It can be difficult to ace your university assignments. What assignment hacks could help? I hear you ask.
Well, assignments are always a little different: a report, an essay, a review.
It’s hard to get generalised tips that can help to improve your writing across multiple styles of assessments.
However, getting good grades (regardless of the assignment) relates to two key things: understanding what the marker wants and making it clear to them that you’ve included it.
You can take my word for it. As a PhD student, I’ve marked assignments for undergraduate courses multiple times.
There is limited time that can be spent marking each assignment, so it’s important that you are clear, straight-to-the-point and hitting the key sections of the rubric.
Here are 3 assignment hacks (from a university marker!) that you can use for any courses and subjects, to improve your grades.
Assignment Hacks 1: Be Clear on the Content
Understanding what you need to include in your assignment is the first big hurdle to getting a good grade.
I always thought this was a simple thing: include in your assignment what your lecturer/professor wants you to include.
However, I’ve marked some reports that have introductions going completely off-topic things (discussing literature/information that’s never been talked about in the course) and losing themselves a bunch of marks.
Being mindful of exactly what the content should be is so so important.
There’s a couple of things to be aware of here.
Is there a clear format to the assignment (paper, essay, report)?
Do you need to include specific topics/information from the course/lectures?
Do you need to include certain authors/papers in your discussion?
Do you need to write from one perspective? Or is it an argument/debate?
It’s crucial to be clear on the information you have to include.
For example, if the lecturer says that your introduction needs to discuss the ‘factors that influence attraction’ and you’ve had a lecture on ‘factors that influence attraction’ then you should be writing about those!
Don’t go and find a new set of different factors of attraction, or discuss the philosophy of attraction, or why you are very attracted to the course – you were asked to introduce the ‘factors that influence attraction’ so do just that!
Often, students will make it harder than it is.
if you’ve been asked to include something, then include it.
You can of course slightly extend yourself here and there. There could be alternate perspectives to factors of attraction but this would only be a couple of sentences just highlighting how there are alternate theories too.
The assignment should include what you have been asked to include.
Make sure that you are clear on what that is.
Assignment Hack 2: Make it Flow
It is so so hard to mark an assignment when a student doesn’t know how to write a clear sentence. It’s hard to follow their train of thought and know if they’ve actually hit the points in the rubric or if they are just rambling.
I know that writing is a developed skill. You have to put in the time to understand how to be clear, concise and straight-forward in your writing.
But – you really should put in the time to hone in your writing skills, because it’s easy to lose marks when your flow can’t be followed.
When I say ‘make it flow’ what I mean is writing with straight-forward sentences.
My key tips here would be:
The longest sentence isn’t the best sentence. I believe students often think they sound smart and fancy including overly wordy sentences. This isn’t the case. It often sounds like you don’t understand punctuation, and the writing comes across like talking. Have a look here at how varying your sentence length is so important.
Follow the instructed format. For example, introduction, body graphs and conclusion. If you need to know what each should include, have a look here. Give the marker a clear structure.
Each paragraph should have an opening ‘topic’ sentence, and a concluding remark on why it’s important to the current writing. It’s important to keep each paragraph discussing only one topic, so that you can adequately cover the points you need to, critically analyse the evidence and address the reason why you’ve included the information/why it’s important to the current argument. This is something that I often don’t see in undergraduate writing.
Assignment Hacks 3: Read the Rubric
You’ve heard me mention it a couple of times now throughout this article.
Read the rubric.
I say this because it is seriously the most crucial thing you can do while writing any assignment to make sure you’re giving yourself the best chance of a high grade.
When I am marking, I will have the student’s essay open on the left of my computer screen, and the marking rubric on the right.
Marking involves comparing the student’s work with the rubric and determining if they have correctly, effectively and extensively covered what the rubric is asking of them.
When you are in the process of writing, keep the rubric in mind.
When you’ve completed the assignment, do exactly as a marker would do: put your document and the rubric side by side.
Go through the list of items, and see if you’ve ticked each box.
It’s also important here to be mindful of how many points each section is worth. For example, you don’t want to have one sentence to conclude your essay (albeit a great sentence) if the conclusion is worth 35% of the essay. It’s likely that you need to go into more depth, make more connections to the external world and re-highlight the importance of your work.
So you’re ready to learn how to read a scientific journal article? You’re ready to tackle the big bad world of science? You might want to read the latest research and get your head around rapidly evolving scientific developments.
Or, you might also just be here to get on top of your university assignments.
As I mentioned in my essay writing tips, it can be super daunting jumping into your first year at university and being told you can no longer use any old websites as references in your essays.
You have to use scientific journal articles (or scientific literature) to back up statements that you make.
You need to learn – very quickly! – how to navigate and understand a scientific journal article.
