The IPACE model - Understanding the nature of an assignment

Success in Academic Writing - Trevor Day 2018

The IPACE model
Understanding the nature of an assignment

The most common kinds of assignment you are likely to meet on an undergraduate or taught postgraduate degree course include essays, technical reports, practical reports, literature reviews, research papers, presentations and dissertations. Each kind of assignment has its particular purposes and conventions (Chapters 3 and 6).

Academic writing almost always takes place within a disciplinary context. Through understanding the conventions and practices of the discipline, you can develop confidence in writing within it and can ultimately develop your own ’voice’.

In this chapter you are introduced to the IPACE model: identity, purpose, audience, code and experience. This model helps you plan an assignment, with rigour. For example, it is through understanding disciplinary identity, clarifying the purpose of an assignment, and really knowing your audience (readership) that you come to know what kinds of writing style and document structures to use.

2.1 The IPACE model

For more than a decade I’ve been developing a practical model, which I call IPACE, for helping university students and staff plan their writing tasks. It has evolved from a model called SPACE, originally devised by Hickman and Jacobson (1997). IPACE has been tested by hundreds of students and dozens of staff, and many have found it helpful for focusing their thinking on the nature, breadth and depth of a writing task. Here I introduce the model and then detail how it can be used practically in planning an assignment.

I sometimes find that students plunge into a writing task without giving sufficient thought as to why they’re writing, what they’re writing, and for whom. Developing clarity on these matters at an early

stage aids in planning the writing task and helps avoid unnecessary struggle and wasted time later on. Thought and planning at the start yield great dividends later.

IPACE is a mnemonic (memory aid) that refers to five elements: identity, purpose, audience, code and experience. Considering these different aspects of writing sets the context for a writing task. Working your way through IPACE the first time, by reading this section of the chapter, can take 30­50 minutes. But once you have absorbed this approach, you can apply it to a given assignment in 15 minutes or less. The benefits of IPACE outweigh the initial time and effort involved in incorporating it into your practice.


In our personal and working lives we have more than one identity. For example, a psychology lecturer in her working life might also be a personal tutor, a research team leader, an editor of an academic journal, and so on. When she publishes in the academic literature, she sometimes writes for research journals (with papers written primarily for other researchers) or in practitioner journals (for example, with articles written mainly for psychologists working in the health sector). In writing for these two kinds of journal, her identity (or persona) is slightly different. In one context she is communicating for and with her research peers. That relationship - in terms of quality and power - is subtly different from one where she is communicating with practitioners in the health field, who may not be part of her peer group of researchers.

A student is likely to express a number of different identities during his or her time at university. She may be a sociology student, a daughter, a sports enthusiast, a valued member of more than one friendship group, and a student representative on a staff-student liaison committee. In any writing she does for these various facets of her life she expresses different identities. And on her sociology course, she is likely to express different identities depending on which module assignment she is completing, and for whom. Her identity when completing an essay for the Gender Studies module is likely to be slightly different from the one she expresses when completing a review of quantitative survey techniques for a Research Methodologies module.

As applied linguist Ken Hyland (2016, p. 44) proposes, in the context of writing, ’identity is a performance\ When we write, Hyland adds, we are:

constructing ourselves as credible members of a particular social group, so that identity is something we do; not something we have. Almost everything we say or write, in fact, says something about us and the kind of relationship we want to establish with others. (p. 44)

When writing academically, we are not just writing within a discipline, we are writing for particular kinds of people within that discipline. In fact, for individual assignments on an undergraduate programme, we are likely to be writing for specific individuals - those people who will assess our writing.

Seen this way, identity in writing is an interplay between what we are bringing to a writing task, in terms of what we disclose consciously and unconsciously about ourselves through our writing, and how we are seeking to engage with, and satisfy, the community of readers for whom we are writing. Arguably, there is always a tension between expressing yourself as you might wish to, and conforming to certain conventions of the disciplinary community for whom you are writing. Those, such as myself, who are in the business of supporting students in developing their writing, seek to encourage students to develop their ’voice’ within the discipline.

Voice, in writing, is a complex phenomenon, which I will not go into in any depth here. Suffice it to say, voice is your form of written words, within a given context, that someone can recognise as yours. In my view, we do not have one voice when we write but a range of voices for different contexts, which are imbued with a recognisable personal hallmark. In writing this book, I have a recognizable voice. Some of you, should you wish to do so, will no doubt notice my habits in choice of words, turn of phrase, preferred sentence and paragraph constructions, and forms of argument, that mark out this book as written by me.

