Answering assignments at a University Undergraduate level

Anyone who has been following my twitter lately will have come to the realisation that one of the things I have been doing for fun and profit lately is lecturing in IT Governance at Queensland University of Technology.

I have to say, as for the fun and profit side of things, I don’t think I can recommend it as a hobby for anyone J. Although you probably already knew that.

I have just finished marking the assignments, and what has struck me is the apparent difficulty that exists for students answering an assignment, so I thought I’d do a bit of a pointer overview for anyone who ever intends to submit an assignment to me in the future. With any luck, I’ll expand this blog post into something more by the time I get to lecture again in the subject next year.

Honestly, I think I will spend an hour in one lecture just going through this overview so that assignments (and by extension, exams) are answered well.

The following pointers are relevant as far as I am concerned if you are ever intending to provide an assignment that gets an above-average to good grade. If you follow these pointers you should at least pass the subject.

Listen to the lecturer

The lecturer wants you to do well. Certainly, I at least know that I’d rather mark good assignments than bad ones. So, attend lectures and listen when subtle (and not so subtle) hints are made regarding the assignment.

Phrases like ‘be sure to read the question’, and ‘only answer the question’ come to mind. Other magic phrases come to mind like ‘This would make a good assignment question’, and ‘Be sure to know what a <insert special word here> is’.

And turn up to lectures and asking questions is a sure way to get an insight into what the lecturer is on about. Not everything can be in the Powerpoint.

Know the marking scheme

Understand the marking scheme, and write so that you address it. For instance, with this most recent assignment, 40% of the total marks were for knowledge, 40% were for analysis, and 20% were for research and communication.

So every answer you give has to address this marking criteria.

Just so you know, Googling and copy-and-paste don’t count much as knowledge unless you’re taking a cut-and-paste class. To me, to demonstrate knowledge you have to provide some facts that answer the question, certainly, but it needs to be your own words (and back it up with research where you need to).

To demonstrate your powers of analysis, you have to answer the question ‘why’? It isn’t good enough to say, ‘do X’, or ‘this applies’ – answer the question why do it, or why does it apply? If your answer doesn’t demonstrate at least some reasoning, you’re going to be missing out on the question. This applies unless the question explicitly states you don’t need to follow the marking scheme for that question.

To demonstrate research and communication, you would firstly be expected to show that you have done some independent research. At an undergraduate level, this probably doesn’t need to be a lot, and in fact it is probably going to be ‘bad’ research. But with things like Proquest around these days there’s really no excuse not to find an article somewhere that demonstrates your point of view. Secondly, you need to write your answer in language that is grammatically acceptable. I know this is tough if English isn’t your first language, but it seems to be tough for non-native speakers as well. To me, to get the answer right, your answers need to be grammatically correct (at an undergraduate level, by grammatically correct I mean tense that is consistent, sentences that are full sentences with a subject, verb, noun, clauses, full stops – that sort of thing).

To me, given the state of the world today you don’t really need to worry too much about using active or passive voice, or even writing great prose (and to be honest, great prose is probably a communication hindrance). Good spelling is a must, but I personally wouldn’t start to ping you until I’d seen a couple of spelling errors every two or three hundred words. Beyond two it’s getting far too sloppy. Think about it – a 5-page report will be about 1,250 words – one typo every 100 words is 13 or so typos in that single assignment. I can live with that, but I can’t give you top marks.

Recall too that paragraphs are your friends, as are dot point lists. If it’s a full assignment, I suspect most lecturers won’t accept dot point answers, but if a dot point list answers the question clearly and easily, use a dot point list after an an introductory paragraph to get the facts out, and then put your analysis in paragraphs.

Format and technical issues

If you have a word limit, stick to it (at least within coo-ee of the word limit, please – more than 10% over the limit is probably going to be a problem for you, not me). To make your case about how you stuck to the word limit, I’d put the word count at the beginning of the assignment, smack dab on the front page.

Have a cover page, headers and footers, and, if your assignment has an appendix, a table of contents is appropriate as well. It will depend on the marking scheme as to whether this affects your mark, but in professional life as well as academic life the ‘duck theory’ applies: if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and sounds like a duck, it’s a duck. Make sure the assignment looks the part.

Be sure to give the assignment a good re-read prior to submission to check for spelling errors, word usage, and complete sentences. This means finishing the assignment 48 hours beforehand, letting it sit, and then re-reading it so you’re not so close to the assignment.

Oh, and make sure that little things like page order are done properly, and don’t forget to add your appendices in!

Read the Question

You need to be sure that your answer is actually answering the question that has been asked. This is particularly important when you have a restrictive word limit. Don’t spend a great deal of time defining a term when the question did not ask you to. This can demonstrate knowledge, but will never address analysis and evaluation capabilities, particularly when the definition is virtually copied and pasted.

Be careful that you don’t give the right answer for the wrong question. You can give a good answer, but if it does not answer the question actually asked you will do poorly.

Be certain that your answer addresses the requirements of the question. In answering a question, focus on the verbs that request you, as the student, to do something. Consider the following question:

1. Outline the importance of IT governance to Australian business organisations by accessing current IT governance research. Assess the overall IT governance of Mudflat Plains City Council and provide recommendations regarding steps the organisation could take to improve its IT governance processes.

To do well, the answer had to use words like ‘IT Governance is important because <insert reason>’. Research should be cited too in making this answer (given that the question asked you to do this by ‘accessing current IT Governance research’).

An assessment needed to be provided of IT Governance (e.g. ‘In my assessment IT Governance at MPCC is level 2 in accordance with the maturity model because <list some reasons why>’. Finally the answer needed to provide reasonable steps that could be taken to improve MPCC’s IT Governance processes.

Defining IT Governance is vaguely useful to the answer, but not much, and is not worth spending a great deal of time on as it is not requested in the answer.

I really hope that this helps some students with preparing an assignment at a University level.  I can see that next year I am going to devote a chunk of time to preparing an assignment.