For some reason though, this is never taught in undergraduate courses – you are instead just thrown in the deep end.
And on top of this, you will probably have to start writing up your research reports in a similar format (if you’re in a scientific discipline).
So today, let’s talk about how to read a scientific journal article, section by section.
What is a Journal Article?
A scientific journal article is a piece of writing by a group of scientists, which tells you about specific experiments or research they have completed.
These articles can be found in Google Scholar, or any other scientific database that your discipline likes most (like PubMed or ScienceDirect).
Journal articles undergo a rigorous (and very lengthy!) submission process before being published. Articles are only accepted into a journal when they met specific standards and pass a peer-review process (where other scientists critique the work and make comments/suggestions).
Because of this process, they are one of the most highly regarded sources of information.
Journal Articles can take a few forms.
A typical research article will explain and document a particular experiment (or series of experiments), in a way that any scientist can replicate it. There is usually an introduction to the experiment (with all background information), a very detailed procedure, results of the experiment, and what it means for outside in the real world.
A review article is a recap of previously completed research, and doesn’t include a new experiment in itself. These articles collate and organise old research in the aim of answering a specific research question. They often include an introduction to the problem, and multiple paragraphs with subheadings to explore different aspects of the problem.
Case Studies look over one particular instance of an event, disease, or person in order to better understand and document one specific phenomenon.
Typically, you will be most likely met with experiment or review articles.
As a Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience major, I am most familiar with the format of articles in these fields, but there is typically a standard structure in which most articles follows: abstract, introduction, method, results and discussion.
I will take you through each section so that next time, you know exactly how to read a scientific journal article.
So what’s included in each section?
How to read a scientific journal article: section-by-section.
Research articles can sometimes be very long – so it’s important to know what you’re looking for and what you need when you are researching.
Each section of the research article will tell you something specific about the work, and sometimes you won’t need to read all of it, so it’s important that you know where to look.
The abstract sits at the top of the article and will give you a run down of the entire paper in less than 300 words.
It is basically a very condensed version of the entire research article, with a sentence summarising each sub-section of the report. It will give you a super speedy overview of the background of the project, the method and all of the results.
If you are searching on Google Scholar or other databases, this is the part of the research article that you will be able to read before downloading the whole thing.
It gives you an insight into the rest of the article.
Reading the abstract will let you know whether the research article has what you are looking for, and whether a full-length read will be worth your time.
If you are unfamiliar with the topic of the research article, the introduction is where you need to be.
These first few paragraphs will give you background information about the experiment.
Here, the researchers tell you why they decided to create their experiment.
The introduction often explains other research work, in order to create a basis for the current experiment. They talk about what has previously been found, and what is missing from knowledge.
This section will also likely explain why the research is important to society – how would the world benefit from this experiment?
It also often gives the rationale for the way in which the experiment was conducted.
The introduction should be written in a way that seems almost like the first chapter of a novel, setting up the scenes and the context for what is to come.
After reading this section, you will have a better understanding of the larger field in which this research is based, but you can also use other work that the researcher has referenced here to expand your knowledge.
This (often short) paragraph let’s you know who was involved in the study, how many, where they were recruited, their ages, gender, and any other criteria that was important for the study.
How participants are included/excluded is very important to the results, and heavily influences what conclusions and generalisations can be drawn from the research.
Participant numbers are also very important in making sure that you can make larger, over-arching conclusions from research.
Materials and Design
This section is the recipe for the experiment!
It lets you know what materials were used (questionnaires, EEG, computer paradigms) and what you might need to replicate the experiment.
It is important that scientists document exactly every little detail of their experiments, in order for others to critically evaluate their work.
While scientific journal articles are rigorously reviewed before publication, some methods or ways of working may be more ‘correct’ than others.
It is important for this information to be shared, so that people can make informed decisions about the results.
It also makes it easier for other scientists to build on past experiments, or tweak certain aspects to answer new questions.
Here is the exact step-by-step for the experiment.
This is what the researchers did, and when, and how far apart, and on what day, and with which piece of equipment.
This part will be important for you if you’re looking to replicate the experiment for yourself.
It’ll also be the place to be if you need to critically evlauate the experiment (say, for an assignment) as you’ll need to pick apart exactly what was done.
If you’re reading an article for the results, this isn’t the section you need.
Finally, something new and exciting!
The results section gives you the numbers.
After the scientists ran all of their experiments, and crunched the numbers, this is what they got. It might also show you some pretty pictures (figures and tables).
It does little to explain why, and simply presents all the statistics and calculations that were done. If you like maths, it’s where you want to be.
If you are unfamiliar with statistics, this section can be very overwhelming.
It contains the results of t-tests, ANOVAs, means, standard deviations, effect sizes and p-values.
If you want to learn more about statistics in science, have a look at my blog post here.
