Plan Your Assignment
Follow the basic steps below to plan your assignment.
Use the menu on the left for more detail about any of the sections.
1. Check the assessment criteria
Check the current student handbook (you will need to download the pdf file from the main website).
Search for the criteria in the handbook using the 'Search' function. Please look at these criteria before you start writing your assignment.
2. Address the question/assignment/instructions
It is important to address the question(s) or instructions as directly as possible. Follow these three steps:
1) Analyse the question/title
What type of question, title, or instruction is it?
Is it a yes/no question? Is it a why question? Is it an open question? Is it asking you to critically discuss an issue? Are there two sides? (Are there more than two sides?) Is it asking for a comparison? Is it asking for an evaluation of evidence? Is it asking for a discussion of a causal relationship (a relationship of cause and effect/contributing factors)? Is it asking for a critical discussion of an article or book chapter?
Try to look past the details and identify what the simplest form of the question/ instruction is. In simple terms, what might the answer to this question be? What evidence would be needed to support this type of answer? ("Yes, because...”)
Generally, assignment instructions are not invitations to discuss an issue in a roundabout way. They are asking for a direct response. Try to identify what type of response is required. You also need to pay attention to what type of information will be required when answering the question. Are there any particular theories which you will need to refer to?
Are there any terms in the title which need to be defined, for the purposes of your discussion? This might include terms which can have different meanings in different circumstances. You can probably find definitions of terms in one of the recommended books, by looking in the introduction or first chapter.
Further reading: Titles and Instructions
2) Gather information
Before you can write your answer to the question, you need to gather information. In an academic context, this means information from relevant textbooks, journal articles, or published research reports or government policies.
If you have a reading list from the course tutor, look at the recommended books on the reading list, and identify which will be relevant to your question. If you are not provided with a reading list, you should try to identify a textbook which provides an overview of the field, such as an introductory textbook.
Next, search in the content pages and index of the book to identify relevant sections. Read these sections, making notes about anything that might be connected to your question. Don’t forget to record page numbers so that you can easily find the information again, and so that you can refer to it correctly in your essay.
If you are being asked to review an article or book chapter, you will need to read this thoroughly several times. Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts to reading the text thoroughly. The more times you read it, the more you will be able to say about it.
Further reading: Read Confidently
3) Generate ideas
Look at the information you have gathered, and work out how this could fit into a direct response to the essay title or an answer to the question. Make sure that you have evidence to support your claims. The evidence needs to be taken from the reading you have done (and don't forget you will report it with references, as described below).
3. Plan the structure
a) Plan your organisation/structure
The overall structure will be as follows: title, introduction, main body, conclusion. You will need an introduction and conclusion, but these do not add much to the content of your essay. Most of your planning needs to be how to organise the ideas in the main body. For the main body, make sure you plan how many sections you need to answer the question or address the title in the way you planned in step three above. You can experiment with planning different ways of organising the information. Choose an organisation that seems logical and that will be easy to read and follow.
b) What goes in the introduction?
- A brief explanation of why the topic is important, and the perspective you will take
- If necessary, a definition of any terms from the title for the purposes of this essay.
- An outline of the organisation/structure your essay will follow
- A brief statement or summary of your response/ your answer to the question (sometimes called your "conclusion" or "thesis statement".)
c) A logical structure for the main body
In the main body, how can I persuade the reader that my structure is logical?
Many different structures can work, but if you add linking sections at the beginning or end of your paragraphs, it will help the reader feel like there is a logical flow through the essay. Linking sections can include phrases such as “having discussed these two theories, the following section will provide an evaluation”.
You can see other examples of linking sections in many pieces of academic writing, and probably in the reports, articles or books you use to inform your own writing.
d) What goes in the conclusion?
- Re-state your answer to the question (sometimes called your "conclusion" or "thesis statement".)
- A summary of your discussion
- Any implications, consequences, or suggestions for further research.
e) Editing (important)
When I edit my essay, how can I check that I have persuaded the reader that I have answered the question directly?
Read your essay again, and check that each paragraph is either connected to the next through a linking phrase, or that there is some link to the question. As mentioned above, you can see examples of this when you read other academic work or textbooks.
4. Combine your own ideas with the work of others
This is an important aspect of the essay, but many people find it challenging. The most important aspects are understanding how to include your own judgement in an acceptable way in an academic context, and how to make sure you are referring to information in an acceptable format.
The section on avoiding plagiarism shows you some examples of this.
Further reading: Beginner's Guide to Avoiding Plagiarism
Can I give my own opinion?
In every case, you need to make sure that any claim you make is supported with suitable evidence. Usually, in a straightforward essay, the best evidence comes from published work. This means that when you give your own opinion, it will be based on what another author has said. In an academic context, your opinion usually seems more valid if it is based on published evidence, for example explaining how or why you are convinced (or not convinced) by what someone else has written.
Sometimes people think the advice given above sounds strange, as they want to give their own view, but you need to remember the context in which you are writing. In an academic context, your opinion is much more "interesting" if it is an opinion about another piece of academic work or evidence from research, rather than something completely unsupported. Unfortunately, rather than seeing this as creative thinking, the academic community will be more likely to see it as lacking suitable evidence, examples or support.
The safest way to give your own judgement in an academic situation, therefore, is to base your judgement on what someone else has written in a book or journal article, and reference that author.
How do I reference correctly?
Look at the section on referencing now, and make sure you are referencing correctly.
Further reading: Referencing