Beginning with

the title

Keywords • Disadvantages of just looking for keywords • Analysing the assignment

I can't answer this. I don't understand the question.

Students often don't answer the question that has been set.

I can't answer this, I don't know anything about it.

We saw in the previous chapter how you are likely to find it necessary to write in different ways for different courses during your time at university. This chapter will look at ways of developing strategies to analyse and work with your assignments, which should help you to approach the different pieces of writing that you have to do. It builds on the activities that we have suggested so far. We will begin with the title. One criticism frequently levelled at students by lecturers is that students do not answer the question. One lecturer put it like this:

When my students ask me about essay writing, there are three main pieces of advice that I give them. One, answer the question. Two, answer the question. Three, answer the question.

At the same time, students often complain that they find it difficult to work out what the question is asking of them. When they seek advice they may find that they receive the kind of response that this student experienced:

I didn't really understand the question, none of us did, so I went to my tutor and asked what it meant and how I should write it. She said that she could not give me any further advice because that was the point of the exercise, to work out how to answer the question.

Despite this student's experience, our advice to you is that initially, if you really are having difficulties answering a particular assignment question, then you should go to your tutor and ask his or her advice. We have made this point previously and we will be making it again throughout the book. However, we hope that by the time you have worked through this chapter you will feel more confident in tackling questions which seem daunting and unfamiliar.

4.1 Keywords

One way that students are often taught to approach a new title is to pick out the keywords and work with these to understand how they should approach the assignment. A student described how she had used this approach at A level:

My strategy for dealing with the essay title is one that I learned at school. Basically, I pick out keywords from the title and plan my structure around that. Then I try to write from this, putting together the introduction, the main body and lastly the conclusion. The trouble is that I keep getting blocked and can't get any further with the writing. When I try to write from the plan then I just drift off when I'm writing.

With the keywords approach you pick out what seem to be the important parts of the question and ignore the linking words. The focus is on leaving out the less important linking words and picking out both the content keywords (what the assignment is about) and the academic keywords such as those in the list below:

Academic keywords

Discuss Explain

Compare and contrast






Critically examine Assess

Activity Nine: Identifying academic keywords

One way of usefully working with the academic keywords of the question is to spend some time thinking about the meanings of these words. Look at the above list. Look over some of the questions for written assignments in your course.

• Why do you think the lecturer has used a particular academic keyword rather than another?

• Write down your own ideas about what the academic keywords mean (do not use dictionary definitions).

4.2 Disadvantages of just looking for keywords

Although we feel that looking for the keywords can be a useful starting point, as we hope you will have learnt by trying out Activity Nine, there are two main reasons why we want to help you to go further in your approach to answering the question.

First, the keywords approach 'locks you in' to the academic wording of the question. In our experience, for students successfully to unpack the question that they have either been set or chosen to answer, they need to 'translate' the question into words and language that make most sense and feel most familiar to them. This is part of what we were asking you to do in Activity Nine.

Second, the keywords approach tends to be most useful for traditional 'academic essays' but less useful for other kinds of assignment writing. The traditional academic essay question is often characterized by the use of academic keywords like those listed above. Focusing on these does not help very much if you have to write an assignment which is not in the form of a traditional academic essay. If we really want to understand the complexity of a question, then we need to do more than identify either the academic keywords or the content keywords. What is really important is for you to work on developing your own sense of what a particular assignment title means. You will need to get to grips with and grasp the meaning of the whole question and not just some bits of it. In the next section we illustrate a method that we believe should be able to help you approach any written assignment that you have to complete during your time as a university student.

4.3 Analysing the assignment

The following five points outline a method for analysing your own writing tasks, beginning with the title. Read through these first and then read through the three examples. The three examples illustrate how this method can be used with different types of written assignment in different subject areas.

1. Write down in your own words what you think the assignment is asking you to do. The purpose of this exercise is to get you to consider the question in your own words and through your own ways of expressing things, using language that feels comfortable and familiar to you. Try to describe and write down what you think this assignment is asking for in your own terms rather than in 'academic language'. This will help you to make more sense of the question. This is an important part of the analysis. It can take a lot of time to do and you might find it difficult, particularly if you are approaching a question which you do not feel very confident about answering. For this reason we suggest that you do not use notes for this section but write out what you are thinking in full. If you find this difficult to begin with, then use a tape recorder and answer this section from your own tape recording. You could also talk it over with another student. You should be able to see from the examples below how you might be likely to approach your own assignment analysis.