Otherwise for now, just know that all the heavy numbers are here. While you might need them to break down the experiment and truly assess it’s validity, often times you can be safe just skimming this area, if you are simply looking for the meaning behind it all!
If you are just starting your psychology degree, rest assured that as you continue through, you will become more familiar with these terms.
The results section often includes figures.
Figures are diagrams, graphs or schematics of the results or are sometimes also included in the methods section to better explain how to run a procedure.
A figure should convey a maximal amount of information using the smallest amount of ink, and give readers an opportunity to see the data in a different way.
Figures are often referred to in the paragraphs, but allow researchers to show their results in a more straight-forward way.
Tables may also appear here!
These allow researchers to present a large array of numbers, percentages or measurements in as few lines as possible.
They are often included as additional information as they show means, observations or values from a larger number of individuals or show all results when only a few are meaningful or important.
In many cases, these are ‘read more’ options, and not compulsory to forming a basic understanding the research article as a whole.
Ahhh, finally the good stuff!
The discussion is where it’s at.
Time to learn what the results actually were (aside from the maths), and get a deeper understanding of what they mean for the world outside.
The discussion section usually starts with an overview of the results (in normal non-number talk).
“The study showed that this was higher than that… these people scored better than this… this chemical was better at doing that….”
The researchers will explain whether their findings are similar or in opposition to previous research that has been conducted.
If their findings are contrasting, they can often try to explain why this might be the case.
Whether consistent or contrasting results are encountered, researchers will explain what these mean for the wider community.
Do the results have negative or positive impacts… and what should be done because of the findings?
For example this might include: how do the results change any of our previous beliefs about the world? How should they change treatment choices? How should they direct government funding? How do they change health recommendations?
Each study may have numerous effects on the world outside the lab.
In this section, researchers will also explain any short-comings in their experiment. Nothing is ever perfect. Things can always be improved.
Researchers may also give recommendations for future research and questions still unanswered. They could also suggest ways in which their study could be built upon.
The discussion will also conclude with a sweet little paragraph summarising the whole article. This last paragraph will sum up exactly what the researchers want you to take away from their work.
As I previously mentioned, scientists may reference other scientists when introducing you to their project, or when attempting to explain their results.
An experiment may also have used questionnaires, paradigms or equipment created by other people (that requires referencing!).
That is why all scientific articles will conclude with a reference list. This gives readers easy access to other sources of information, which they can fall down the rabbit hole with!
The scientific world is a constant state of iteration.
Developing new ideas and building upon old work involves the constant sharing of information, and by allowing people to explore every old idea and building block themselves, it is hoped that articles can spark new ideas in budding researchers.
If you haven’t, make sure to look at my referencing guide to learn the best way to create your own reference list for essays. It will make your assignment writing a breeze!
And that’s it! You’ve made it.
Now you know how to read a scientific journal article.
It can be at first be a tricky maze to tackle.
But as you continue on, you will find yourself becoming a more experienced explorer. You will very quickly develop a better understanding of which sections are important for you and your own research.
At university, it is very unlikely that a semester will pass by without you writing an essay!
A lot of students can feel like they are either good at writing essays or exams. But there shouldn’t be such a split!
If you feel like you need a little improvement in this area, these essay writing tips will help to tailor your essays to the question at hand, and make sure that you are ticking all the right boxes.
Not only will these essay writing tips help to (hopefully!) get you the grades you want – your essay writing ability may be one of the most important skills you can gain from your degree! Knowing how to succinctly and successfully argue your opinion can help you perfect future job applications and get you where you want to be.
Here are my essay writing tips to get you on track in your written assignments!
Essay writing tips to write your best academic essay yet.
Understand the question.
The number one thing you will get wrong when writing your essay is not answering the question.
Imagine writing your entire essay and missing the whole point of the assignment.
Don’t do it. Read your essay question again and again.
Make sure that you know exactly what each part of the question means. Are there multiple questions within it?
Keep the question handy at every point of the writing process.
While you are researching, planning and writing – keep that essay question handy.
Do your research
A heads up for any first-year university student: don’t use random websites for your research.
In high-school, you probably referenced the first google website listing that supported your opinion.
Before you start any reading, make sure that you download a reference manager (like Zotero!) to keep track of all the articles you’ve skimmed.
These programs will collect information about your resources with just one click. If you’ve never used one before, have a look at my How to Use Zotero for Students guide here. It will save you sooo much time later on in the writing stage.
You’re not using your time to your best potential if you are not using a reference manager.
When you’ve got your reference manager and articles all ready to go – open up an empty Word document (or Notion or OneNote page) and start noting some material.
Be both thorough and speedy here. If an article has points that are relevant for your essay (remember to keep looking at your question!), take the time to write fleshed out notes.
If you’re not getting anything important, just move on.
