Writing Assignments

Kate Derrington; Cristy Bartlett; and Sarah Irvine

Hands on laptop
Figure 14.1 Assignments are a common method of assessment at university and require careful planning and good quality research.  Image by Kampus Production used under CC0 license.

Introduction

Assignments are a common method of assessment at university and require careful planning and good quality research. Developing critical thinking and writing skills are also necessary to demonstrate your ability to understand and apply information about your topic.  It is not uncommon to be unsure about the processes of writing assignments at university.

  • You may be returning to study after a break
  • You may have come from an exam based assessment system and never written an assignment before
  • Maybe you have written assignments but would like to improve your processes and strategies

This chapter has a collection of resources that will provide you with the skills and strategies to understand assignment requirements and effectively plan, research, write and edit your assignments.  It begins with an explanation of how to analyse an assignment task and start putting your ideas together.  It continues by breaking down the components of academic writing and exploring the elements you will need to master in your written assignments. This is followed by a discussion of paraphrasing and synthesis, and how you can use these strategies to create a strong, written argument. The chapter concludes with useful checklists for editing and proofreading to help you get the best possible mark for your work.

Task Analysis and Deconstructing an Assignment

It is important that before you begin researching and writing your assignments you spend sufficient time understanding all the requirements. This will help make your research process more efficient and effective. Check your subject information such as task sheets, criteria sheets and any additional information that may be in your subject portal online. Seek clarification from your lecturer or tutor if you are still unsure about how to begin your assignments.

Consider the different parts of your assignment question.

Table 14.1 Parts of an assignment question

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The criteria sheet, also known as the marking sheet or rubric is an important document to look at before you begin your assignment. It tells you how your assignment will be marked and acts as a checklist to make sure you have included all the information required.

Other requirements

  • Due date
  • Word limit
  • Referencing style and research expectations
  • Formatting

Task analysis and criteria sheets are also discussed in the chapter Managing Assessments for a more detailed discussion on task analysis, criteria sheets, and marking rubrics.

Preparing your ideas

Concept map on whiteboard
Figure 14.2  A concept map is a good way to prepare your ideas. Image by  Gerd Altmann used under CC0 license.

Brainstorm or concept map: List possible ideas to address each part of the assignment task based on what you already know about the topic from lectures and weekly readings.

Finding appropriate information: Learn how to find scholarly information for your assignments which is

  • accurate
  • recent
  • reliable

See the chapter Working With Information for a more detailed explanation.

What is academic writing?

Academic writing tone and style

Many of the assessment pieces you prepare will require an academic writing style.  This is sometimes called ‘academic tone’ or ‘academic voice’.  This section will help you to identify what is required when you are writing academically (see Table 14.2). The best way to understand what academic writing looks like, is to read broadly in your discipline area.  Look at how your course readings, or scholarly sources, are written. This will help you identify the language of your discipline field, as well as how other writers structure their work.

Table 14.2 Comparison of academic and non-academic writing

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Thesis statements

One of the most important steps in writing an essay is constructing your thesis statement.  A thesis statement tells the reader what position, argument or direction you will take to answer your assignment topic. A thesis statement may not be relevant for some topics, if you are unsure check with your lecturer. The thesis statement:

  • Directly relates to the task.  Your thesis statement may even contain some of the key words or synonyms from the task description.
  • Does more than restate the question.
  • Is specific and uses precise language.
  • Let’s your reader know your position or the main argument that you will support with evidence throughout your assignment.
  • Usually has two parts: subject and contention.
    • The subject is the key content area you will be covering.
    • The contention is the position you are taking in relation to the chosen content.

Your thesis statement helps you to structure your essay.  It plays a part in each key section: introduction, body and conclusion.

Planning your assignment structure

Image of the numbers 231
Figure 14.3 It is sometimes easier to draft your assignment using the 2-3-1 approach. Image by Sam Karanja used under CC0 license.

When planning and drafting assignments, it is important to consider the structure of your writing. Academic writing should have clear and logical structure and incorporate academic research to support your ideas.  It can be hard to get started and at first you may feel nervous about the size of the task, this is normal. If you break your assignment into smaller pieces, it will seem more manageable as you can approach the task in sections. Refer to your brainstorm or plan. These ideas should guide your research and will also inform what you write in your draft. It is sometimes easier to draft your assignment using the 2-3-1 approach, that is, write the body paragraphs first followed by the conclusion and finally the introduction.

Writing introductions and conclusions

Clear and purposeful introductions and conclusions in assignments are fundamental to effective academic writing. Your introduction should tell the reader what is going to be covered and how you intend to approach this. Your conclusion should summarise your argument or discussion and signal to the reader that you have come to a conclusion with a final statement.  These tips below are based on the requirements usually needed for an essay assignment, however, they can be applied to other assignment types.

