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Writing Better Essays and Assignments
Author: ADMIN (ukstudent at gmail dot com)
Published: Thu, 28-Jul-2005
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Writing Better Essays and Assignments. Copyright University of Wales Institute, Cardiff

Introduction

Throughout your time at university you will be required to write essays or assignments (writing reports is dealt with in a separate section). These serve an important function and you should see them as a very useful opportunity to express your own ideas and to reflect your understanding of a subject.

Most of us find getting down to writing assignments difficult. The advice given in this unit will help you plan and clearly structure your writing. You should feel confident that when you hand in your work to be marked you have given it your 'best shot'. It is important for you to keep essay writing in perspective and not worry too much; this can often be easier said than done. By knowing what is expected of you, planning your essay writing thoroughly and getting it in on time you will feel more at ease with yourself.

This unit will cover why essays and assignments are important, some criteria used in marking, how to approach and plan essay writing and tips on how to write good essays.

Learning Outcomes

If you work through this unit you will be better able to:
explain why you are asked to write essays and assignments
understand the criteria used for marking and how to get better marks
evaluate the theme or topic you have to write about
plan and structure an essay
draft and write an essay
state the importance of the first sentence in a paragraph
explain why you use quotations and how to reference them
produce a presentable essay
ensure you remember 'handing in time'
evaluate a list of 'Dos and Don'ts' in essay writing.

Why write essays - What are lecturers looking for in an assignment?

The purpose of essays and assignments is to direct attention to certain ideas which are considered to be an important element in a course of study. They are also a means of developing independent research skills.

Essays and assignments therefore serve an important function and you should see them as a very useful opportunity to express your own ideas and to reflect your understanding of the subject. They can be used as part of the overall grading for a module (summative assessment) or to assess your current level of understanding of a topic and then help to raise that level by the use of tutor feedback (formative assessment).

How are Essays Marked? Assessment Criteria

Often students aren't sure of the best way to approach writing and having to write essays or assignments can thus seem quite daunting.

Before sitting down to write your essay it is worthwhile thinking about what aspects will get you good marks. We asked a lecturer to say what he was looking for in a good assignment. His answers were as follows:

When assessing either written coursework or examination answers the following criteria are used:

(a) A good answer is one which addresses the question, provides an analysis and a logical discussion in relation to the question, demonstrates a good grasp of relevant content and underlying concepts, presents a balanced argument and shows knowledge of counter arguments, is well structured and clearly explained, shows good evidence of wider reading, refers appropriately to personal experiences, is accurately referenced according to a standardised system, draws conclusions from sound evidence, has a high level of accuracy of English (or Welsh) and is neatly presented.
(b) An average answer is one that attempts to address the question, is satisfactorily structured and explained, demonstrates an acceptable understanding of the content and concepts involved, shows some evidence of wider reading, uses some authoritative sources and is fairly well written with a few errors of English (or Welsh), but which generalises in places, presents a less balanced view, and maybe includes some unsupported opinion or unjustified conclusions.
(c) A weak answer is one that does not directly answer the question, includes very little, if any, analysis or argument, is mainly descriptive in nature, shows inaccuracies and lack of understanding in relation to content, is poorly explained and demonstrates lack of clarity in expression and thought, is not logically structured, is based mainly on unsupported opinion, over-generalises and makes sweeping statements, uses few authoritative sources and references or none at all, includes material that is irrelevant to the question, does not refer to personal experiences, does not draw valid conclusions, is inaccurately referenced, contains several errors of English (or Welsh) and is untidy.

You should be told what criteria your lecturer is going to use for marking. If you don't know, ask!

The Essay Theme/Topic

This may be selected to enable you to deal with material which has already been considered or discussed during lectures or seminars. Here its purpose is often to provide an opportunity for such ideas to be applied to a particular situation. At other times the purpose may be to complement or supplement course work, in which case you may be concerned with quite new and unfamiliar material.

It is essential that the essay theme should be fully understood before attempting an answer. In other words ensure that you answer the question.

Themes which state "Discuss" or "Consider" expect you to examine evidence frequently derived from the literature on the subject. This means consulting the relevant books and authorities, selecting the key ideas, principles and practices, and then contrasting and comparing them. To such evidence may be added what is known about current practices in the field as appropriate. Having consulted the literature etc., you should then evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the various positions identified and draw conclusions which are valid (based on the evidence and not on personal opinion or prejudice). Where no clear conclusions can be drawn then a personal interpretation can be given provided it can be supported on the basis on the balance of probability.

Themes which include a quotation followed by an instruction such as "Discuss" or "Consider", or "How far do you think...?", require a careful understanding of the significance of the quotation. It is important to consult the source of the quotation and consider it within the context of the author's work as a whole.

How to Plan your essay -What should your assignment be like?