I am keen to get students to think about the identity they aspire to have when they engage in a specific writing task, such as an assignment on their undergraduate programme. I encourage them to think of one to three words that capture who they think they are (in the sense of ’where they’re coming from’) when engaged in a specific writing task. I am not seeking an answer such as ’first-year politics student’ or ’pharmacist’. Rather, the kinds of description I suggest are more about ’action’ and are those that encourage students to think about themselves in relation to the reader of their work. Words they might respond with include ’guide’, ’explainer’, ’critic’, and so on. I use these words as a hook, to encourage the student to consider the kinds of qualities such a person would have and demonstrate. For example, a science student in writing a practical report might express aspects of their intended identity as ’observer’, ’reporter’ and ’explainer’. The qualities they identify, in themselves and in their writing, might include ’attention to detail’, ’being rigorous’, ’impersonal’, ’authoritative’, ’easy to read’, ’no nonsense’, and so on.

This process of exploring identity, and qualities associated with that identity, encourages the student to think more deeply about their engagement with the writing task, and their relationship with the reader. The process can be transformative, enabling the student to see not only that they do have an identity, even if this might have ’impersonal’ qualities, but that their identity shifts in a subtle manner depending on the nature of the writing assignment. Identity also shifts during the course of an undergraduate degree programme so that, by the final year, a student makes finer distinctions (whether consciously or unconsciously) about both the nature of identity in a given context and the qualities associated with that identity.


Exploring your academic identity in an assignment

For an assignment you are about to carry out (or have recently carried out):

(a)Write down the name or short description of the assignment.

(b)Use 1-3 words to describe your identity in writing this assignment.

(c)What qualities would you expect a person with this identity to have?

(d)Which of these qualities do you consider to be well developed?

(e)Which of these qualities are, for you, the least developed? Write down two or three action points (things that you can do) that can help you strengthen these weaker qualities.


The notion of purpose seems straightforward. What was your assessor’s intention in having you complete a writing assignment? This is often framed as learning objectives or intended learning outcomes. For example, ’The ability to evaluate various forms of evidence to determine the degree of success of a counselling intervention.’ Such a learning objective would seek to encourage high-level thinking - the ability to make judgements about different forms of evidence in order to evaluate the outcome of a complex interaction between people. Completing such an assignment would be associated with a host of skills, not least the ability to write a convincing analysis of a situation.

However, I think it is helpful to consider two further aspects of the notion of purpose. One is your intention for the reader. In other words, what do you expect the reader to gain from reading your account? In relation to the example we’ve just considered, this might be to convince your assessor that you have a sound and deep knowledge of counselling theory and practice that you can apply in order to judge the effectiveness of a therapeutic intervention. It might even be that you want to present to your assessor new ideas at the forefront of the discipline, but with which he is not yet familiar.

There is a final dimension to purpose that I think is important. What is your own purpose in completing the assignment? An honest, straightforward but not very helpful answer is ’Because I have to.’ This does not get us very far. It does not encourage your engagement with, and deeper understanding of, the assignment. Completing the assignment is not just a means to a short-term end. It is a stepping stone on a journey. What abilities will you nurture by completing the assignment? Many of these could be similar to those explicitly stated in the assessor’s learning objectives or outcomes, but your response might go beyond these. For example, ’By doing well in this assignment it will convince me that it is worthwhile to undertake further training, and that I have sufficient confidence in my academic as well as professional skills to do so.’

For some of you it will be much more motivating to consider where this assignment lies in the wider scheme of things. Some possible answers might be: ’Do well in this assignment, and this will add to my marks for this module, which will help me gain a good placement next year. Being successful in that placement will open doors for me. I’ll make good contacts and have more options about where I might finally find work, whether in the UK or abroad.’ So, reminding yourself why you’re completing the assignment is helpful in seeing its value to you, both now and in the future. This is likely to help motivate you in completing the task.

As shown in Figure 2.1, I suggest framing purpose in three ways: your assessor’s purpose in setting the assignment; your purpose in writing it, in terms of the intended effect on the reader; and your purpose in the wider scheme (specifically, to engage your motivation and encourage your learning).


Figure 2.1 An assignment’s purpose from three perspectives


Understanding the purpose of your assignment

For an assignment you are about to do (or have recently carried out): (a)Write down the name or short description of the assignment.

(b)What is the purpose of this assignment, as indicated by its learning objectives or intended learning outcomes? Note: If you do not know the learning objectives or intended learning outcomes for the assignment, ask your lecturer or tutor what they are.

(c)What is the purpose of the assignment from the point of view of the reader? What would you expect a typical reader to gain from reading your completed assignment?

(d)What abilities will this assignment help you develop? In the wider scheme of things, what is this assignment a stepping stone towards?

