Mastering Assessments – part 1, writing them

At first impression writing an essay or report is no easy feat. So difficult in fact, that they are broken into stages with equal amounts of help out there to master them: research (see the library); planning (see time management); note-taking and writing the draft (see Academic Literacy and Learning); plus further research and editing, then referencing (see library); before finally submitting (see turnitin). Then there’s help if you can’t make deadlines (see Special Consideration). In the lead up to my application for university, I even did a bridging class that revolved around mastering essay writing, section for section.  Before that I couldn’t write an essay at all, early evidence of my first degree indicates I knew nothing more than how to photocopy copious amounts of irrelevant information, killing trees and orang-utans in South-East Asian rainforests as I went.  I lacked any ability to turn that paper into my own opinions and thought, much less put it into an essay.  Which is why I had to do a bridging course.

Now, I believe that once you master the basics, they aren’t as hard nor intimidating as they seem, as I once thought. Time consuming, yes, after all it is a learning process – but not hard. In the next two blogs I will give you the basics to help you feel more comfortable with assessments ahead of the week 6-13 due dates for most essays and reports. Be sure to tune in next week over the Easter break for the second installment, but read on for the basics of writing larger assignments.

Perhaps you’ve already submitted a basic first assessment in the form of a reading review, quiz, or group task. Don’t rest on your laurels: next assignments will be due soon after the Easter break, such that you won’t really get to relax for a week – are you kidding? Break weeks are always for catching up and getting on top of assessments, but you never catch up totally. If you are slipping behind at all it is really important to put in more effort now so that you can stay on top of readings and have a chance to start the early stages of the major essays.

Library

First, before you start your essays, I want to add a reminder that that if you missed a library tour or starter class at Melbourne campus, it’s not too late – tours and starter classes run until 28 March. Book online via the training page at lib.latrobe.edu.au/training/.  It’s a great way to introduce yourself to the library, or if you’ve already done one, to refresh your memory, specifically with your assessments dancing around your head and ideas of what you will need to look for.

Researching

The first part of any assignment is to pick a topic and research. It is also the continued step throughout your assessment writing. There are a number of ways to build a research base. The easiest is to start with your readings. Consult your subject guide where it lists the weekly topics and the readings. Notice also the extra/recommended readings. Make these combined 5-6 readings your starting point. Read through them and find any relevance to your topic. As you read, notice any other authors these writers refer to – particularly common links where two or more of your readings refer to a particular book/journal/author. Next, look that book/journal/author up. Look again for common links. Already you should have about 4-5 references or more.  See what you know and write your skeleton, outlined below.

When you have feedback that you are on the right track, you can fill out your skeleton into a body. This is where any gaps will emerge and you can visit your libguides and faculty librarian for extra help, or just do specific searching on the library website, under google scholar, journals and databases. Hopefully with a solid effort, you will soon have a fleshed out assessment and you can move through the next steps.

Use your Tutors Wisely

Make sure you attend tutorials to ask questions about your assignments. Don’t be scared to ask for help, other students may have the same questions as you. Usually for short assignments there may be 20-30 minutes of a tutorial near the deadline allocated to answering your questions, and for essays it’s likely to be a whole hour. So come prepared to tutes with lots of questions and be sure to ask how many references they want! For one tutor 5 might be acceptable but another may want 12! Layout preference is another good one to check – if they want a hard copy. Many tutors want submissions through Turnitin only these days, which means via LMS, but there’s more info about submissions further below.

You can also check your subject guide or the LMS for your tutor’s email address to write them – from your student email. They cannot reply to your gmail/yahoo/hotmail address, so make sure every email to them is sent from here. TUTORS LOVE STUDENTS WHO EMAIL BECAUSE IT SHOWS THEM THEY ARE WILLING TO LEARN AND HAVE INITIATIVE, and that means they will be kind to you in class and in grading you because you made the extra effort. Fact.