There are no absolute rules for this. The following is a general guide.

Plan out the structure of your essay carefully with a beginning (Introduction), middle (Development) and end (Conclusion). Think about major points and ideas rather than simply facts and information. Develop a line of argument clearly and concisely (in other words avoid meandering and repetition). Perhaps initially draft a summary of your major points to provide a focus to your work, although this would not officially be part of the essay.

Each part of the essay should be structured and deal with the following points:

1. Introduction

Identification of the key ideas to be considered. The background to the question. The possible aspects for consideration. The reason for selecting particular aspects. Definition of terms.

2. Development

A review of the existing evidence related to the material in the introduction. Examination of the literature, current thinking, general practices. A discussion in depth which explores the strengths and weaknesses of differing viewpoints. An interpretation of the evidence. The presentation of an argument.

Points you are making need to be backed up with references from texts on your reading lists, lecture notes etc. These references need to be written correctly (see Unit on Citation & Referencing).

3. Conclusion

A resolution of the discussion. Summary of significant points. Presentation of the position. Identification of further aspects which might be examined.

Tips

Before starting to write an essay

Address the question/understand the theme
Ascertain the type of answer required.
Plan out the essay.
Organise its structure.
Gather data
o Ascertain if you need to use the literature/your own experiences/your own opinions.
o Use up-to-date texts (journals etc).
o Always record where you found an idea or statement accurately.
o Select key ideas (principles/practices).

How to write essays

When you write an essay you have to be precise and to weigh, select, reject and organise your ideas into a coherent pattern of your own.

Here are a few guiding principles:

1. Be sure you know the precise subject and the kind of treatment that is called for (beware of being irrelevant). Note any restrictions in length (e.g. 500 words or 1,500 words). Keep to this length.
2. Investigate all probable sources of information - books, articles, lecture notes, etc. and select the most useful and relevant ones. Gather data
3. Draft a logical OUTLINE for your essay (using bullet points/short notes) based on a structure similar to:

(a) Introduction
(b) Development
(c) Conclusion

(If you are using a wordprocessor use the 'OUTLINE' facility. This can help you quickly draft the outline and make revision to it easier.)

Some students find it helpful to write a preliminary draft of the final paragraph at this point - so as to give the essay a clear target.
4. 4. Write the FIRST DRAFT of your essay.
o (a) Write simply and directly, remembering that someone else has to understand what you are trying to say.
o (b) Use pictures (graphs, diagrams, etc) if they will save words.
o (c) Take care to acknowledge the ideas borrowed from other authors.
o (d) List the sources you have referred to for information.
5. Using the same size loose-leaf paper as used for notes (so that essays and notes can be filed together for revision), REWRITE the essay (if possible, after a gap of a few days) to eliminate any weaknesses of content or treatment. Leave plenty of space (by having a large margin or using double line spacing) for your tutor's comments.
6. Don't just write your essays - read them too! It's amazing how often people do not seem to read what they have written! Before you make your final version of an essay that's going to be handed in for marking, you may need to make several drafts.

More tips on writing essays and assignments:

Argue, analyse, discuss according to the question (avoid just describing).
Make your points and support these with appropriate evidence - avoid opinion and bias, qualify statements, be as objective as possible.
Avoid plagiarism at all costs.
Link points together and 'signpost' for the reader.
Avoid generalisations - be as specific as possible (e.g. avoid 'research says', 'teachers must', 'it is proved that', etc.).
Use correct and accurate English.
Use sub-headings if appropriate.
Define terms.
Explain your points simply and clearly.
Avoid short paragraphs, abbreviations, colloquialisms, dashes, personalising, value judgements, etc..
Use quotations sparingly - embed them within the text only if they are under five lines.
Reference accurately.
Be consistent with, and don't mix, tenses or a singular subject with a plural word or vice versa.
Ensure your points are relevant to the question.
Re-draft and read through (share the essay with peers).
Number pages and leave margins. Write on one side of the paper only.

Presentation and Style of the Essay

You must remember the importance of correct spelling, punctuation and grammar and of appropriate expression and presentation in your work.

Whether written by hand or on computer (you may be expected to produce essays on computer) your work should be neat both in layout and appearance.

You will want the essay to be as "readable" as possible. Some lecturers like you to use headings for different sections of your essays - others don't. Try to find out what their preferences are - by asking them. Headings and sub-headings can help your work to appear well laid-out and provide a clear structure.

Each paragraph should be complete in itself. However, it's best that paragraphs don't get too long. A hallmark of a good piece of writing is that the reader should be able to "scan" it.

Similarly, with sentences:

Keep them fairly short. A sentence should only try to say one thing. Too many phrases can cause the main point to get lost!
Watch your commas and apostrophes! Ask yourself: "is this comma really necessary?" It may be possible to replace a comma by a full stop or a semi-colon and a new sentence.

