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Assignments. They’re awarded two titles in the eyes of students nowadays.

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Firstly, they’re the bane of student life. Secondly, they are your module tutor’s best friend, for many tutors and coordinators really hate the fuss of end-of-year exams when they could be laying on a beach or designing next year’s course (this varies depending on how cool your tutors are.)

Assignments are generally the most popular form of assessments used by universities today.  Seen as more structured and a better indicator of understanding than other types of assessment, it is certain you’ll see one of these while you’re at uni.

Generally, your assignment takes the form of an essay that answers a question that you’ll be given at some point during your module.  Sometimes you’ll be given a choice of questions, other times you’ll just have to make the most of what you’ve been given.  If you’re on a science-type course (medicine, chemistry, biomedical sciences etc) then you will probably have to do lab reports – basically a fancy title for writing up what you did in a practical session in a laboratory.  These will involve breaking down the processes and stages involved in your experiments and will need high levels of attention to detail.  For the journalists among you, you could well get asked to write reviews or even write pieces about court hearings.  There are many specific rules that govern these so make sure you know exactly what you’re doing.  If in doubt, ask your tutor.

Of course, it isn’t just writing essays that you’ll see… many module coordinators like to mix it up with group projects, presentations, performances and even (for the sports students among you) physical exercise.

Regardless of what form your piece takes, there are some general things that you can do to make things run smoother:

  • Be disciplined and start early – Procrastination sucks, let’s face the reality of it.  As much as it’s nice to get out there and party until the sun rises, remember why you’re there in the first place.  Starting early means that you can be more considered in your work.  The more you put into an essay, the more you’ll get out, and the simple fact is that you can put more in if you get cracking earlier.  Getting a head start on it also means that you can add to it as you learn the module material in lectures and seminars, instead of having to recall it all in one big go.  You’ll probably forget stuff and be effectively teaching yourself it from scratch again.  If you start early and struggle, tutors are much more accepting and are happier to help.  They’d rather help someone who wants to look at it thoroughly and in a thoughtful way than quickly help out someone who needs a quick fix because they didn’t start for 9 weeks…
    I’ve always found that, as a general guide, the earlier you know the  title(s) of the question, the more thought and work it will need to be done.

  • Answer the question or risk a low mark – easily the most common mistake about, students sometimes don’t look at the question properly.  For example, there is a clear distinction between the two works ‘how’ and ‘why’.  ‘How’ is asking you to describe something and ‘why’ is asking you to explain something – there is a difference.  Normally it is a good idea to put both a description and explanation in if you see one of these key words – it shows a better understanding and possibly can raise your mark.  Keep the response relevant and stick closely to the question.  Coming slightly under the word limit and sticking tight to the topic is better than getting the word count right, but only because you’ve padded it out with stuff you didn’t need.
    My university faculty had a policy that summarised it perfectly for us “If you are asked to explain something but only describe, you’ll only get a 2:2 at the most for the piece.”

  • Reference your work properly  – you will only appreciate how important this is when the university comes down on you like a tonne of bricks for not doing it.  Every quotation and paraphrased sentence that you’ve lifted from somewhere else needs to be referenced in full using a proper format (usually the Harvard Referencing System, though it’s worth checking with your tutor.)  I personally used footnotes at the bottom of the page to show exactly where I got it from and then, at the end of the essay, a bibliography to show the books/sources I had quoted from.  The bibliography doesn’t have to say where exactly in the text you got it, but is rather a summary of the information you’ve sourced.
    If you’re stuck on how to form your references, there are good guides out there to help you (or do what I did and stick the information needed in to a website that chugged it all out for me – it’s a perfectly legitimate practice.)
    Aside from showing good understanding and that you’ve actually read up on things, you will be marked up on it (oh yes, you get marks for evidence of reading  in your work) and you’ll protect yourself from a claim of plagiarism. This is a very serious academic offence where you have been found to copy another piece of work without correctly acknowledging it (this is classed as stealing the work, even if you didn’t intend to.)  Referencing shows that you’ve considered what you’re doing and means that you cannot be accused of passing off someone’s hard work as your own.

  • Speaking of plagiarism… Do NOT get your essay written for you!  If you’ve left it too late, there is always a temptation to spend your way out of trouble and pay for a custom-written essay.  Such services claim to offer “essays for reference” – a way of saying “you can look at our essay for ideas, but don’t copy it word for word.”  In reality, they are designed to be written for you, checked though, printed off and submitted as your own.  Some even claim to be “100% plagiarism-free” and offer a guarantee of getting a 1st or 2:1 classification.  Don’t ever believe these claims.  There is no way for the so-called ‘ghost writers’ to make it totally free of unaccredited material and the mark given partially depends on who’s marking it and their interpretation of the work.  If you are caught, you could risk failing the module with no option to retake the module.  Worse still, if you are caught doing it with a dissertation, you could well fail your final year, meaning you cannot graduate with a honour’s classification (the most you could get is basic pass.)  At worst, you could be thrown off your course.
    It’s simply not worth the risk.  Many are fraudulent are those who claim to return your money if you’re caught or don’t achieve the guaranteed grade are there to scam you.

Whilst I’m here, I ought to say a quick work on dissertations.  A dissertation is a longer essay (typically 10,000 words) written on the topic of your choice.  You choose your topic (keep it based nicely on what you’re studying) and must write a proposal for it, explaining what you plan on doing and how it’s going to pan out – this’ll normally be handed in towards the end of your second year.  From there, you’ll need to do plenty of research over the summer and manage your time effectively throughout your final year to ensure that it’s of a high quality.  Thankfully, you will get until somewhere around February or March to get it finished and handed in.  That ought to give you enough time to write at the level of detail you need.

That said, if a dissertation is only an optional part of your course and you can obtain a top-quality degree by doing other modules, consider opting out of the dissertation.  I once had a conversation with a professor at my University who told me that, given the choice, I should do a module with exams and potentially get a higher mark.  Just think about that before you commit to it!

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