University life comes with its share of challenges. One of these is writing longer assignments that require higher information, communication and critical thinking skills than what you might have been used to in high school. Here are five tips to help you get ahead.
1. Use all available sources of information
Beyond instructions and deadlines, lecturers make available an increasing number of resources. But students often overlook these.
For example, to understand how your assignment will be graded, you can examine the rubric. This is a chart indicating what you need to do to obtain a high distinction, a credit or a pass, as well as the course objectives - also known as "learning outcomes".
Other resources include lecture recordings, reading lists, sample assignments and discussion boards. All this information is usually put together in an online platform called a learning management system (LMS). Examples include Blackboard, Moodle, Canvas and iLearn. Research shows students who use their LMS more frequently tend to obtain higher final grades.
If after scrolling through your LMS you still have questions about your assignment, you can check your lecturer's consultation hours.
2. Take referencing seriously
Plagiarism - using somebody else's words or ideas without attribution - is a serious offence at university. It is a form of cheating.
In many cases, though, students are unaware they have cheated. They are simply not familiar with referencing styles - such as APA, Harvard, Vancouver, Chicago, etc - or lack the skills to put the information from their sources into their own words.
To avoid making this mistake, you may approach your university's library, which is likely to offer face-to-face workshops or online resources on referencing. Academic support units may also help with paraphrasing.
You can also use referencing management software, such as EndNote or Mendeley. You can then store your sources, retrieve citations and create reference lists with only a few clicks. For undergraduate students, Zotero has been recommended as it seems to be more user-friendly.
Using this kind of software will certainly save you time searching for and formatting references. However, you still need to become familiar with the citation style in your discipline and revise the formatting accordingly.
3. Plan before you write
If you were to build a house, you wouldn't start by laying bricks at random. You'd start with a blueprint. Likewise, writing an academic paper requires careful planning: you need to decide the number of sections, their organisation, and the information and sources you will include in each.
Research shows students who prepare detailed outlines produce higher-quality texts. Planning will not only help you get better grades, but will also reduce the time you spend staring blankly at the screen thinking about what to write next.
During the planning stage, using programs like OneNote from Microsoft Office or Outline for Mac can make the task easier as they allow you to organise information in tabs. These bits of information can be easily rearranged for later drafting. Navigating through the tabs is also easier than scrolling through a long Word file.
4. Choose the right words
Which of these sentences is more appropriate for an assignment?
a. "This paper talks about why the planet is getting hotter", or b. "This paper examines the causes of climate change".
The written language used at university is more formal and technical than the language you normally use in social media or while chatting with your friends. Academic words tend to be longer and their meaning is also more precise. "Climate change" implies more than just the planet "getting hotter".
To find the right words, you can use SkELL, which shows you the words that appear more frequently, with your search entry categorised grammatically. For example, if you enter "paper", it will tell you it is often the subject of verbs such as "present", "describe", "examine" and "discuss".
Another option is the Writefull app, which does a similar job without having to use an online browser.
5. Edit and proofread
If you're typing the last paragraph of the assignment ten minutes before the deadline, you will be missing a very important step in the writing process: editing and proofreading your text. A 2018 study found a group of university students did significantly better in a test after incorporating the process of planning, drafting and editing in their writing.
You probably already know to check the spelling of a word if it appears underlined in red. You may even use a grammar checker such as Grammarly. However, no software to date can detect every error and it is not uncommon to be given inaccurate suggestions.
So, in addition to your choice of proofreader, you need to improve and expand your grammar knowledge. Check with the academic support services at your university if they offer any relevant courses.
Written communication is a skill that requires effort and dedication. That's why universities are investing in support services - face-to-face workshops, individual consultations, and online courses - to help students in this process. You can also take advantage of a wide range of web-based resources such as spell checkers, vocabulary tools and referencing software - many of them free.
Improving your written communication will help you succeed at university and beyond.
Author: Alexandra Garcia - Lecturer in Student Learning and Communication Development, University of Sydney