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Working on assignments
One of the key things lecturers look for when marking essays and assignments is whether you've answered the question they've asked. If you haven't, it doesn't matter how good your essay is, you won't get the mark you're hoping for.
Spend time thinking about the essay topic. Read it through carefully. Identify direction words and limiting words. These will be your guide to focusing your response.
If you're unsure, discuss your understanding of the essay topic with your tutor.
Direction word examples
These explanations are just a guide. Don't assume these are exactly the same meaning that your lecturer intends. The distinctions between them are a little blurry.
- Analyse - examine the issue in detail. What are the essential elements? How are they related? What are the strengths and weaknesses or advantages and disadvantages?
- Argue - present a case for or against a particular position.
- Compare - consider items or issues side by side. Point out their similarities, but also their differences if appropriate.
- Comment on - point out the important features of an issue. Be critical.
- Contrast - consider items or side by side. Point out their differences, but also their similarities if appropriate.
- Critically … - analyse in a questioning way. How does this work? Why is it like this?
- Define - discuss the meaning of the concept or idea. Refer to authoritative definitions.
- Describe - characterise, outline or detail the issue.
- Discuss - describe, explain, give examples, analyse.
- Evaluate - attempt to come to a judgement by discussing the issue. Refer to advantages and disadvantages or costs and benefits.
- Examine - critically discuss the issue.
- Explain - interpret, clarify and expand on the issue. Give reasons for different views or results. Try to analyse causes.
- Illustrate - use examples (and sometimes diagrams or figures) to explain or clarify an idea, issue or statement.
- Justify - give reasons to support a position or statement.
- Outline - present the essential features. Show the main and subordinate points, structure or classification of things.
- Review - examine an idea or issues critically. Analyse and comment on the important or controversial elements.
- State - present the main points in a clear sequence.
- Summarise - give the main points or facts in a condensed form.
Limiting word examples
- since WW2 (or since some other time)
- in Australia (or in some other location or context).
Before you start reading or writing, try to come up with an outline or plan based on your existing knowledge of the topic (from lectures and pre-lecture reading), and understanding of the question. This will help you read with more focus, and take notes that are more useful.
Start by brainstorming. You could do this on paper by writing down the key words from your assignment topic. Then jot down any questions, issues, ideas or topics that your essay needs to explore. At this stage, just get it down on paper. Don't worry about filtering or organising your thoughts.
When you're done, see if you can organise your ideas.
- Consider if some of the ideas are more closely related than others. You might want to group them.
- What are the relationship between the ideas or groups of ideas? Contrast or similarity? Cause or effect? Part of a process or sequence? Physically or spatially linked? Historically linked or chronologically ordered? You might want to draw lines between ideas or groups of ideas, labelling the relationship between them.
- What gaps are there in your thinking?
Identifying these ideas and relationships will guide your reading and help you understand and analyse your reading materials.
Selecting reading material
Once you've done some planning, you'll have an idea of the types of reading you're looking for. Always start with:
- your lecture notes
- the materials provided on your reading list that seem relevant to your topic.
You should always read more widely than this, however. Many students do an internet search or look at the Wikipedia entry for your main topic. This isn't enough. You should also try:
- Subject databases available online from the library. These let you search scholarly journals for relevant articles. If you're not sure which databases to try, check the guide to databases by subject
- Google Scholar. Unlike Google's regular search engine, Google Scholar searches peer-reviewed journals.
- Your tutor. Talk to them if you need help to identify relevant materials.
When looking at these resources, check the title and the abstract. These should give you a reasonable idea of whether the article is relevant.
Read with your assignment topic or question in mind. Aim to get a better understanding of the ideas you brainstormed during your planning. Ask yourself what you must find out when reading the text.
Unless you're writing for a literature unit, you can skim-read the text to find the relevant parts of the article or to get an understanding of the author's stance. Start with the abstract. Look at the introduction and conclusion. Skim over the sub-headings. Read the relevant sections more closely.
As you're reading, remember that your goal is to write an essay that answers your question. Focus on that, rather than on reproducing what a particular author says about their question.
Many students take notes by highlighting or underlining passages in a text. There are two problems with this approach.
- It is passive, and you might forget why you marked these passages. Instead, try annotating the text in the margins with questions or notes that explain your response to what you've read.
- It requires you keep copies of all the texts you read. Instead, aim to keep notes on what you've read. You'll need to record:
- bibliographic details (such as the article title, author, date, journal/book title, publisher, place of publication, pages numbers for the whole article, or website address)
- paraphrased or summarised points from the text that may be relevant to your assignment topic.
- direct quotations you may want to use. Keep these to a minimum. You'll show your understanding of an issue better if you use your own words.
- pages numbers relevant to each note
- any comments or questions you have about the text and how it relates to your assignment topic.
There's no single way of approaching your first draft. Some students start with the introduction and work their way through to the conclusion. Others draft individual parts of the essay and then pull them together with an introduction and conclusion.
Two key things to think about are:
- Working out the overall structure before you write too much. Review your initial plan after you've done your reading and see if you can pull together your ideas into groups that will form sections of your essay. Then think about the order in which these ideas should be presented.
- Drafting the introduction early in the process of writing. Your introduction should outline your structure and the argument you'll be making. You may need to rework your introduction as you develop the draft of your essay, but getting your ideas down early will help you start framing your work.
To properly review your work, leave it overnight and read it fresh the next day. Print it out and read it out aloud.
Four key things you'll need to review are:
- Assignment goal. Have you answered the question or responded to the topic? Have you provided sufficient description, analysis, comparison, illustration (or whatever the topic required)? Do you make your argument well by providing sufficient evidence, supporting information?
- Structure and flow. Does the introduction clearly state the topic and how you will deal with it? Does each paragraph focus on a single topic or issue? Is there a coherent flow of ideas from one paragraph to the next? Are there links between sections of your argument? Does each section have a clear heading? Is there a conclusion that sums up your position?
- Citations and references. Have you acknowledged the sources of your ideas? Have you used the appropriate referencing style? Have you included a bibliography or list of references at the end of your work?
- Grammar, spelling and punctuation. Have you carefully proofread your work?
All your academic writing needs to include citations and references to acknowledge the sources of ideas or information that you've used.
- Citations are included within the text of your assignment. You must cite any paraphrased or summarised ideas as well as any direct quotations that you use.
- References are a list of sources included at the end of your work, presented as a reference list or bibliography. You must include any materials that you've cited in the text of your assignment.
Different subject areas have different styles for citing and referencing. Check your unit guide or ask your lecturer which style you need to use.
Citing and referencing can be tricky until you get used to it. To get started, try this online tutorial, Demystifying citing and referencing.
Important academic writing resources
- Library guides - list useful sources of information for your discipline
- Research and writing for assignments – finding and evaluating information, critical thinking and writing
- Assignment structures and samples – examples of assignments by faculty
- Quick study guides - see the sections 'Assignments' and 'Citing and referencing'
- Academic integrity - online tutorial on how to avoid plagiarism and collusion
- Demystifying citing and referencing - online tutorial