2. What do you already know about the subject matter of the assignment?

Once you have begun to analyse the question you can start to relate your analysis to what you already know about the subject matter. Answering the question and writing the assignment are never just about putting down everything that you know about a subject. What you know has to be presented in relation to the question that has been set. This is why at this stage it is useful to begin to think about what you know in terms of the assignment title. Write down what you already know and how this relates to the title. If you find it easier you can use notes to complete this section.

3. What do you need to know to help you complete this assignment successfully? This might seem a strange question - how can you know what you don't yet know? However, you will find that this question does help you to begin to focus on the gaps in your knowledge. By this stage you have got some way into analysing the title and begun to think about what you know already, and how this knowledge can be used to help you to write your assignment. Starting from your analysis of these things so far, you will be able to identify in general terms what you will need to know more about before you can get going with the writing. You might find it helpful to use a spider diagram at this stage. Then it might be easier to see the gaps, the missing bits that you need to help you complete the writing task that has been set.

4. How do you think this assignment differs from or is similar to other assignments that you are working on at the moment?

In Activity Eight we asked you to compare different assignment titles, and working on that task will help you with this section. As we illustrated in Chapter 3, students frequently find that they are having to work on quite different pieces of written work at the same time (see also Chapter 12). We cannot stress enough how important it is to consider each assignment as a piece of writing in its own right. Each assignment title needs its own analysis. Of course, as you become more proficient in writing at university you will become much quicker at unpacking each title and each piece of written work. We feel that one way of helping you to do this is to get you to be able to feel the contrast and differences between the assignments that you are having to complete. This is why this section is concerned with contrast and getting you to identify the similarities and differences between assignments. This is particularly worthwhile if you are taking a modular degree course because what you have to write, and the way in which you write, can be very varied across courses and between different disciplines and subject areas.

5. How are you going to choose your reading material?

Choosing what you need to read is an important part of the process of writing an assignment. There is no point in just choosing a book which seems to be related to the subject of the assignment. What you need to do is to consider carefully what you are going to need to complete this particular piece of work and then choose your material accordingly. The reading list that you have for the course is there to help you and should be your starting point. It is not enough just to look at the titles of books, you need to make full use of indexes when you are choosing what to read. The index will help you to decide whether a particular book will be useful for this particular assignment. If you really have trouble getting hold of books from the library then consult your tutor about alternative reading that would be helpful. Additionally, searching the library catalogue can help to throw up other related source material and you can then check the indexes of any likely books for their suitability. In Chapter 8 we examine using sources in more depth, and in Chapter 12 we also explore using the Internet to search for resources to help you with your assignment.

Now, using the numbered headings above we are going to work through three examples of analysing assignments.

Example A

'"A reading of Kim tells us more about the British than about India." Discuss.'

1. Write down in your own words what you think the assignment is asking you to do. This essay is asking me to think about the book Kim by Rudyard Kipling and the way in which it describes the British in India during the time of colonial rule. Although an obvious way of looking at the book would be to analyse what it tells us about India at that time, this assignment is asking me to do something rather different and to look at the book in a particular way. The word 'discuss' is probably quite important here since the question is framing things in a way which suggests that the book can actually give us more understanding about the British in India than about India and Indian culture. I think that is why the lecturer has used the word 'discuss'. I do not think that he wants me to just put forward the view of the quote in the essay title. I think he wants me to argue against this in some way and to put forward different points of view using examples from the text, the book Kim, as evidence, if you like, to support my point of view and what I think in relation to the viewpoint put forward in the essay title. I would use quotes from the text to support my ideas. So I really have to do two things here, I think: on the one hand, find evidence in the text to support the views expressed in the quote; and on the other, put forward some alternative viewpoints, and for this I would need to find examples in the text to help support what I wanted to say. I have not read the book yet so I cannot say a lot more about the question at this stage. But I will be using ideas that I have learnt in other parts of my course to help me to understand and analyse the text.

2. What do you already know about the subject matter of the assignment?

I don't know much about the subject matter because I haven't actually read the book yet. However, this is part of a course on literature about British colonial rule in India and so I do have some background knowledge from the other novels that I have read and also a bit from a biography of Rudyard Kipling that is on our reading list.

3. What do you need to know to help you complete this assignment successfully? Basically, I really need to know the book well so that I can analyse the text and make sense of the question. I think I also need to do some historical reading about the British in India, which is on our reading list, and I haven't done any of that yet. With this kind of essay I think that the main thing is to know the book really well and use quotes to support what I want to say. I expect I will use my lecture notes as well, which are not particularly about this book but will give me a better idea how to approach the subject matter of the question.