Writing introductions

Start written on road
Figure 14.4 Start your academic writing with a strong and logically structured introduction. Image by Gerd Altmann used under CC0 license.

Most writing at university will require a strong and logically structured introduction. An effective introduction should provide some background or context for your assignment, clearly state your thesis and include the key points you will cover in the body of the essay in order to prove your thesis.

Your introduction is usually approximately 10% of your total assignment word count. It is much easier to write your introduction once you have drafted your body paragraphs and conclusion, as you know what your assignment is going to be about. An effective introduction needs to inform your reader by establishing what the paper is about and provide four basic things:

  • A brief background or overview of your assignment topic
  • A thesis statement
  • An outline of your essay structure
  • An indication of any parameters or scope that will/ will not be covered, e.g. From an Australian perspective.

The below example demonstrates the four different elements of an introductory paragraph.

1) Information technology is having significant effects on the communication of individuals and organisations in different professions. 2)This essay will discuss the impact of information technology on the communication of health professionals. 3) First, the provision of information technology for the educational needs of nurses will be discussed. 4) This will be followed by an explanation of the significant effects that information technology can have on the role of general practitioner in the area of public health. 5) Considerations will then be made regarding the lack of knowledge about the potential of computers among hospital administrators and nursing executives. 6) The final section will explore how information technology assists health professionals in the delivery of services in rural areas7) It will be argued that information technology has significant potential to improve health care and medical education, but health professionals are reluctant to use it.

1 Brief background/ overview | 2 Indicates the scope of what will be covered | 3-6 Outline of the main ideas (structure) | 7 The thesis statement

Note: The examples in this document are taken from the University of Canberra and used under a CC-BY-SA-3.0 license.

Writing conclusions

You should aim to end your assignments with a strong conclusion. Your conclusion should restate your thesis and summarise the key points you have used to prove this thesis. Finish with a key point as a final impactful statement.  Similar to your introduction, your conclusion should be approximately 10% of the total assignment word length. If your assessment task asks you to make recommendations, you may need to allocate more words to the conclusion or add a separate recommendations section before the conclusion. Use the checklist below to check your conclusion is doing the right job.

Conclusion checklist 

  • Have you referred to the assignment question and restated your argument (or thesis statement), as outlined in the introduction?
  • Have you pulled together all the threads of your essay into a logical ending and given it a sense of unity?
  • Have you presented implications or recommendations in your conclusion? (if required by your task).
  • Have you added to the overall quality and impact of your essay? This is your final statement about this topic; thus, a key take-away point can make a great impact on the reader.
  • Remember, do not add any new material or direct quotes in your conclusion.

This below example demonstrates the different elements of a concluding paragraph.

1) It is evident, therefore, that not only do employees need to be trained for working in the Australian multicultural workplace, but managers also need to be trained. 2) Managers must ensure that effective in-house training programs are provided for migrant workers, so that they become more familiar with the English language, Australian communication norms and the Australian work culture. 3) In addition, Australian native English speakers need to be made aware of the differing cultural values of their workmates; particularly the different forms of non-verbal communication used by other cultures. 4) Furthermore, all employees must be provided with clear and detailed guidelines about company expectations. 5) Above all, in order to minimise communication problems and to maintain an atmosphere of tolerance, understanding and cooperation in the multicultural workplace, managers need to have an effective knowledge about their employees. This will help employers understand how their employee’s social conditioning affects their beliefs about work. It will develop their communication skills to develop confidence and self-esteem among diverse work groups. 6) The culturally diverse Australian workplace may never be completely free of communication problems, however, further studies to identify potential problems and solutions, as well as better training in cross cultural communication for managers and employees, should result in a much more understanding and cooperative environment. 

1  Reference to thesis statement – In this essay the writer has taken the position that training is required for both employees and employers. | 2-5 Structure overview – Here the writer pulls together the main ideas in the essay. | 6  Final summary statement that is based on the evidence.

Note: The examples in this document are taken from the University of Canberra and used under a CC-BY-SA-3.0 license.

Writing paragraphs

Paragraph writing is a key skill that enables you to incorporate your academic research into your written work.  Each paragraph should have its own clearly identified topic sentence or main idea which relates to the argument or point (thesis) you are developing.  This idea should then be explained by additional sentences which you have paraphrased from good quality sources and referenced according to the recommended guidelines of your subject (see the chapter Working with Information). Paragraphs are characterised by increasing specificity; that is, they move from the general to the specific, increasingly refining the reader’s understanding. A common structure for paragraphs in academic writing is as follows.

Topic Sentence 

This is the main idea of the paragraph and should relate to the overall issue or purpose of your assignment is addressing. Often it will be expressed as an assertion or claim which supports the overall argument or purpose of your writing.

Explanation/ Elaboration

The main idea must have its meaning explained and elaborated upon. Think critically, do not just describe the idea.

