How to write coursework to boost your grade

Summary

  • Always give yourself the necessary amount of time to produce your best work, avoid writing your coursework mere hours before the submission deadline.
  • Devise headings and subheadings to address the task or question in the assignment.
  • Use your time effectively, writing-up the coursework is only part of the job.
  • Information is so easily accessible nowadays, so take full advantage of the resources available not only in physical libraries but on the internet too.
  • Get into the habit of citing credible sources and stay consistent with your referencing system.
  • Proofreading and editing are paramount. It’s no good if the assessor cannot fully comprehend your coursework as this can negatively impact your overall grade.
  • Put simply, never plagiarise.

In this blog, I will draw upon my own real-life experience as a university student delivering countless coursework assignments, but also as an academic who had to grade coursework too. The aim is to give you some handy coursework writing tips that I developed during my time as a student alongside insider knowledge on the goings-on with coursework assessment to give you an idea of what I used to look for when grading written assignments. This will give you some new tools to help you produce your best work yet.

A person sitting at a table with their laptop writing coursework.
Writing coursework is an art. Assuming there’s no copying, no two people can ever write the same coursework as we all have unique ways of expressing our thoughts on paper.

Coursework?

As the name suggests, coursework is an item of work assigned to students enrolled on a course designed to assess their level of learning and understanding. Coursework is often confused as solely a written assignment but can vary in nature and can involve more hands-on activities like practical work. I will focus on written coursework in this blog.

Rome wasn’t built in a day… use your time efficiently

Take your time with your assignment. It’s quite obvious, I know. But, when a particular piece of coursework assignment means the difference between finishing a degree with a first-class award and a second-class award; time is your ally. Often times, coursework is given with ample time to complete, however, we find ourselves turning time into our enemy by starting work way too late. When I was an undergraduate student, I recall students would have coursework in the next day and, with the aid of caffeine tablets, would stay up all night to finish their assignment. It was never pretty; you cannot expect to produce your best possible work during the night mere hours before the submission deadline.

You must always leave time towards the end to proofread and edit your work to maximise your potential for attaining the best grade possible. After all, the text doesn’t have to be a literary masterpiece and it is forgivable to have some spelling and grammar mistakes if you’re just doing the run-of-the-mill report. Although, if you’re producing a thesis, something you’ll likely look back on in years to come with pride, it’ll be disappointing to find glaring typos.

Create headings and sub-headings

I personally found this approach really effective, because it breaks the task down into manageable bitesize chunks. Imagine you have been given an assignment, could be a question or a title, begin to come up with heading titles. The obvious ones are introduction and conclusion but there can be other less generic headings you can come up with for your coursework. At the end of the day, you want to make the assessor’s life easy, by enabling them to find key information within your coursework so that they can grade your work effectively and efficiently. The reality is that the person grading your work will have a pile of other coursework to read through and by the time they’ve read through 20, they may not be the most sympathetic.

Suppose you’re given the following assignment with a word limit of 4,000 and a submission deadline of two weeks from the date it was set:

  • Select a novel application for a battery.
  • Describe your battery system.
  • What are the investment and operating costs?
  • Present a business case for your new idea.
  • Give a political case for your idea.

Naturally, you could assign a heading title to address each of the bullet points. It will make your coursework more structured, organised and easier to follow. You now have the skeleton of your work which you can now begin fleshing out with quality content. Remember to break this task into manageable, digestible bitesize chunks as this will ward off procrastination.

So, how long can it take to write-up?

In this example, the word limit is 4,000 words, you now have five headings and perhaps an additional two for the introduction and conclusion. Your introduction and conclusion have to be relatively short so dedicate 250 words to each section. That leaves 3,500 words to be split amongst the five remaining sections, so that’s 700 words per section.

Break it down

You can squeeze up to 600 words of solid text onto a single page in MS Word using a standard-sized font. But I highly recommend interspersing graphics like graphs, charts and other relevant figures to support your work. Ensure you refer to these items and discuss them in the main text body and avoid just randomly inserting figures in your document hoping the assessor will understand its context. From my experience of grading coursework, this is infuriating. So, let’s say you estimate that your coursework will amount to around 10 pages including text and figures, but don’t forget to add a cover page detailing the coursework title, your full name, year of study, module title, the university/school and so on. Omitting this is just bad practice so make sure it’s included. Then there’s the table of contents and reference section which can bring your page total up to around 13.

Estimating how much time

You can even come up with an estimate of how long it will take to type the first draft of your coursework. Suppose, you type on average 40 words per minute assuming you’re a native English speaker. If you’re a non-native English speaker, then this typing speed may be slower depending on language proficiency. Anyway, let’s assume a typing speed of 40 words per minute, then it will theoretically take 100 minutes to type 4,000 words. Doesn’t seem so bad, but in reality, it can take a bit longer so let’s be generous and say it takes 200 minutes to churn out 4,000 words of quality coursework because you’re not going to be typing continuously as you’ll need time to pause and think!

This approach really helped me to tackle all my coursework assignments and even my PhD thesis which was over 60,000 words long (including figure and table captions, references and so forth). Now, you have an image in your mind of the scale of the task you can begin writing. Remember, you have two weeks to complete and submit the work, so it is realistic to find time to write this coursework during this period. Don’t forget to also factor in time to do some research and edit your work to produce the final version.