At this point you may find yourself thinking more deeply about the reasons for carrying out an assignment than you have ever done before. You may be wondering why you are being asked so many questions. Bear with me. Being clearer about the context for your writing - thinking wider and deeper about what you are doing, why, and for whom - will bring benefits later. Like spending time to learn to read music, learning to use the more advanced functions of word-processing software, or practising developing a drawing skill, some time and effort expended now will be well worth it in the long run.


The notion of audience (or readership) seems clear enough. It is the person(s) for whom you are writing. However, it is worth exploring below the surface of this. In an assignment, it is normally your assessor for whom you are writing, and through that writing, developing your own learning. The reader of your assignment, depending on how it is assessed, could be a tutor, a lecturer, or another student.

In my mind, when writing an assignment, you are trying to do two things. You are writing for yourself (so that your communication makes sense to you) and you are writing for your reader. With experience, one does both at one and the same time. Initially, however, you might write to make sense of the assignment for yourself, and then later review and edit the work so that it communicates well to your intended reader. Clarifying the nature of your reader is crucial.

Imagine you are writing an essay or a practical report for a course tutor. Having that person firmly in mind will mean, as you plan, compose, review and edit your work, that you are making checks (consciously and unconsciously) to make sure that you are employing appropriate style, viewpoint, level of explanatory detail, and so on. However, you need to be aware of how your assessor will view your work. The way an assessor will read your work is not in the manner that she might read the work of an established researcher in her field. In most cases, she will read your work to check that you have understood the concepts relating to the subject matter. She might only know that if you have explained them. If she were reading a published paper by a research colleague, she would assume much basic knowledge and would not require that to be explained. She is the same person, but she is reading the two kinds of work in different ways.

In my experience, assessors don’t always make clear what persona they are adopting in reading your work. Are they reading your work as though they are a member of the public (in which case they would require you to define or explain basic concepts)? Are they reading your work as though they are reading that of another researcher in the field (they might read a final-year dissertation in this manner)? For many assignments, it seems to me, assessors are reading your work as though they were a student at a similar or slightly more advanced level than your own. By adopting that persona, they require you to explain yourself, and in doing so, to show that you have properly understood what you are writing about so that it can be appropriately assessed.


Keeping your reader in mind

For an assignment you are about to do (or have recently carried out):

(a)Write down the name or short description of the assignment.

(b)Who assesses your assignment?

(c)In reading and assessing your assignment, what persona are they adopting? Are they reading your work as though they are a member of the public, a student similar to yourself, or who?

Imagine your reader

Seeking to step into the mind of your reader is a powerful way to improve your work. Have you ever stopped to think about how your assessor reads your work? Let us assume she has 80 scripts of an assignment to mark. How do you think she will mark them? In batches of ten? How much time do you think she will allocate to marking each one? What will she be looking for? What will make your assignment stand out from the rest? What will make your work easier and more interesting for her to read? Thinking about your reader in this way will almost certainly improve your work. When I write, I like to think of the expression on the face of the reader if I have succeeded in my task. Doing so helps imbue my writing with the qualities I think will be attractive to my reader.

Code (style, structure and format)

You want your writing to look right, sound right and feel right. If you’ve established your identity and your purpose in writing, and you can imagine your audience and their responses, then you are on the way to establishing the right code for your writing. Turning the thoughts in your head into readable prose involves encoding; that is, finding the right language or writing style, an appropriate structure and a suitable format.


Format relates to the medium and overall appearance of your communication. Is your communication on paper, card, in an electronic format, in sound only, in sound and moving images, and so on? If on paper, is it in colour? What is the page size? Which font styles and sizes will you use? Will the communication be printed on both sides of the paper, what will be the paper quality, how will text be laid out on the page, and will there be images as well as words? A communication on paper could range from poster size, to hang on a wall, to credit card size, to fit in a purse or wallet.

As a student, in most cases the format of an assignment is chosen for you. Commonly, if submitted on paper or as an electronic document, it is A4 or perhaps US letter size. If you have the opportunity to choose your format, think carefully about your purpose and intended audience, and exactly how he or she will engage with your communication. On one occasion I designed instructions to show car drivers how to replace a wheel if they experienced a tyre puncture when driving. I made the communication A2 size, laminated, with printed images on a fluorescent background, and few words. My reasoning was that the instructions could be readily stored in a car boot and taken out and used in poor light conditions and whatever the weather.

On an art course or a computing design course, for example, you might have far greater flexibility in how you might present an assignment. Rather than a poster or slide presentation, you might want to create a three-dimensional sculpture or a three-dimensional virtual model. In most cases these constructs would still be accompanied by text, in the creation itself and/or justifying your approach in completing the assignment.