4. How do you think this assignment differs from or is similar to other assignments that you are working on at the moment?

I'm writing another assignment for an early drama course at the moment. That's a bit different and in a lot of ways it is much easier than this one. In the drama course there doesn't seem any need to develop any kind of argument or put forward different points of view. It just seems to be describing a particular play and the stage settings of it, that kind of thing. We have been given some very clear guidelines on how to do this.

5. How are you going to choose your reading material?

Mostly, I shall use the actual novel but we do have a good reading list. If I'm stuck on the background bits about the British in India, then either I will ask my tutor or I'll try to do a library search.

Example B

'Working in pairs, use the following question to put together a written portfolio: Outline the key developments in the women's suffragette movement between the 1860s and the First World War. Why was there opposition to its growth?'

1. Write down in your own words what you think the assignment is asking you to do. This is really different to anything that I have done before. It's what is called a portfolio for history - we have to collect together different kinds of material, and we have to pair up with someone else so I'm not quite sure exactly how that is going to work out. There are really two parts to it: there's the bit we present in our seminar, which we do together, and then the writing bit that we actually do on our own. Although the title is broken up, so that it seems that there are two separate bits to this assignment, I think I would really tend to put them together in my writing. I wonder what it really means, using the word 'outline'. It sounds as if you just have to list the actual events and things that happened between those dates. Although I haven't really ever done any history before, I know that it is very unlikely that we are just meant to be listing and describing things. Anyway the second part, I think, is probably the key because we have to suggest reasons for people being against the suffragettes. To do that I have to know what else was going on at the time and why people might have been thinking the way that they were. I suppose I have to put together getting the right facts and dates with some kind of analysis of why things might have happened in a particular kind of way and at a particular time. I also need to talk about not just how the suffragette movement developed but why it developed in that way, bearing in mind other things that were going on politically and socially at that time. Of course, it would be the other things that were going on in the economic, political and social climate that would influence the support or opposition that the suffragettes might experience. So although on first reading it looks quite simple, it is actually quite complex. It is not just a question of knowing that the movement developed in a particular way or that people were opposed to it. It's more analysing why the movement developed in that way in the light of other things happening at the same time. It's also about being able to understand and analyse the opposition as people would have seen it at that time.

2. What do you already know about the subject matter of the assignment?

I don't really know much yet about the suffragettes, except about the general bits that we have done in lectures about what was going on at this time and where the movement developed from. I certainly need to be clearer about the chronology of a lot of different events at that time, what came before or after what. I do know how the analyses of historical events are closely linked to one another, we've done a lot about that in our lectures. I will be using this idea in my portfolio - that is, that the suffragette movement didn't just happen in isolation. I know that a lot of people were opposed to the suffragettes because they were women but I am not really clear about it.

3. What do you need to know to help you to complete this assignment successfully? Because we have to put together a portfolio I need to read some bits of original documents, maybe from writers or newspapers of the time, which I can use as my sources and evidence. I'll need to be able to analyse these to answer the question and particularly to provide evidence of the opposition to the suffragettes. This is quite a bit longer than an essay and we get 60 per cent of our marks on this course for this so it's important that I put a lot of work into it. The other thing is that I need to do quite a bit of reading, not just about the suffragette movement but also about the way that things were changing at the time, things like the beginnings of the Labour Party and the effect this could have had on people's thinking about women's issues. When I am writing this I am going to have to know the different positions of different writers because I cannot just write from one viewpoint. I'll have to put forward different historians' ideas and interpretations of what was going on at the time. We've got a really good reading list with this course, so I'm going to try the library and see what I can get hold of. If that doesn't work, my tutor says that she has copies of some of the most important chapters and articles that we can borrow from her office.

4. How do you think this assignment differs from or is similar to other assignments that you are working on at the moment?

Well basically, although it looks like an ordinary essay question, it is much more in depth because we have to present a portfolio. There are two good things about it which make it easier in some ways. One is that we have to work together with someone else, and the other is that we have to make a seminar presentation before we actually get down to the writing of it. This means that I can get some ideas from the other people in my seminar group and from my tutor at the seminar. So I'll try to make notes of the important things that come out of that and put those in my portfolio. Although we actually work in pairs a lot, the final writing of the portfolio is something we do on our own. It's also a bit different because we have to merge together so many different things, using original documents, primary and secondary sources, but still finally presenting a sort of argument once we have put everything together.

