Last night we were running a workshop on targeting assignments better towards the task as set. This is because a large numbers of students drop grade bands or even fail assessments because they have done good work, possibly very good work, but not the work they were asked to do. A couple of years ago I was reading a really prescient, cutting and well crafted poetry essay; the problem was I wasn’t teaching poetry. The student in question had written well, with evidence of revision and reflection, they had original ideas and creative observations that demonstrated a high level of analysis. They could have got a 1st or 2.1 (I can’t say I don’t teach poetry) if it had been a poetry module but it wasn’t.
Understanding what you have been asked to do is essential to producing work that will get the mark you want. Related to this is understanding how that work will be assessed and evaluated which is why we included reading and understanding grade band descriptors. (The name varies from institution to institution but this is the document that your tutors use to evaluate and judge your work. So that tutor A’s students get the same treatment as tutor B’s
Although we were focusing on the bookends of an assignment, the task and the assessment most of the questions related to the research and the writing. This made me realise again just how connected everything in an extensive written assignment is. If you write carelessly and at the last-minute it will affect your marks just as much as if you don’t really understand the theories or approaches you are trying to use as will a failure to do and evaluate research.
This makes this an exercise that is tricky and demanding to master (or teach). So how can we get better at essays and reports.
- Plan your work. Try to work out how long each stage will take and what you will need to have done in what order.
- Read around the subject not at it? If you only have one text or view of a topic it is almost impossible to be critical when approaching it. Reading one introduction to XYZ might be faster but it’s rarely enough for higher level thinking & study.
- Organise your work. Being organised will save you time and reduce the stress of the work. Remember it’s impossible to plan for inspiration but you can plan time to allow for organisation.
- Give yourself time. And then pad it out with some extra time. Nobody can be brilliant all the time and the brain needs breaks from time to time.
- Read your work. Have you written what you mean? Do your sentences make sense and work towards your task. Read it aloud or get a friend to read it to you.
- Evaluate your work. Have you done enough? Have you done everything you (reasonably) can to ensure you get the grades you need (if not always the ones you want).
- Sleep on it. Ok you don’t need it under the pillow. But, you do need to give yourself time to work on things and for your brain to work through them.
- Step by step: don’t write your conclusion before you do your research. This is poor academic practice. How can you know what your research will find before you do it?
That adds up nicely to progress, you may not be able to go from a D or a 3rd student to top of the class overnight ,or even in one semester, but you can make progress towards getting the marks you want.