Tips on writing assignments

Tips on writing assignments:

Listed below are a few tips to writing your assignments. You may already be familiar with most of these points but it will be good to remind yourself of these points before you write up your assignment for credit. You can follow the steps below, and before you hand in your assignment, complete the checklist.  The tips are organised into 3 sections, which you need to consider when writing a masters level assignment:

  1. structure
  2. evidence base
  3. critical thinking

The steps you need to take when preparing your assignment are:

  1. Read the question - you may find it helpful to rewrite the question in your own words.
  2. Check that you have read all parts of the question - is there different subquestions?
  3. Check the assessment criteria - see the marking grid
  4. Write a draft structure for your assignment, with key headings and a bullet point list of all key points that you want to include in each section - in a logical order, so it reads well - as if you were presenting the information (telling the story) to your colleagues
  5. Send a draft structure of the assignment to your tutor - this should be done 3 weeks before the submission deadline, otherwise you will not get feedback in time.  It should not be longer than 2 pages.  It should only include headings and key points in each section - not full sentences.
  6. For each section, think carefully about each ‘claim’ and what evidence you need to back up these claims (see Evidence based section for top tips on how to do this)
  7. Search the internet and module resources for evidence to support your claims
  8. Keep a list of all references you use in the write format - you need to decide whether to use the Vancouver or Harvard format
  9. Next to each claim, write a sentence that summarises the evidence and the reference (name of author and year)
  10. Write down 2 or more points about the limitations of each piece of evidence, and a reflection of how that evidence might relate to your country
  11. Repeat points 6-10 for each section

BEFORE you submit your assignment, please check that there is:

  • a word count at the beginning of the assignment
  • title, introduction and conclusion
  • an answer to every question (and sub questions)
  • a source of evidence for every claim.  Re-read your text and underline all claims and make sure there is evidence for each claim
  • all figures and tables have a reference
  • references for each piece of evidence - articles, websites and opinions. It should be clear in the text what are your own thoughts and what are those of another person.
  • a reflection about the quality of  each evidence source, and how this evidence might apply to your country
  • a list of references at the end of the assignment
  • no plagiarism - direct copying and pasting of other people’s text that you did not write.  Use the Turnitin checker
  • a course cover sheet
  • a correct file name  - should have the format "SURNAME" "COURSE CODE" "DATE OF SUBMISSION" e.g Dick Heller will have HellerPUEBP12a23_5_12. A resubmission will have the file nameHellerPUEBP12a23_5_12Resubmission, while a second resubmission will have the file nameHellerPUEBP12a23_5_12Resubmission2.

Tips on how to Structure an Assignment

  • Outline: Before you start to write your assignment it may be a good idea to write an outline for your assignment which includes the main points you will be discussing. This will i) save you time ii) help you organise your ideas iii) enable you conduct efficient literature searches iv) help you divide up your word count between different sections.
     
  • Introduction: It is really important to start your assignment with a clear introduction that should include a brief background mentioning what the assignment will discuss, the aim/purpose of writing this assignment and a few lines to indicate how the assignment is structured/ organised. These would usually be included in 1-2 paragraphs.

Eg: This is an example of how the points mentioned above were included as part of the introduction for an assignment on the obesity epidemic and efforts being made to tackle it.

Background: Obesity is one of the major public health challenges of the twenty first century as its prevalence is increasing at an alarming rate in both developing and developed countries.

Aim and structure: This assignment discusses the pattern of development of the obesity epidemic and its epidemiology. It also seeks to analyse how globalisation, trade and debt have fuelled the problem. In addition, the assignment will examine the interventions that are addressing this issue.

  • Continuity of ideas: This is especially important as you write the middle part of your assignment. Ensure continuity of ideas both between paragraphs and within a paragraph so that the reader is able to follow your train of thought/ argument easily. As a general rule, discuss each main point of your assignment in a different paragraph.
  • Use of ‘I’ and ‘you’: Academic writing is impersonal so avoid using ‘I’ or ‘you’ in your assignment. Try and build your arguments by including evidence and opinions from different sources and different perspectives so that you present a clear, unbiased picture. If you want to include your opinion, then do so indirectly. For eg: Include your opinion by saying ‘In my opinion, implementing such an intervention is difficult because….’ instead of ‘I think implementing an intervention is difficult because...’
     
  • Bullets and numbering: Paragraphs are preferred to bullets and numbering in academic writing and this will allow you to discuss each point further.
     
  • Use of examples: It is vital that your assignments reflect that you have a clear understanding of a particular topic which has been gained from multiple sources and that you are able to identify weaknesses and strengths objectively. Finally you must show that you are able to apply this knowledge practically. Including examples in your assignment is a useful way to demonstrate all of the above. Where possible, explain the inferences that can be drawn from included statistics/ figures/ tables and the relevance of these.
     
  • Word Count: Ensure that the word count of your assignments are not far below or far above the suggested word count and as mentioned earlier, drawing up an outline can help you avoid both these situations.
     
