Whether you are a new student, an experienced student, or returning to education after several years, you will all face the same problem: assignments. There can be overbearing and rather frightening when you are a new student or a returner, but they do not seem so intimidating when you are more experienced. This is because you are practiced in the art of assignment writing, and once you have cracked the code, all future assignments seem less troublesome.
I have been constructing student assignments and grading them for over 25 years at top UK Universities and want to share the code. Why I hear you ask? While I consider it my professional role to help, guide, coach, and mentor all types of students, I have a soft spot for those returning to education after some years and various life stages later. Nearly all my recent (online) lectures are for groups of 30-40 returners, that is, mature students who have been working for several years but decided to better themselves with a formal qualification for various reasons. These students have additional responsibilities, families, bills, partners, plus very often full-time employment.
When they start a program, their first concern is usually the assignment. One of my first tasks is to put their minds at rest with clarity and detail on each assignment’s requirements. If that particular concern has been put to rest, they will be more relaxed and efficient at studying.
So, whether you are new to studying and assignments or experienced and confident, there will be something for you in this guide. However, my intended audience is the mature, female market or those returning to study or who have thought about it and are undecided.
Study Time & Space
Being a successful student requires thought and planning. It would help if you managed time to find your own time and space. Even for a few short hours per week, freedom from other responsibilities and obligations is essential. This allows you to concentrate on each assignment’s demands, understand what is needed, research in-depth, and construct academic writing.
How do you work best? Little and often (e.g., three one-hour periods), or all at once (e.g., one three-hour period)? Whichever works best for you, set targets to complete a section, paragraph, or distinct task before you relax or take a break.
Design a clear layout based on the assignment brief’s tasks, so you have several sections. There will be a recommended word count provided, which you are advised to adhere to as some universities will penalize excessive word counts. Ask your tutor for their opinion and any suggestions they may offer. Bear in mind your tutors are there to help you, so do not hesitate to ask for guidance, especially when you are just starting a program. They could advise you on each section’s word count, which will depend on how and where the grade percentages will be awarded in the assignment.
if you are advised to have an introduction, the main section, and a conclusion, think about this: most of your grade will be earned from the main section, so that is where you should concentrate your efforts. The introduction and conclusion are (often) just wasted words, limiting the word count for the main section. I have a confession to make here: I rarely even read the introduction or conclusion. I look at the reference list and/or bibliography to understand the quality and depth of research in the assignment and then start reading the main section. So, if you feel you need an introduction and conclusion, keep them brief.
Please resist the temptation to write it all in one go. Design an outline for each section and start adding bullet points addressing research that you want to cover. Then spend time on each section, expanding on each bullet point. Remember the word count or word limit. Allow time to construct the first draft, put it away for a few days, re-read, and then re-draft. You will spot many errors and gaps, and to be honest, it’s better if you spot them than the tutor.
The assignment brief needs to be constantly checked that your work is relevant and has answered the question.
The content of your assignment needs an academic base. This means you need to read widely around the subject and reference your sources of information. You will be guided on how to reference according to each university’s preferred system. Generally, the more references you use, the better your work will be. Start your research with the recommended reading list because it is there for a reason.
Academic sources of information have different values. Journals are perceived as the gold standard because they are up-to-date and are Peer-Reviewed by other academics. Then come textbooks and a range of others: conference papers, company reports, trade or industry magazines, etc. Make sure your sources are up to date rather than from the 1990s. Google Scholar is widely used now and has thousands of e-books and journals freely available. Alternatively, your university or college should have its own electronic libraries.
When you write about academic theories and concepts, remember to apply them to any given scenario or context that has been included in the assignment brief. Try and find theories that compare or contrast each other. This will aid your level of analysis and, therefore, the quality of your assignment. Take care not to explain what the theories tell you because that is a description. Ask yourself “so what” as in so what does this mean and why is it important?
Check each reference is listed at the end of the assignment. Go through your work and tick them off one by one. Miss none out.
Grammar, sentence construction, layout, format, font size, punctuation, plagiarism, word count, gaps in references, correct tense, use 3rd person as in “this research suggests” instead of “I/we think.” Do not use any jargon or slang, and any abbreviations need to be explained at the start of the assignment.
If you are struggling to get started and find yourself staring at a blank piece of paper for two hours, walk away. Have a cup of tea, clear your mind, and then sit down again. Start writing about the assignment context, paraphrasing the words in the assignment brief.
If it looks like academic writing, reads like academic writing, referenced as academic writing is supposed to be, then it is academic writing.