Evidence

These explanations must include evidence to support your main idea. This information should be paraphrased and referenced according to the appropriate referencing style of your course.

Concluding sentence (critical thinking)

This should explain why the topic of the paragraph is relevant to the assignment question and link to the following paragraph.

Use the checklist below to check your paragraphs are clear and well formed.

Paragraph checklist

  • Does your paragraph have a clear main idea?
  • Is everything in the paragraph related to this main idea?
  • Is the main idea adequately developed and explained?
  • Do your sentences run together smoothly?
  • Have you included evidence to support your ideas?
  • Have you concluded the paragraph by connecting it to your overall topic?

Writing sentences

Make sure all the sentences in your paragraphs make sense. Each sentence must contain a verb to be a complete sentence. Avoid sentence fragments. These are incomplete sentences or ideas that are unfinished and create confusion for your reader. Avoid also run on sentences. This happens when you join two ideas or clauses without using the appropriate punctuation. This also confuses your meaning (See the chapter English Language Foundations for examples and further explanation).

Use transitions (linking words and phrases) to connect your ideas between paragraphs and make your writing flow. The order that you structure the ideas in your assignment should reflect the structure you have outlined in your introduction. Refer to transition words table in the chapter English Language Foundations.

Paraphrasing and Synthesising

Paraphrasing and synthesising are powerful tools that you can use to support the main idea of a paragraph. It is likely that you will regularly use these skills at university to incorporate evidence into explanatory sentences and strengthen your essay. It is it important to paraphrase and synthesise because:

  • Paraphrasing is regarded more highly at university than direct quoting.
  • Paraphrasing can also help you better understand the material.
  • Paraphrasing and synthesising demonstrate you have understood what you have read through your ability to summarise and combine arguments from the literature using your own words.

What is paraphrasing?

Paraphrasing is changing the writing of another author into your words while retaining the original meaning. You must acknowledge the original author as the source of the information in your citation. Follow the steps in this table to help you build your skills in paraphrasing.

Table 14.3 Paraphrasing techniques

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Example of paraphrasing

Please note that these examples and in text citations are for instructional purposes only.

Original text

Health care professionals assist people often when they are at their most vulnerable. To provide the best care and understand their needs, workers must demonstrate good communication skillsThey must develop patient trust and provide empathy to effectively work with patients who are experiencing a variety of situations including those who may be suffering from trauma or violence, physical or mental illness or substance abuse (French & Saunders, 2018).

Poor quality paraphrase example

This is a poor example of paraphrasing. Some synonyms have been used and the order of a few words changed within the sentences however the colours of the sentences indicate that the paragraph follows the same structure as the original text.

Health care sector workers are often responsible for vulnerable patients. To understand patients and deliver good service, they need to be excellent communicatorsThey must establish patient rapport and show empathy if they are to successfully care for patients from a variety of backgrounds and with different medical, psychological and social needs (French & Saunders, 2018).

A good quality paraphrase example

This example demonstrates a better quality paraphrase. The author has demonstrated more understanding of the overall concept in the text by using the keywords as the basis to reconstruct the paragraph. Note how the blocks of colour have been broken up to see how much the structure has changed from the original text.

Empathetic communication is a vital skill for health care workers. Professionals in these fields are often responsible for patients with complex medical, psychological and social needs. Empathetic communication assists in building rapport and gaining the necessary trust to assist these vulnerable patients by providing appropriate supportive care (French & Saunders, 2018).

What is synthesising?

Synthesising means to bring together more than one source of information to strengthen your argument. Once you have learnt how to paraphrase the ideas of one source at a time, you can consider adding additional sources to support your argument. Synthesis demonstrates your understanding and ability to show connections between multiple pieces of evidence to support your ideas and is a more advanced academic thinking and writing skill.

Follow the steps in this table to improve your synthesis techniques.

Table 14.4 Synthesising techniques

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Example of synthesis

There is a relationship between academic procrastination and mental health outcomes.  Procrastination has been found to have a negative effect on students’ well-being (Balkis, & Duru, 2016). Yerdelen, McCaffrey, and Klassens’ (2016) research results suggested that there was a positive association between procrastination and anxiety. This was corroborated by Custer’s (2018) findings which indicated that students with higher levels of procrastination also reported greater levels of the anxiety. Therefore, it could be argued that procrastination is an ineffective learning strategy that leads to increased levels of distress.

Topic sentence | Statements using paraphrased evidence | Critical thinking (student voice) | Concluding statement – linking to topic sentence

Creating an argument

What does this mean?

Throughout your university studies, you may be asked to ‘argue’ a particular point or position in your writing. You may already be familiar with the idea of an argument, which in general terms means to have a disagreement with someone. Similarly, in academic writing, if you are asked to create an argument, this means you are asked to have a position on a particular topic, and then justify your position using evidence.