The structure of a document concerns how the various elements of evidence and reasoning are organised to form the beginning, middle and end of a communication. Essays, for example, typically have an introduction (often 5-10% of the whole document), a body (typically 75-85%) and a conclusion (usually 5-15%). In some cases, assessors expect these sections to be clearly indicated by the use of headings; in other cases they may not. You may have the opportunity to indicate the flow of your argument in an assignment through the use of sections, each with its own heading. An essay is often easier to read and mark if it contains thoughtfully chosen sections with appropriate headings. But you will need to be guided by your assessor as to whether this practice is acceptable for his or her assignments. Structure is clearly crucial to developing the argument in your assignment.

There are many kinds of document structure, a subject to which we will return in Chapters 3 and 6. Reports of laboratory investigations in the physical and life sciences, for example, commonly have a structure that is the same as or similar to: introduction (sometimes incorporating a literature review and/or theoretical background), method(s), results, discussion and conclusion. It is true to say that most assignments - except perhaps creative writing assignments such as poems or short stories - have a recognisable beginning, middle and end, and the beginning and end may be indicated by ’introduction’ and ’conclusion’.

Clearly, for you as a student completing an assignment, you need to know the structures that are acceptable for the type of assignment you have been asked to complete. While there are some conventions (see Chapters 3 and 6), they always need to be checked in the context of a specific assignment on your particular programme at your particular institution. You may have the opportunity to be creative - and challenge accepted practice - but you need to judge whether this will be acceptable. If you decide to defy convention, you need to be confident about the expectations you are choosing to challenge.

Writing style

We have touched on writing style several times already. There are numerous facets to style, but some of the most important in relation to completing assignments are: how formal or informal your writing is, how personal or impersonal, what viewpoint is adopted, what conventions of argument are employed, and what knowledge is assumed on the part of the reader.


Aspects of style

Here is a sample of writing. Which of the answers (a)-(d) best describes the style of writing used?

In field experiments using tree species from boreal forests, the removal of soil mycorrhizae revealed a marked diminution in productivity (g fixed C/kg dry biomass/ yr) compared with stands of untreated trees used as controls. The mycorrhizae probably make micronutrients available to the trees with which they are associated, and through infiltration of root cells the mycorrhizae may serve to increase effective root surface area. Some mycorrhizae release anti-bacterial agents that may help protect the tree against pathogens. On balance, mycorrhizae appear to benefit the trees with which they are associated.

(a)Written in the third person in an informal style, with technical terms explained. (b) Written in the first person in a formal style, with relevant technical knowledge assumed on the part of the reader.

(c)Written in the first person in a formal style, with technical terms explained.

(d)Written in the third person in a formal style, with relevant technical knowledge assumed on the part of the reader.

Check your answer at the end of the chapter.


For the final part of the IPACE model, your experience is essentially the knowledge, skills and attitudes you are bringing to the writing task in hand. These apply not just to the content of what you are going to write but also to the process of writing it.

For example, imagine you are writing an assignment in response to the instruction ’Having viewed the video of the interview (exhibit A), critique the effectiveness of the interviewer Mrs X in carrying out the interview with the job applicant’. Apart from the video itself, possible sources of information for this task might include lecture notes, tutorial notes, textbooks, academic journal articles, radio or TV programmes, conversations with staff or other students, and relevant websites. But what about the process of writing the assignment? To what extent are you familiar with the writing style, structure and format of the assignment you are being asked to create? If required, do you know how to use computer software to draw and then import suitable graphics into your document? Have you experience of the particular referencing system you might be expected to use?

Thinking about content and process at an early stage helps ensure that you build in enough time to gather the information you need, carry out the writing, and then complete the assignment to the required specification. At this early stage, identifying gaps in your knowledge and understanding of content and process gives you enough time to seek the help you need, to address any shortcomings.

You have now used IPACE to consider various aspects of a writing task in some detail. IPACE is a powerful planning tool. By establishing identity, purpose, audience, writing code, and experience for a writing task, you are now in a much stronger position to carry out the task. You have identified your strengths and weaknesses, and potential gaps in your knowledge of content and process in relation to the task. You are now much clearer about exactly what you are seeking to do. At the very least you are in a more powerful position to seek specific kinds of help and support. Although the IPACE model may appear time-consuming, it will save you time in the long run. You will be more focused and much less likely to waste time gathering inappropriate or irrelevant material. Developing an appropriate style and structure for your writing will be less a process of trial and error. And having worked through IPACE once, you will find it much speedier to use the next time you have something significant to write.

In the next section we will consider how you can you use IPACE in just 15 minutes to help you plan and organise completing an assignment.