I’ve just spent the last fortnight, in between my own studies, marking first year assignments. At times, I’ve seriously wondered about the future of Australian science, but then one wonderfully written piece arrives on my desk and I stop trying to design drinking games (a student wrote something unintentionally rude because they didn’t proofread – one drink). I feel like I need some particular comments on a rubber stamp, I had to say them so often. So from a tutor who isn’t quite so bitter and twisted yet, I’d like to offer my general advice as the end of semester approaches.
There seems to be a prevailing attitude that students start off with full marks and lose them for doing things wrong. I have only met one academic who marks this way. In fact, you generally start with zero and earn marks. If marking an essay or report, my method is to scan it once to decide which mark bracket it sits in (e.g. a credit or a distinction) and then read again more carefully to check what you’ve actually written and give you marks for both content and style (of the writing, not the aesthetics; unless we’re talking graphs). If it is an assignment comprising short answer questions, there will usually be marks allocated to specific phrases or concepts and then a few extra for stringing it all together in some kind of intelligent way. If you can, have a look at the value of each question and approach it accordingly – this is as relevant at university as it was in the HSC.
If you would like me to spend my time on a Friday night reading your assignment instead of going on a hot date, I expect you to have put time and effort into completing it. It is really obvious when you haven’t. Read the assignment brief and then make sure you answer the question, the whole question and nothing but the question. Seriously, if you miss parts you can’t earn marks and if you drivel on about irrelevant rubbish, you are wasting everyone’s time. This is a fine line, as you do want to show that you have done your research and offer some insights, but keep the storytelling in check.
In terms of your research, consider what constitutes an appropriate information source. If you have been asked to write a scientific paper, you want to go to academic journals, government sources and textbooks well before you start hitting newspapers and blog posts. Go to the Bureau of Meteorology for your weather data, not the Sunrise forecast. Use Wikipedia for a quick overview, but move on – don’t ever use it as your final source.
Once you have your resources, cite them correctly, for goodness’ sake! Find out what referencing style you are expected to use (e.g. Harvard, APA, Chicago or as per a specific journal) and USE IT. Consider referencing software like Endnote or Mendeley if you are doing a giant piece with lots of references, as doing it all properly can be tedious. Remember, it is very easy for your examiner to check your references and citations, so make sure you only include references you cite in the text and reference everything you cite. It is also important to acknowledge other people’s work instead of plagiarising, as this could see you booted out of your institution.
Before you hand in, proofread! Then, once you’ve reviewed it yourself, hand it to someone else and have them proofread as well! Family members and housemates who are not familiar with the technical aspects of your work can still make great proofreaders, as they tend to pick up more grammatical, spelling and logical errors. My poor best friend, who is a professional artist, feels that she’s done a geology degree by proxy through me, reading over everything for me over the last few years. It’s worth it – I had a student recently write a biography which said “E is a girl in which you can thrust”. (Yeah, pretty sure that last word was meant to be trust.) Spell check doesn’t pick up everything, especially if it is in the wrong language – make sure you set it to Australian English.
Finally, when you are doing your assignment, consider how it fits into the broader concepts of the course. Are you doing some simple calculations after another assignment about significant figures? Then round correctly or you won’t get full marks. Are you giving a seminar in a unit about oral presentation skills? We gave you an entire workshop on slides for a reason, guys. Assume you tutor is marking your work last in the pile and is sick of picking up the basic things and sounding like a broken recorder. Make your work the one that stands out and gets 90 just because you followed the guidelines properly and gave us something nice to read at the end of a long night.