Questions to ask your assessor
Two popular types of assignment
Within the realm of academic writing there are many kinds of writing assignment, such as essays, reports, projects and dissertations, each tempered by their particular disciplinary context. Across this range of documents, with different purposes and audiences, I have chosen two styles of writing for this chapter. Essays are common assignments in social science, arts and humanities disciplines, while writing reports of laboratory investigations are frequent in science and engineering disciplines. Other kinds of assignment, including business style reports and critical reflective accounts, are considered in Chapter 6.
It is important at this stage to be familiar with the structure and style of at least one kind of academic writing before progressing to researching literature and reading source material, which are explored in Chapters 4 and 5. All of you reading this chapter are likely to have to write an essay or a laboratory report during your time as a university student; some of you will be writing both. However, before we plunge into the detail of writing essays and practical reports, it is vital you are clear about what is required of you when starting an assignment.
Academic writing almost always takes place within a disciplinary context. And a specific assignment has particular purposes (although these may not always have been made explicit). To really understand a writing task may involve asking your assessor key questions, so that which was hidden or unclear is revealed and made clear.
3.1 Questions to ask your assessor
In Chapter 1 we considered that an argument - the basis for most academic writing - involves marshalling evidence and reasoning, and developing a line of reasoning overall, which leads to conclusions. However, what exactly counts as evidence and reasoning will vary from one discipline to another, and even between different sub-disciplines within the same discipline. In educational studies, for example, investigations that observe behaviour in a classroom may analyse qualitatively what people say for emerging themes. Such studies may use quite different forms of evidence and interpretation from those of researchers using scientific methods; for example, where many teachers are surveyed by questionnaire, and quantitative data are analysed. Both kinds of investigation may, however, be equally valid.
Increasingly, teaching staff in higher education seek to make clear what their expectations are for an assignment by giving guidelines, referring to learning objectives or intended learning outcomes, and providing assessment criteria. Even better is if examples of previous students’ work, for similar if not the same assignments, are available. These exemplars or models of good practice give you an idea of what you are seeking to achieve. You may even have the opportunity to view a range of completed assignments of varying quality, to gain a sense of common weaknesses or mistakes that students make, and what distinguishes the best work from that of a lesser quality.
However, whether or not this wealth of information is available to you, you may well have questions to ask, perhaps guided by the elements of the IPACE model in Chapter 2. The staff member who set the assignment, or the one who will mark it, is the best person to approach to clarify any outstanding matters. These are among the questions you might wish to ask:
✵In writing an essay, should a thesis statement be provided? Should the essay take a particular viewpoint and argue for it?
✵Can I use ’I’ or ’we’? Or should I write in the third person and impersonal, e.g. ’it is argued that’?
✵What knowledge can I assume on the part of the reader?
✵Is it appropriate to include sections and subsections?
✵What kinds of source material do you expect me to refer to?
✵Can I quote from sources? If so, how much?
✵Roughly how many sources do you expect me to use?
✵Is it appropriate to include tables and figures in my account?
✵What citing and referencing system, if any, is required?