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Understanding assessment requirements

Learn to understand and meet assessment requirements.


Titles and instructions 

You may be given essay or assignment titles which you will need to interpret. If you are setting your own title, you still need to make sure the writing matches the title. The title is not simply an invitation to write anything you like about the topic. It will be asking for something specific, and is often closely related to the module content and the module reading.  

What should I read for this assignment? 

Reading is a very important part of any assignment. Start with the recommended reading lists for the module, and for the session(s) which relate to this title (if relevant). Although you will need to read more widely, do not try to 'start from scratch', or you will risk spending a lot of time searching through unrelated material. Start with your reading list, as the tutors have recommended these articles and books for a reason! 

How can I analyse the title? 

You can analyse your title using the following questions: 

Which theory (or theories) is this question asking for? 

Can you think of theories from the module which relate to this question? 

What perspective(s) could you use to answer this question? Which perspective seems most suitable for you to use?

For example, a policy perspective, a critical race perspective, the perspective of the children, the perspective of a researcher. 

What would you need to add to the question to be able to answer it?  

For example, you may need to add the particular perspective you will use, or any definitions of terms. 

Which terms would need to be defined for the purposes of your essay? 

The "Definitions" section in Argument, voice and structure may help.

What position(s) could you take with relation to this question? 

How could you actually answer the question? Is it a question where you could say yes/ no/ to some extent? Is it a question asking for a solution, or is it simply asking whether something is a problem? This is another way of saying what is your main thesis, or your main point. 

Which examples could you use to help illustrate, support or explain your claims? 

You may decide to use a combination of examples from your reading, examples from real-life experience, or even hypothetical examples. Remember that these examples will have different levels of importance within the essay. 

Example titles

These example title formats may help you to devise your own title. You can also analyse them using the questions above, to help understand what tutors might expect when they set a title.

  • "The model of how people make choices presented by Krishnamurthy and Nagpal (2010) is too rational to be useful".  Discuss.
  • To what extent might marketers be able to affect the decisions which consumers make?
  • Is there a solution to the problem of our insufficient understanding of how people make decisions?
  • What is the relationship between the order people view products, and their final choice of product?  Discuss the possible significance of this relationship. 
  • With reference to at least TWO studies, compare approaches to the study of how people make decisions.
  • To what extent are you convinced by Bruce's (2011) position regarding approaches to decision making?

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Plan your assigment

Follow the basic steps below to plan your assignment.

1. Check the assessment criteria

Check the current student handbook (you will need to download the pdf file from the Moodle page for your course). 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:

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

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. Do not 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

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 do not forget you will report it with references, as described below). 

Further reading

3. Plan the structure 

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. 

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"). 

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. 

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. 

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. 

Further reading

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

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 Referencing and avoiding plagiarism, and make sure you are referencing correctly. 

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Develop a research proposal

The sections below provide guidance on developing a research proposal as part of postgraduate / doctoral studies or when applying for a research grant. Please note that the guidance below is generic and you should follow any additional specific guidance given by your department or funding body. 

What is a research proposal?

A research proposal provides a detailed plan of a research project before you undertake the research. A proposal is usually submitted before you undertake research for a final dissertation during postgraduate study, and before or during doctoral studies. A proposal may also be submitted as part of an application for a funding grant. 

What to include in a research proposal

A research proposal will usually (but not always) include the following key elements:

  • an outline of the background and context of the research topic/issue
  • reasons why the specific topic / issue is important (rationale)
  • a review of key literature related to the topic/issue
  • an outline of the intended research methodology (including consideration of ethical issues)
  • a discussion of ethical issues
  • how the findings will be disseminated
  • a timescale for the research.

Getting started  

Start by choosing a topic or issue related to your course. A broader topic / issue will need to be narrowed down to a more specific focus that can be explored or investigated. Recommendations for further research at the end of published papers can be a useful source of ideas. 