The first sentence of each paragraph

One way of making your essay more readable is to take particular care with the first sentence of each paragraph.

The first sentence of each paragraph
should set the scene for the rest of the paragraph
could state a major point - the rest of the paragraph justifying the point and adding detail
could pose a question - the rest of the paragraph answering the question.

Use of Quotations in Essays

Quotations form an important aspect of essays, but it is essential that they should have particular significance and relevance to the matter under discussion. Their use is subject to certain highly important conditions:

(a) They should be an integral part of a discussion e.g. they may be used to show support for a point of view, to express a point of view, to show that there is a conflict of evidence or opinion, or to present firm evidence.
(b) They should not be introduced without critical comment. They should be examined in the light of the evidence and not presented as if they were the last word on the subject.
(c) They should be brief.
(d) They should, without exception, be attributed to the author. You must not at any time resort to plagiarism.
(e) Whether the quotation is direct, i.e. a passage quoted straight from a book or other publication, or indirect, for example: "Sybil Marshall has said that " . . . . . . . . . . ." . It is essential that the name of the author, the date of the publication, and the page number(s) be stated at all times. In a direct quotation the name should be given along with the other details. With an indirect quotation the date and page number follows the statement, assuming that the name of the author has already been given. The full particulars of the publication should be given in the Bibliography/References list at the end.

For further details see the unit on Citation and Referencing.

Bibliography/References

This is a list of the books, periodicals, journals, etc., which you have consulted or quoted from. It should be given at the end of the essay. There are several accepted ways in which it may be presented.

For further details see the unit on Citation and Referencing.

It is important to ensure that the books consulted are recent editions. Essays constructed upon material which is seriously out of date may result in misleading statements and a consequent loss of marks.

Handing in date

Sufficient time is given for essays to be completed and a specified handing in date should be given. This should be strictly adhered to. Where circumstances are likely to result in a delay, the Lecturer/Tutor should be notified as soon as possible. For additional information, please see your Student Handbook's section on "Submission of Course Work".

NB - Some subject areas may lend themselves to different forms of essay writing and referencing. Always consult your subject tutor for guidelines and expectations of particular assignments. Additionally, of course, not all assignments will be essays. These guidelines refer only to essay writing.

Keep a copy - and use it!

There's always the danger with a handed in essay that it's "out of sight, out of mind"! It could be weeks before you get it back. By that time you could have forgotten much of it. It could also get lost. Keep a copy.

Summary

If you have worked through this unit you should now have a clearer idea of how to plan, structure and present your essays and assignments. You should also know how you will be awarded marks.

What Should I Do Now?

Refer back this unit when you do your next essay.

Remember the following Dos and Don'ts of writing an essay.

Essay Writing - Summary of "Dos" and "Don'ts"

Do

Develop an effective and efficient system of note taking and note making.

Read as widely as possible.

Record references accurately - use a standard referencing system.

Record quotations accurately.

Understand and answer the question.

Plan out an answer and list the major points you want to make before beginning to write it.

Present an argument and analysis - link your points together logically.

Weigh up evidence and comment upon the data.

Draw out the major points clearly- focus each paragraph on a major point.

Use recent and relevant references and quotations.

Use supporting evidence - authoritative sources or your own experiences.

Always include a reference list/bibliography at the end of an assignment (unless requested otherwise).

Express your meaning clearly and simply.

Write legibly and present your assignment neatly.

Use good accurate English, carefully read through everything you have written.

Keep to the guidelines on length (quality is better than quantity).

Learn how to use the library efficiently.

Organise your time efficiently and plan out your study programme.

Keep to your study programme - don't fall behind with assignments or revision.

Hand in assignments on time - keep to deadlines.

Get plenty of sleep.

Have leisure time, learn to relax, enjoy yourself!

Don't

Regurgitate class notes.

Plagiarise.

State simply that "research says", "teachers agree", "evidence proves" etc. Provide specific examples.

Make bland, absolute or generalised statements.

Draw conclusions without sound evidence and/or argument.

Be dogmatic, opinionated or biased without good evidence and/or argument.

State "teachers must", "teachers should", etc., without good supporting evidence and/or argument.

Use abbreviations (excluding acronyms), dashes, colloquialisms, slang expressions.

Write too little or too much.

Mix tenses or singulars and plurals.

Prepare answers before you know the question.

Over quote sources.

Rush.

Work when you are too tired.

Use too many short paragraphs.


Copyright for this article belongs to University of Wales Institute, Cardiff

This document was re-printed with the kind permission of Ken Cheetham, Learning Development Coordinator, UWIC . Original Source of the article is located here: http://www.uwic.ac.uk/ltsu/u_area/studyskills/unit09.html



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