If you have to write a first essay soon, and you are unsure, this is the perfect opportunity to email your tutor because while you can’t email them the whole thing, you can absolutely email them the following type of thing called a Skeleton Structure:

“My essay’s thesis/main argument is: …………………………….
And I am going to show that by talking about:
a) reason 1 (with x as example)
b) reason 2 (with x as example)
c) reason 3 (with x as example)
Can you tell me if I am on the right track?”

Your tutor will be able to tell you from that sort of thing (with or without examples) if you have demonstrated an understanding of the topic question and whether you need clarification or any further suggestions on how to improve. You will then be more confident in going ahead with your essay knowing you are on the right track. Incidentally, when you are making your first essay notes, that sort of structure is the perfect way of working out how much/little information you have and how you can expand it into a proper essay, and also how to move the reasons about so that the essay flows smoothly.

Turning a Skeleton into a Body

Ask any tutor and they will tell you that what they look for in an essay is the intro, where you tell them what you are going to tell them, then the main body, where you actually tell them, and then the conclusion, where you tell them what you’ve just told them. Essays are that easy. In the intro you would cover your main argument followed by the mention of your reasons, then you go into your main body where you give the reasons and examples (making sure that each reason links back to the main argument), then in the conclusion you reiterate the argument and the reasons plus a suggestion of if this is good or bad based on the evidence, and some sort of future amendment. For example, x is a bad idea because of the reasons shown, and perhaps x could be improved by doing y or z. Avoid using I and contractions (don’t, won’t) in essays and keep to formal language and a professional layout, including adhering to the subject’s preferred margins and double spacing. Have someone else go over your essay for spelling and grammar, at least initially, and leave your rough draft for a couple of days before the due date to clear your mind so you can return to double check it with fresh eyes. After a couple of days, read it over and make sure your argument is really clear, that you are saying x is right/wrong/complex because…

These tips really are the ground rules for essay writing and once you get the hang of it, you will find they are actually quite easy to write! I have always gotten As as a result of this formula, and my Bs and Cs have come from when my argument or examples weren’t clear.

Reflective Pieces

Several subjects require weekly blogs, journals or reflective pieces to show your understanding and engagement with the readings. Follow whatever tips your tutor and lecturer give you; some like them to be really informal in language and topic, like how you can apply or relate x reading into your everyday life, while others like them to be really academic. The common thread is to be critical in your reflections, for example if you agree or disagree explain why, and every now and then it helps to mention how this article made you think of…. (bonus points for entering something really out there, well dug out from a journal/article/experience you had).

The key for these assignments is keeping on top of all the reading and writing. If you skip a week, leave it for when you have time to come back to it and go on with the next week’s. If you try to read them in chronological order when you are already behind, you are destined to fail, or at least be stuck with a backlog come the due date.

Allowing time for competing deadlines

Time Management Planners are really helpful for planning single assessments via the assessment calculator, and for planning your time overall. I can’t tell you how important it is to keep to some structure in your life and be able to check off tasks as you progress, culminating in submission of assessments on time. I have been that person that tries to get three weeks of reading done in a weekend (x 4 subjects, yes!), and in the past I often wrote my essays in a weekend. Do I recommend pulling all-nighters to get as much info down as possible and submit that? No. These are the essays that don’t really make sense, could be better/gain higher grades and overall are clearly shortcut essays that lack good research and evidence. Not to mention how tired you are post-submission for a week after and drudge yourself blearily through classes and get further behind.

I hope this helps to give you some confidence when it comes to writing your assignments. They really are so straightforward. Also, take great relief in knowing La Trobe understands this is your first semester, so they are always on hand for advice and support. I can tell you they keep it up throughout your uni career too! It’s so encouraging that when lecturers and tutors continuously support you whenever you get stuck. The biggest key is just communication. They can’t mind-read, so as long as you identify yourself to them as the one who is a bit uncertain about assessments, deadlines, understanding readings, or whatever, they will do what they can to help you. So help them help you!

Next blog will run in school holidays, though our first years will have a break – I will conclude this one with Part 2, about submitting assessments, so you have it ahead of your deadlines. Keep an eye out for that one!

Be sure to comment below if you have any questions! And enjoy Easter J Bec.

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