To help narrow down a topic/issue and plan your research project:

  • Start by re-reading some of the research papers which you read as part of your course. Conduct a preliminary review of the literature related to the topic/issue. This can include literature related to theoretical concepts as well as practical research. 
  • Aim to identify what is currently known and whether there are any 'gaps' in existing knowledge. This will enable you to determine how your own research will contribute to and build on what is already known.  
  • Identify how research on the topic/issue has previously been conducted in terms of, for example: approach, methods, analysis of data. 
  • It will also be useful to refer to literature on research methods – check the recommended reading list for your dissertation module / Centre for Doctoral Education guidance.
  • For Master’s level research, the contribution to existing knowledge does not necessarily need to be something completely new that has never been explored before. Your research could contribute to existing knowledge by, for example: adopting a less commonly used research approach / research method or focusing on a particular context (such as a school or country) where a limited amount of research has been conducted.
  • For doctoral level research, there will usually be a need to demonstrate more originality.

Writing the Proposal 

Below is an outline of the sections typically included in a research proposal. Specific guidance on how to structure the research proposal for a dissertation or doctoral research will usually be given by individual departments. If you are applying for doctoral research funding, specific guidelines will be stipulated by the funding body. It is important to follow specific guidance given by your department or funding body when writing your own research proposal for a dissertation or PhD application, but the following can be used as general guidance.

Title / working title of the research 

An initial idea of the title should be given - this is likely to be revised as the research progresses and can therefore be a tentative suggestion at the proposal stage. 

Introduction 

The context and background of the research topic / issue, as well as the rationale for undertaking the research, should be outlined in the introduction section. Reference to key literature should be included to strengthen the rationale for conducting the research. This will enable the reader to understand what the research will be about and why it is important. At the end of the introduction, include an outline (or synopsis) of how the proposal is organised. 

Literature review 

This should expand on the key literature referred to in the introduction. The review of the literature will need to go further than listing individual studies or theories. You will need to demonstrate an awareness of the current state of knowledge and an understanding of key lines of argument and debates on the topic/issue. The literature will need to be critically analysed and evaluated rather than just described. This means demonstrating how studies, arguments and debates are linked and how the existing body of research links to your own research area/issue. 

Research aims and questions 

The research aims and research questions should be used to guide your research. The aims of the research relate to the purpose of conducting the research and what you specifically want to achieve. The research questions should be formulated to show how you will achieve the aims of the research and what you want to find out. The research aims and questions can either be stated at the end of the introduction (before the outline of the proposal) or after the literature review – guidance from your department / funding body may specify this. 

Methodology 

The methodology section of the proposal should outline how the research will be conducted. This should include a description and justification of: sample / participants, methods, data collection and analysis, and ethical considerations. To justify the chosen methodology, you can refer to recommended reading for research methods as well as previous studies conducted on your chosen topic. 

Ethics

Including a detailed discussion of the ethics of your research project can really strengthen the proposal. It forces you to think in very practical and detailed terms about what you are planning to do.  

Timescale 

You may be required to include a schedule or plan of how you intend to conduct the research within a specified timeframe. This can be presented in a variety of ways but should generally include specific milestones (e.g. collection of data, analysis of findings) and intended completion dates. 

Reference list 

The reference list should include all sources cited in the research proposal. Departmental guidelines for referencing should be followed for in-text citations and the reference list. 

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Word count

The word count is a communication about the level of detail required. It would be possible to write a short statement of 80 words, or a thesis of 80 000 words, on the same topic. The word count lets you know information such as how much detail to give, how many main points and sub points to choose, and how detailed the examples should be. 

What is included in the word count?

Please refer to your programme and module handbooks for guidance on word counts as requirements may differ slightly.

What does the word count mean?

At IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society, you may be given the word count in one of the following ways: 

  • 2000 words: this means you need to write 2000 words, plus or minus 10% leeway. This means you need to write a minimum of 1800 words and a maximum of 2200 words. Generally, the more successful students will write more, rather than less, and will end up trying to reduce the word count to meet the limit. This is because they will have discussed the issues in more detail, given more examples and counter-examples, and used a significant amount of referencing and hedging language.  
  • 1500-2000 words: here, you need to write within the word count stated. There is no 10% extra leeway. 

Remember that in academic writing, once you start adding referencing, hedging, and critical commentary, you need many more words to say the same thing. The word count will probably start to seem short by the time you have got used to writing in this way. 

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