Approaching Assessments

A step by step guide to help you think about assessment tasks

Typical university guides to help students with assessment preparation look a little like this:

a) Analyse the question

b) Brainstorm key ideas

c) Write a plan

d) Consult the literature

e) Get writing

f) Revise, amend, proof read, edit

g) Submit

(Monash University, 2020; UNSW Sydney, 2019)

But let's take a step back and examine the purpose of assessments. Assessments are opportunities for you to demonstrate your understanding and knowledge. Often they are placed intentionally within a subject to allow you to show what you've learnt thus far and provide lecturers with an understanding of how the content, concepts and ideas being learnt within a subject are being interpreted and integrated.

A good assessment task in many ways should allow for some different interpretations, again reinforcing the idea that they afford an opportunity for you to demonstrate your knowledge and understanding. From a markers perspective, assessments are designed to give you feedback to help meet your needs as the content inevitably becomes more challenging. As you progress throughout a unit or subject, complexity is often layered upon early foundational content.

From my perspective, many students I've taught assume that assessments are about answering the question and I would argue that primarily it is about: demonstrating your knowledge and understanding & helping you learn for the future. But by all means, answering the question certainly helps. What I hope to show you is a way of approaching assessments that helps to embed these factors and the academic advice offered by universities in a meaningful and useful way.

A final point to consider before we delve into my approach is that assessments are about striking a balance between not covering the content in sufficient detail and covering the content in so much detail you run out of words. Typically academic convention allows +/- 10% word count for assessment tasks but check with your institution and faculty.

The first paradigm of not covering the content in sufficient detail can be likened to a 'shotgun approach', you've included content which is relevant but because the ideas or themes weren't discussed in sufficient detail it's difficult to award marks. The second paradigm, lends itself to including everything rather than being able to identify and summarise the key themes and going over the word limit means that the remainder of your submission will not be assessed (typically).

Analyse the question and brainstorm ideas:

Review the assessment task information and understand what you need to do. Is this an assessment where I need to answer a question? Discuss an idea? Or convey an argument? Or some or all of the above? Recognise what is needed for this assessment and target your initial planning to fit this idea. Importantly, do I need to improve my understanding about concepts or themes before I begin this assessment, if so, review these areas.

Consult the marking rubric:

As a marker, from my experience it is obvious that many students don't recognise the importance of the marking rubric, instead preferring to read over the assessment instructions. The marking rubric contains the information that tells you how you will be marked, what you need to include and advice on how to weight your assessment. Example: Assessment is worth 50%, 2000 words and has 2 parts; Part A and Part B, 20 marks allocated to Part A, 15 marks allocated to Part B and the remaining 15 marks allocated to academic integrity and writing. Therefore, more words should be allocated to Part A over Part B as it carries a higher weighting. For this example, the remaining marks can be ignored as they relate to your language choice and written expression in conjunction with how you cite literature, not affecting the assessment weighting. Roughly, each mark is worth 57 words, so Part A around 1150 words and Part B around 850.

Consult the literature: (A separate blog post has been written regarding understanding referencing)

For any assessment it is important to consult the literature prior to writing much more than a plan as the literature helps to ensure that your ideas or arguments can be supported. Typically, university assessments reference topics where there is a wealth of literature. On the rare occasion where this is not the case, doing this step prior to commencing writing ensures that you can rely upon the literature to develop and discuss your idea. Lastly, it provides a degree of inspiration for your assessment, helping you to develop ideas about themes or concepts that you need to embed throughout your submission.

Writing, editing, formatting and submitting:

Firstly, write in a style that reflects you. It is important that your 'voice' is demonstrable throughout your paper. We all write differently and there isn't specifically a 'right' or 'wrong' way of writing, there are however certain academic conventions that broadly apply. However, editing and formatting are undervalued steps in the process.

Read aloud your submissions, if they don't make sense to you, they wont make sense to the person marking your paper. Ideally, send your submission to a colleague, peer or trusted friend for their review (giving them plenty of time to return it back to you). Be mindful that if you send it to someone outside your discipline, that they can only comment on aspects surrounding grammar and language. For clinical studies (nursing, paramedics, medical etc), send to someone within your discipline if the assessment is specific to clinical care or management of a patient or client.

Spend some time ensuring that your submission conforms to formatting requirements specified by your tutor, lecturer or faculty. Whilst there are certain typical conventions, read the formatting requirements that have been outlined, it's a safer bet.

Finally, don't be in a rush to submit, take your time, check the similarity offered by Turnitin software (as an example if this is applicable to you) and ensure that you submit the correct assessment!