  • Inclusion of tables and figures: Tables and figures can very effectively convey information to the reader without affecting your word count but do not include more than 2 of these. Also, clearly signpost the reader to each table/ figure from the appropriate part of the main assignment. Include clear headings for each table/ figure and clearly mention the source both with the figure/table and in the bibliography.
     
  • Conclusion: This is your final chance to impress the reader so make it powerful. Most conclusions include three main parts i) stating the aim/ context of the assignment again ii) followed by a very brief summary of the main points iii) final comments often considering the future (for eg: what can be done to improve the implementation of an intervention in the future)

Eg: This is an example showing how the points mentioned above were incorporated in the conclusion of a student assignment discussing strategic partnership within UNAIDS.

Context: UNAIDS is a unique collaboration in terms of the goals it aims to accomplish and its structure. It benefits from organisational diversity and varied specialisations among the partners. However this diversity can also be a hindrance while coordinating activities.

Main points: Duplication of efforts, lack of harmonisation of procedures, lack of effective evaluations among partners and inter-organisational competition for funding from donors have often adversely affected the collaborative effort. Building a well-coordinated and efficient collaboration between partner organisations of UNAIDS is an iterative and on-going process. Efforts are being made to develop results-based structures, to pool funding from donors to encourage collaboration and to align efforts of all partners to improve efficiency.

Final comments: By sharing their skills, resources, perspectives and knowledge, the partners will be able to develop integrated programmes, deal with obstacles related to the management of HIV/AIDS more effectively and strengthen their relationship with those outside the partnership.

Referencing: Remember to choose either Harvard or Vancouver versions of referencing and to use the same version while citing within the text and in the bibliography. Reference all citations in their correct format including web-pages and reports. A  great tutorial about citing the work of others and referencing is from the University of Nottingham 'Referencing your work with Harvard', and also please look at the Pdf document on 'Harvard referencing' which is information on how to use references as supplied by Manchester Metropolitan University.

Tips on taking an Evidence based and critical approach to academic writing

Here are some tips about how to take an evidence based and critical approach to writing your assignment:

  1. Re-read the question - you may find it helpful to rewrite the question in your own words.
  2. Check that you have read all parts of the question - is there different subquestions?
  3. Check the assessment criteria - see the marking grid
  4. Make a bullet point list of all key points that you want to include in the section
  5. Think about the order of each point
  6. For each point - what is the ‘claim’ - a statement which explains what information/knowledge you believe to be correct.  For example - my claim:  I think that the infant mortality ratewill be reduced by training community health workers to educate parents about fever management
  7. Think about how you know that your claim is correct?
  • Is it anecdotal evidence based on personal experience working in the community/health service, or based on experience as a community member seeing the behaviour of others?
  • Is it your opinion? Do others have a similar opinion or a different opinion? but it is not a subject that has been researched? why not? why might it be difficult to collect data on this subject? is it a controversial topic? is it hard to get funding for research? is it not a research priority?
  • Or is it based on a small research study you have done?For example - my evidence source: I have worked with community health workers  in Madagascar and seen how they can educate parents about fever managementThink about what evidence will back up your claim For example - I may search on google scholar to see if there is any published evidence that community health workers are effective at reducing infant mortality rates.  I will need to think about my search terms, and how to decide which articles are relevant.  Look at the Are You Ready module for a guide on how to search the internet for academic text. 
  • Or is it based on something else you have read?
  • Do you know if there is any published evidence in that topic? in your country? in other countries?

For example - my evidence source: I have worked with community health workers  in Madagascar and seen how they can educate parents about fever management.

8. Think about what evidence will back up your claim For example - I may search on google scholar to see if there is any published evidence that community health workers are effective at reducing infant mortality rates.  I will need to think about my search terms, and how to decide which articles are relevant.  Look at the Are You Ready module for a guide on how to search the internet for academic text.  

How can I chose my information sources critically?
When reviewing information (whether it published or unpublished information), it’s important to be critical about the quality of the information and remind yourself that all sources of data have limitations - it is always possible to improve and refine, and to consider ‘how’ it might be biased by asking yourself:

  • How was the information collected? where and when and whether there could be any errors in this process? Was it a robust method? how might those errors impact on the quality of the data?
  • What population did they do the study on? did they
  • Who produced the information – is there any conflict of interest?

Depending on how the information was collected, and who it was collected by, we might value it in a different way.

9. When you read an article, write 3 sentences that:

  • summarise the key findings - do any other articles have similar findings? or are they looking from a different perspective?
  • summarise the key limitations (think about completeness of data collection, did they use a robust method? did they think about
  • reflects on how the context of the research is different to the context in your country (eg how is the populaton demographics different? How is the health system different? how is the culture/behaviour different)

10. Each time you find an article you want to include in your assignment, then add it to your list of all references.  Make sure you use the same format - you need to decide whether to use the Vancouver or Harvard format
11. Repeat points 4-10 for each section

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