Posts Tagged ‘academic writing’

After correcting 30 assignments or so, I need a forum to vent my frustration of undergraduate students. Apart from the special few who can actually articulate themselves, there seems to be general mistakes being made across the board.

This may be a result of many students never receving writing feedback from assignments, perhaps many of them never have the opportunity to reflect on how they are coming across. In any case this post os all about the general traps that most students fall into when writing an assignment. Apart from simply learning how to write clearly, there are many things that all students should be informed of.

So here you go:

  • Formatting –1.5 or double spaced. It becomes imposible to read unless you present your work clearly. This type of spacing in general across the board and students are told from the very start of their term as a third-level student
  • Stick to one style (or a similar style) of formatting e.g. labelling section, margins and spacing paragraphs. Having paragrahs 1cm from the edge of the paper in one section and 3cm in the next is just not acceptable. Take pride in what you present
  • Space out sections adequately. By adequately, I mean make sure that all sections are clearly presented and not on top of each other
  • Label sections clearly – for the love of God!
  • In-text citation is generally done incorrectly. See academic handbook for the specifics on your college’s referencing system. APA is generally straighforward.

Incorrect: Jones, as cited in Martin 1995; Jones 1992 as Martin discusses; or indeed mentioning Jones (1992) without any reference to Martin (the cited source), and NOT including Jones in the reference section… you know this sticks out like a sore thumb and feels like a knife in the eye for each time ot is done.

Correct: Jones (1992, as cited in Martin 1995)…

  • Too much information put into single paragraphs. This is done cnsistently. Try to elaborate on ONE point perparagraph. Having said that, one and two sentence paragraphs are generally unacceptable
  • Sentences not logically following on from each other… please read what you write
  • Phrasing an issue for some; try to use clear and short sentences
  • Use  of informal language and personal pronouns e.g. use of ‘I’ and ‘my’ . This should NEVER appear in an academic essay/assignment
  • Use of subjective/dramatic adjectives. I don’t care if it’s REALLY RADICAL. I’ll make my mind up on that, thank you…
  • Important statements being made without academic support.
  • Topical issues – use of current topics such as political posters and current advertisements without references or academic support
  • Concluding in one sentence/one sentence paragraphs. You should be shot.

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This post will concern itself with how to summarize academic articles and what is the best way to prepare an academic essay (exam or term paper).

Most academic articels are broken down in the following sections:

  • Conclusion/Discussion – the end of the article, discusses implications of study and highlights contributions
  • Introduction/Literature review – may be very useful for a summary of the approaches considered
  • Method – the methodology employed by the researcher (s) in the study
  • Results – this is really the bones of the articel (of the other sections are the flesh and ligaments!). It shows either statistically or qualitatively the results that prove/disproves the hypothesis

Summarising articles well will really help with your research, especially when it comes to exams and essays. A useful summary will:

  • Make specific ties to your research
  • Highlight the argument of the study, i.e. findings, contribution to the area

When it comes to formulating a research proposal, answering an essay question or approaching an exam question, descriptive answers are usually redundant. You are usually asked to critically analyse (although they may not use the term ‘critically analyse’, they may say ’discuss, compare and contrast’ – this is all the similar ways of asking you to critically analyse). If we wanted to know the descriptive  details, we would open the book ourselves. You are really being asked to show adequate research of the field, an understanding of topic and appropriate material choice. You are basically demonstrating your ability to comment on a specific area of research, this is what you are usually graded on.

Early in the research:

  • Starting early is obviously ideal
  • Write a little, often
  • Gather your sources – most relevant articles
  • Establish your argument and where you are coming from
  • Stick to the argument – your essay must have a clear thread
  • Understand your argument – if you don’t, the reader won’t
  • Make sure you actually answer the question, it’s so easy to go off on a tangent
  • It’s not about the ‘right’ answer, it’s about adapting your knowledge on the topic and demonstrating an ability to comment on the area

A good metaphor or example of assignment structure is seen above with my example of a filter. Structuring your answer as a filter will allow your argument develop in a concise and comprehensive way. The example of a filter is suitable to essays, article summaries and exam essay questions. You generally introduce the topic to the reader, introduce your argument (1st paragraph) and then argue ruthlessly for your side of the argument! A good argument will also discuss contradicting arguments and evidence, but generally you will strengthen your own argument by doing so (as long as you don’t present a bunch of contradiction, which will seem like you don’t understand the material).

Another good metaphor for putting your academic assignment is to imagine the topic as a circle. In order to starts and establish your argument, you must look at the evidence and pick a point on a circle (the part of research most appealing to you) and construct your argument. In an academic assignment, choosing the material is your personal opinion on the area of research, which is why using personal conjecture is generally frowned upon.

Another useful (yet obvious) piece of advice is ALWAYS back up your work! Prepare for the unlikely or you may lose the will to live!! I’ve lost a few essays back in the day for not backing up correctly. I recommend using a memory stick and a storage site like dropbox. Alternatively you could email the file to yourself. Just make sure there is another copy of your work and save as you go! Obvious advice yet probably the most important and easiest to overlook!

Time management

–      Ideally, start early and write a little often

–      Leave enough time to gather all your resources (as in not the night before)

–      The subjectivity of research – some people will be able to reproduce the same quality of work in 45 minutes that others may take days to come up with

–      You know your limits and capabilities. I honestly could not leave it until the week of the deadline to find all my sources. Even gathering the appropriate material early is a major advantage

Resource management

–      Gather all your notes, lecture notes, selected articles and other material

–      Work as you see fit

–      Make notes, write paragraphs, memorise theories, whatever works best for you

Remember nobody is trying to catch you out, we were all in the same position at some stage – we know what it is like and don’t give exams/assignments for the fun of it.

Key terms

  • ANALYZE: Break into separate parts and discuss, examine, or interpret each part.
  • COMPARE: Examine two or more things. Identify similarities and differences. Comparisons generally ask for similarities more than differences.
  • CONTRAST: Show differences. Set in opposition.
  • DISCUSS: Consider and debate or argue the pros and cons of an issue. Write about any conflict. Compare and contrast.
  • EVALUATE: Give your opinion or cite the opinion of an expert. Include evidence to support the evaluation.
  • ILLUSTRATE: Give concrete examples. Explain clearly by using comparisons or examples.
  • OUTLINE: Describe main ideas, characteristics, or events.
  • SUMMARIZE: Give a brief, condensed account. Include conclusions. Avoid unnecessary details.

This post presents material I would generally give in a typical of a class. I give tutorials in academic writing for undergrad psychology students just getting started but I altered the material to suit pretty much any field of research.

I hope that some of the advice helps, however its certainly doesn’t suit everyone. In a class setting I usually get feedback from people who disagree with the approaches presented here or individuals who don’t find it helpful. This would usually result in me creating an individualised study plan for the student. If you would like more advice or help just leave me a comment and I’ll be sure to get back to you – even if I cannot directly help, I may know where to go for the best advice tailored to your needs!

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