In UK Higher Education, assignments can range from the traditional essay or report, to more innovative forms such as posters or videos. Whatever types of assignment you have to do, they all generally follow the same principles of asking you to communicate your interpretation based on evidence.
Your lecturers want to know your thinking about a topic and they value your own voice and arguments. This isn’t the same as wanting to know your opinion – opinions tend to be based on emotional reactions or unfounded beliefs. Instead, they want to know how you have formed a reasoned judgement or argument based on your evaluation of the evidence. They are more interested in your ability to question and challenge views and facts than just repeat them, and they will expect you to go beyond the material that has been covered in lectures.
This means that in your assignments you aren’t only expected to present other people’s views (although this is a good start!). You are also expected to do something with these views. This could be to form a judgement about which views are stronger based on the evidence they present, show how we can apply these views to solve problems, synthesise the views to present a more nuanced or complex interpretation of an issue, or use the views to help interpret the findings of your own research.
As mentioned above, your assignments need to be based on evidence. You need to reference this evidence to show how you have developed your understanding and so others can find your sources.
You need to give a reference for every idea you get from another source, whatever kind of format it is in (book, journal article, website etc) and whether you use a paraphrase, picture, diagram, statistics, or method, not just a word-for-word quotation.
The key to avoiding plagiarism is to have good, rigorous note-making and record-keeping practices. These strategies will help you avoid unintentional plagiarism, but they will also make your studying more efficient:
Top tip: It is really hard to paraphrase a source line-by-line as you can’t see the overall idea and it is tempting to lift phrases directly. Instead try reading a larger section, then cover it over, and imagine you are explaining it to a friend.
You may be experienced in referencing – but don’t be complacent! The referencing style needed for your modules at Reading may be different. It is important to follow the guidelines for your module accurately and meticulously. It can seem petty to be concerned about where the full stops and italics go in a reference, but it makes a big difference. Meticulous referencing shows the academic grading your work that you have a professional, academic attitude and you have listened to their instructions!
Your voice comes through in all the ways you choose to present, interpret and apply the evidence you select. No one will structure an assignment in exactly the way you decide to. Have a look at this model paragraph to see how much of a paragraph reveals your own thinking:
Model of a paragraph:
Of course, this is just a framework, and not all of your paragraphs will fit neatly into this model, but it does give a good guide to the balance of your writing. If you find your writing is a patchwork of mostly other people’s ideas, it suggests you need to include more of your own interpretation of these ideas. You selected the viewpoints for a reason, so what is that reason? Maximise the effect of every idea you include and make its contribution to your overall answer clear to your reader.
If English is your second (or third, or fourth…) language, you may be concerned about writing assignments and exams in English, especially if they are longer than you are used to. Don’t worry - clear, simple communication of ideas is best. If you use a clear structure and include linking words and phrases that connect your ideas into a logical argument, your reader will be able to follow your writing.
The academics grading your work have to mark everyone’s assignments according to the criteria, so they do not make special allowances if English is not your first language. However, a high proportion of marks are usually awarded for your use of evidence and the structure of your answer and these are not dependent on word-perfect grammar.
Top tip: Write to express, not to impress! Your writing doesn’t need to sound overly complex or convoluted to be ‘academic’. The best academic writing explains complex ideas in a clear, direct way.
Top tip: As a general rule, most academic writing in the UK doesn’t use the first person ‘I’, so minimise use of phrases like ‘I think….’ Instead use phrases like ‘It can be argued…’ This can seem awkward but it is designed to emphasise your use of evidence as opposed to personal opinion.
For more appropriate linking phrases, try The Academic Phrasebank (link below).
Sometimes use of the first person is appropriate, for example in reflective writing. If you aren’t sure whether or not to use ‘I’ in an assignment, ask your lecturer for guidance.
Proof-reading is an important academic practice for students to develop for themselves. Therefore, the University of Reading does not have its own proof-reading service and does not provide recommendations for proof-readers. However, we do understand that sometimes students want someone else to look over their work. You could swap with classmates and proof-read each other’s work, or you could ask a friend. Sometimes PhD students or language tutors in the University will take on paid proof-reading work but this will have a cost and you should be aware of the University’s statement on the use of proof-readers.
Most written exams in UK higher education have some common features. Depending on the academic culture you have previously studied in, these may be different to what you are used to.
To get the best result in your examinations, you need to do more than just revise your subject knowledge. UK higher education exams are not a test of how much you can remember and recount from your lectures or your textbooks. Instead you will need to put your knowledge to use to say something interesting and meaningful about your subject. You also need to get used to doing this within the allowed time.
The most effective way to do this is to practise making answer plans and writing timed answers (by hand) for questions for your module on past exam papers.
You will be able to find past exam papers for your subject on the Exams Office webpage.These will not be the same questions that you are asked in your exam, but they will give you experience of how exam questions are worded. If you are taking a new module or course which does not have past papers available, ask your tutor if there are any practice questions.
For more advice on revision, memory strategies, writing exam answers, and many other study topics, see the study guides and video tutorials on the Study Advice website.