What skills do you need to create an argument?

In order to create a good and effective argument, you need to be able to:

  • Read critically to find evidence
  • Plan your argument
  • Think and write critically throughout your paper to enhance your argument

For tips on how to read and write critically, refer to the chapter Thinking for more information. A formula for developing a strong argument is presented below.

A formula for a good argument

A diagram on the formula for a ggood argument which includes deciding what side of argument you are on, research evidence to support your argument, create a plan to create a logically flowing argument and writing your argument
Figure 14.5 A formula for a good argument. Image by USQ.

What does an argument look like?

Use the table below to find examples of how you can illustrate your argument in academic writing:

Table 14.5 Argument

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Editing and proofreading (reviewing)

Proofreading and editing are two different stages of the revision process.

  • Editing considers the overall focus or bigger picture of the assignment
  • Proofreading considers the finer details
Editing mindmap with the words sources, content,s tructure and style. Proofreading mindmap with the words referencing, word choice, grammar and spelling and punctuation
Figure 14.6  Editing and proofreading processes to complete at completion of writing 1st draft of assignment. Image by USQ.

As can be seen in the figure above there are four main areas that you should review during the editing phase of the revision process. The main things to consider when editing include content, structure, style, and sources. It is important to check that all the content relates to the assignment task, the structure is appropriate for the purposes of the assignment, the writing is academic in style, and that sources have been adequately acknowledged.

Editing checklist

  • Have I answered the question accurately?
  • Do I have enough credible, scholarly supporting evidence?
  • Is my writing tone objective and formal enough or have I used emotive and informal language?
  • Have I written in the third person not the first person?
  • Do I have appropriate in-text citations for all my information?
  • Have I included the full details for all my in-text citations in my reference list?

There are also several key things to look out for during the proofreading phase of the revision process. In this stage it is important to check your work for word choice, grammar and spelling, punctuation and referencing errors. It can be easy to mis-type words like ‘from’ and ‘form’ or mix up words like ‘trail’ and ‘trial’ when writing about research, apply American rather than Australian spelling, include unnecessary commas or incorrectly format your references list. The checklist below is a useful guide that you can use when proofreading your work.

Proofreading checklist

  • Is my spelling and grammar accurate?
  • Are my sentences sensible?
    •  Are they complete?
    • Do they all make sense?
    • Do they only contain only one idea?
    • Do the different elements (subject, verb, nouns, pronouns) within my sentences agree?
    • Are my sentences too long and complicated?
    • Do they contain only one idea per sentence?
  • Is my writing concise? Take out words that do not add meaning to your sentences.
  • Have I used appropriate discipline specific language but avoided words I don’t know or understand that could possibly be out of context?
  • Have I avoided discriminatory language and colloquial expressions (slang)?
  • Is my referencing formatted correctly according to my assignment guidelines? (for more information on referencing refer to the Managing Assessment feedback section).

Conclusion

This chapter has examined the experience of writing assignments.  It began by focussing on how to read and break down an assignment question, then highlighted the key components of essays. Next, it examined some techniques for paraphrasing and summarising, and how to build an argument. It concluded with a discussion on planning and structuring your assignment and giving it that essential polish with editing and proof-reading. Combining these skills and practising them, can greatly improve your success with this very common form of assessment.

Key points

  • Academic writing requires clear and logical structure, critical thinking and the use of credible scholarly sources.
  • A thesis statement is important as it tells the reader the position or argument you have adopted in your assignment. Not all assignments will require a thesis statement.
  • Spending time analysing your task and planning your structure before you start to write your assignment is time well spent.
  • Information you use in your assignment should come from credible scholarly sources such as textbooks and peer reviewed journals. This information needs to be paraphrased and referenced appropriately.
  • Paraphrasing means putting something into your own words and synthesising means to bring together several ideas from sources.
  • Creating an argument is a four step process and can be applied to all types of academic writing.
  • Editing and proofreading are two separate processes.

References

Academic Skills Centre. (2013). Writing an introduction and conclusion. University of Canberra, accessed 13 August, 2013, http://www.canberra.edu.au/studyskills/writing/conclusions

Balkis, M., & Duru, E. (2016). Procrastination, self-regulation failure, academic life satisfaction, and affective well-being: underregulation or misregulation form. European Journal of Psychology of Education, 31(3), 439-459.

Custer, N. (2018). Test anxiety and academic procrastination among prelicensure nursing students. Nursing education perspectives, 39(3), 162-163.

Yerdelen, S., McCaffrey, A., & Klassen, R. M. (2016). Longitudinal examination of procrastination and anxiety, and their relation to self-efficacy for self-regulated learning: Latent growth curve modeling. Educational Sciences: Theory & Practice, 16(1).

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Academic Success by Kate Derrington; Cristy Bartlett; and Sarah Irvine is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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