  3. Editing for criticality. Use the Challenge Read technique to help spot points that could be expanded and areas where your analysis and evaluation could be developed. For every sentence you write, imagine a reader coming back at you with a question: “Why?” “How?” “So what?! Why are you telling me this? How does it answer the question?!” “How do you know that? Where is your evidence?” 


And remember, if you’d like to review your recent feedback and formulate a plan for second year, you can always book a 1-1 appointment with one of our WDC tutors.
And if you’d like a more in-depth run-through of Bloom’s Taxonomy, our tutor Helen has you covered in this video.


Writing Development Centre



Milsom, C. (2015) ‘Disengaged and overwhelmed: why do second year students underperform?’, The Guardian, 16 February. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2015/feb/16/disengaged-and-overwhelmed-why-do-second-year-students-underperform#:~:text=Positioned%20between%20two%20years%20with,often%20seems%20to%20be%20overshadowed.&text=The%20issue%20is%20widely%20recognised,related%20underperformance%20and%20disengagement%20extensively (Accessed: 28 October 2020).