5. How are you going to choose your reading material?

I've already answered this but I suppose the only bit to add is how I'll choose what to read once I have got hold of the books on the reading list for this course. I shall be really careful to check the index because once I just went for the chapter that looked as if it was the most relevant. I missed another really important part of the book because I was in a rush, and couldn't be bothered to go and plough through the index and look up all the references for the subject I was writing the essay about. Because of that I missed an important bit in my essay and got a really bad mark for it. It meant that I missed out a whole lot of important ideas because they were not in the chapter I had been looking at. I think it's really important to look at the index carefully and not just look at the titles of the chapters in books.

Example C

'Detail some of the methodological and theoretical problems raised by the collection and representation of linguistic data, with specific reference to your own project.'

1. Write down in your own words what you think the assignment is asking you to do. This is a really difficult question, but it is a compulsory first assignment for this course. I am not really sure how to go about answering the question because until now we have always had to write our essays using books and articles. In fact, sometimes we've been quite discouraged from bringing in pieces of our own research. I think fundamentally we have to put together two rather different parts of this assignment. The first part is to present in some way the linguistic data that we have collected. We have to transcribe 10 minutes of an interview or conversation. I checked that with the tutor. The second part is about analysing the problems that we had with collecting the data and relating this to the theories that we have read and the things that we discussed in our seminars. These are theories about language, speaking and communication. So I would start with the theories of various authors and then try to fit our bit of research into what these authors say. I suppose another thing could be that our research does not really fit with the theoretical analyses that we have learnt about, so therefore it could make it more difficult to understand and describe.

2. What do you already know about the subject matter of the assignment?

I know about something called the 'ethnography of communication' which is definitely a good starting point for this, but there are a lot of things I really need to read before I decide how to describe the difficulties that I had with the analysis. On our reading list and in the seminars we have talked about the relationship between ways of saying things and using language, and issues of power and authority, but I haven't really read anything about this yet. Before I can talk about the problems of analysing and collecting the data I have to have a framework for my analysis. I think that knowing what certain authors have to say about language and power is crucial in helping me with my analysis.

3. What do you need to know to help you to complete this assignment successfully? I've really answered this already in the previous section because I am more aware of the things that I haven't read in terms of this question. One of the bits that I really need to understand more fully is what people really mean by 'methodology'. This word is always coming up and I never really know exactly what it means. It's obviously really important now that we are being asked to do our own bit of research. There are some books and articles on our reading list which I think might help with this. The other thing I think I'll do is talk to other people on this course about what they think it means. I feel really stupid asking the tutor.

4. How do you think this assignment differs from or is similar to other assignments that you are working on at the moment?

This is really completely different to anything that I have had to do before. Firstly, we do the tape recording and collect the data in teams, then we have to transcribe the material, and then we have to write this assignment. The writing is obviously entirely our own piece of work. We've already decided that we are going to record some children in the university crèche at what they call 'show and tell' time. When we write it up it will be very different to presenting an argument in the way that I'm used to. Normally I sort of write what different authors have said and then sort of link them together and balance them all up with my own ideas. That's really how I put together an argument. In this case the whole point seems to be to relate what the theories on analysing language and communication have to say about my own data. Our tutor has asked us to attach the transcript to the back. So in the writing I'll have to be referring to this and to what other authors say which seems relevant. At the moment I can't quite see how that kind of writing will work out because I don't want it just to be a series of long quotes from the transcripts. The other thing that I'm not really sure of is whether it is going to be all right to say 'I' or 'we' or 'the researcher'. I'll probably risk 'I' and hope that is OK.

5. How are you going to choose your reading material?

Basically, I'm just sticking to the reading list because it is quite comprehensive and will give me what I need to help me to analyse our data.

The three examples above illustrate how students use their own understandings of an assignment title to guide their thinking on writing and their choice of reading. None of these individual examples will be exactly right for you and your writing, but they should be able to give you ideas about a general approach to analysing written assignments. This kind of analysis does not go into detail about all the content of your essay, but it can help you to see:

• what you think the question is asking you to do;

• what you might need to develop further;

• what gaps you have in your knowledge and what you need to find out.

Don't forget the examples are from students who are looking at the assignment title for the first time. In a sense they are first thoughts on a written assignment, but they are also the beginnings of focusing and getting ready for writing. We have already seen how lecturers say that students do not read the question; they also say that students seem to think that it is enough just to put in everything that they know about the topic without attending to the actual title. You will see from our examples that the students above all knew something about the topic that they were writing about; as they set about analysing the title they realized not only what they knew but also what they didn't know. They were considering their knowledge specifically in relation to the assignment title. The activity below is designed to help you to apply this approach to one of your own assignments.

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