Get your facts together: research

Writing your coursework is only half the job, the rest is reading up and researching the subject. In the 21st century, we have access to instantaneous information at the touch of our fingertips. No longer will you have to rely on a library and its opening hours, the internet is open 24/7. At my previous institute, we had access to the university’s online library which had electronic copies of virtually every physical book in their possession. However, researching is a skill and it’s all about asking the right questions and knowing where to look. There is so much information out there and a lot of it is freely available. Check out Google Books where countless textbooks have been digitised with certain pages freely accessible. Then there’s Google Scholar which is a great resource for finding academic work to support your research.

Reference

It’s not just good practice, but in higher education, it’s expected that you reference and give credit to other sources that you mention in your coursework or any work for that matter. The two most common referencing systems I encountered during my time in higher education was Harvard and Vancouver; you can read more about them here. However, check with your lecturer to find out which system they prefer you to use. If they allow you to choose, then pick one referencing system and keep it consistent throughout your document. Whatever you do, do not switch between different systems otherwise this can confuse the assessor grading your work.

Now, when you cite something you must include specific details of that item in the references section at the end of your coursework. Below you can see an example of the format used to cite a journal article specifying the author names, article title, journal name, volume, publication year and page numbers.

N. Al-Mufachi, S. Nayebossadri, J. Speight, W. Bujalski, R. Steinberger-Wilckens, D. Book, Effects of thin film Pd deposition on the hydrogen permeability of Pd 60 Cu 40 wt% alloy membranes, Journal of Membrane Science, 493 (2015) 580-588.

Just be aware that the information displayed in the references section will vary slightly depending on the type of publication like a book, online news article or website, for example. You could input all of this information manually, but this would be awfully laborious so I highly recommend the use of reference management systems like Endnote and Mendeley.

Proofread and edit

This cannot be overstated but proofreading and editing are very important steps in the writing of your coursework, but can often be neglected due to lack of time. Check out my other blog which discusses the importance of editing. You may find it useful to perform proofreading of your coursework once you have your final draft completed. This ensures that you have a neat and tidy copy to submit. From my experience, to perform proofreading of a 4,000-word document can take up to 8 hours. Perhaps you are yet to fully master the English language or English is not your native tongue, you would then need to consider using advanced language editing. Advanced language editing would include proofreading in addition to restructuring and rephrasing of content to ensure that your message is delivered clearly and effectively. Advanced language editing of a 4,000-word document could take up to 12 hours. Now, the time estimates for proofreading and editing are just a rule of thumb and really depends on the English proficiency of the writer and editor.

In the past, I had graded coursework for a master’s module written by non-native English-speaking students and had the pleasure to read some excellent work. But then there were some international students who really struggled with writing in English. Consequently, their coursework was difficult to understand which had a negative impact on the final grade. Such students would have benefited from editing. It’s also not uncommon to encounter native English-speaking students who also struggle with expressing themselves on paper too.

If your assignment is for a STEM course, you could also benefit from scientific editing. This type of editing includes language editing but also delves deeper evaluating the scientific argument and modifies the text to best communicate new ideas.

Plagiarism: disastrous

Plagiarism is quite frankly despised especially in higher education. Avoid doing this at all cost. The mere idea of using somebody else’s work and disguising it as your own is frowned upon and students can be removed from a course for committing this offence. This hasn’t always stopped people from trying their luck. Soft copies of coursework are put through sophisticated plagiarism software to determine if there has been any cheating. But, think of it this way: the assignment is really a tool to assess your level of learning and understanding of a certain topic, circumventing this will only cheat yourself. Student’s aren’t the only culprits. I have personally witnessed academics doing the old copy and paste from Wikipedia. They were caught.

Grading criteria

Take a look at the table below to give you an idea of what sort of criteria a piece of coursework is graded on and how the grade is distributed amongst each criterion. Similar approaches have been used to grade master’s level assignment like in the previous example. However, different modules, courses and universities may use slightly different criteria, but it gives you a look into what assessors want and look for in coursework at the elite level.

Grading criteria Grade distribution (%)
Cover page and references 10
Introduction and project description 20
Project analysis 30
Economic analysis 30
Conclusion 10

So, you can see that including a good cover page and correct references are just as important as the conclusion. In this instance, not including a cover page can have a substantial influence on the final grade.

Handy tips

Here’s a list of things to keep in mind when writing your coursework:

  • Do not plagiarise.
  • If you insert a figure into your coursework, always make sure to refer to it in the main text body and explain how this item supports your arguments.
  • If you make a claim, back it up with evidence. Citing a credible source is definitely recommended rather than something your friend told you once.
  • Double-check that what you state is factually correct.
  • Be mindful of taking online images and using them in your coursework. Always make sure you cite the images and ensure it adds to the overall narrative.
  • Remain within 10% of the word limit. Going outside of this can affect your grade.
  • If you include a mathematical equation, be sure to clearly define all terms.
  • Include a cover page, page numbers, table of contents, list of figures and tables as well as a references list.
  • Be consistent with your referencing system and with the format that sources are listed in the references section.
  • Edit and polish your work to maximise the potential for attaining your best possible grade.
  • Address every single point in the assignment to ensure you have the best chance of getting your top grade. Not doing this can cost you dearly.
  • If you’re including calculations, explain your assumptions and ensure that the maths is correct.
  • Seek out past coursework for your module/course that has been graded and use this as a blueprint to write your own.
  • Avoid the use of contractions e.g. use ‘do not’ instead of ‘don’t’.
  • Use the passive voice rather than the active voice in your writing. When in doubt, emulate the writing style used in textbooks and other formal publications.

What do you think?

Do you think I’ve missed something? Do you need proofreading, editing, course designing, grant proposal writing or consultancy services? I’d love to hear from you. Get your free quote today!

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Naser Al-Mufachi
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