Students can often think this is a waste of time – why put in the hours to research and not write anything?
Trust me. Those are two entirely separate steps. If you write and do your research at the same time – it’ll be obvious. You need to understand all the available information before you can clearly spell it out in an essay.
Lecturers and tutors at university will tell you again and again to plan your essay. You probably still don’t do it, hey?
Just do it.
Do you want your essay to sound like a jumbled mess of thoughts, with each bit of your research randomly here and there? Or do you want it to sound like a thoroughly planned, well thought out, piece of academic writing?
I know what your answer is – so make it happen!
Your essay plan should look something like this, with each section dot pointed and containing important pivotal points in your story.
Introduce your topic. Follow this very simply framework:
What is it? Why is it important? Explain it’s prevalence, common issues, or consequences. This will all depend on the exact topic.
Say your essay was about dementia treatment funding. You should explain what dementia is and why it is such a health burden: how many people it affects, how much money it’s management costs, quality of life consequences and outcomes.
Then, explain your stance on the essay question. Should dementia funding be increased or decreased?
Clearly state your stance, along with three or more arguments to support your stance (that you found when researching).
This statement of your position should also neatly outline your body paragraphs. These three (or more) reasons will be each paragraph of your essay.
You can also add a statement of your solution to the research question. For example, if you plan to argue that dementia funding should be decreased – where should the money go instead?
These are three or more paragraphs giving the reader your arguments and supporting statements from scientific journal articles.
Each body paragraph should start with an opening sentence. What are you going to start talking about? Introduce the paragraph.
Add in your supporting research points. What three dot points support your opinion here?
Anytime you reference something, don’t just re-summarise their work.
Write a sentence that explains the information from the source directly, then a follow-up sentence about what that means for your essay question.
What bit of new knowledge does a statement bring to answering your essay question?
Then you finish up your paragraph with an overall concluding sentence.
You just spent an entire paragraph telling your reader some new information, so what does it mean for your essay question?
This part is nice and easy. No new thinking here.
Rehash your introduction.
Summarise again why your topic/question is important, summarise your supporting arguments from the body paragraphs (basically this should be a re-phrasing of your three final concluding sentences from each of the three body paragraphs).
If you’d like, you can finish it all off with a statement of a solution to the question or problem. Let society know what they should do with this new knowledge from your essay.
Thanks to your plan – this part is so much smoother.
Write up your dot points in prose. It will be coherent and straight-forward thanks to your planning. You can sit down and know that you already know where your heading with your essay!
It’s all dot-pointed right there for you.
There is no doubt that a thorough plan will save you time in the writing stage.
To save yourself more time, you can simply add in in-text references using the Zotero extension. If you want to learn how to do this, check out my How to Use Zotero for Students to be a more efficient essay writer.
Reference managers can also add a reference list with one click!
You want to aim to have your essay completed 4-6 days before it is due. Give yourself adequate time to review.
Make sure that you check these final things before submitting:
Did you answer the question? Did you really answer the question?
Check the marking proforma (this should have been given to you by your lecturer – it will outline what they are looking for when marking your essay). Have you met the criteria outlined?
Read it out loud. You’ll be able to more easily identify grammar and spelling mistakes this way.
Is your essay formatted correctly? Are you using APA, Harvard? Do you need a title page? Don’t lose easy marks by not following formatting conventions.
Review your in-text references and list. Reference managers aren’t foolproof.
You’ve put in the work, now it’s time to submit.
Once you’ve reviewed your work, feel the weight lift off your shoulders as you press that submit button!
These essay writing tips were the foundation of all of my university essays. With one last one coming up this semester, you can be sure that this is the structure I will be following!
When you start writing your first assignment in university, your lecturers and tutors will insist that you pay close attention to your references. You must format them correctly: dot point here, italics here, ‘quotation’ here. In this case, you can be one of two types of students: someone who painfully writes up their references manually one at a time, or someone who works smarter – and downloads a reference manager. Here is an easy to follow, quick guide to Zotero for university students!
Let me show you how you can stop wasting your time and focus on perfecting your essay instead of perfecting your references.
There are multiple programs that you can use as a reference manager. Throughout my undergraduate degree, we were encouraged to use Endnote. My university allows students to download this program for free, but it is normally a program a user has to pay for. If you have access to Endnote and would like to know how to use this program click here.
However, in my Honours year I have chosen to migrate to Zotero. This is purely for the fact that Zotero is a free program anyone can download and is a popular reference manager in my laboratory. Read below for how to use Zotero for students!
How to Download Zotero
Firstly, head to the Zotero website and download the installer. On the front page, there is a button to ‘Download’ and then click on whichever system you are using (Mac, Windows, Linux) and follow the prompts.
You most definitely want to download Zotero itself, plus the browser extension (Google Chrome in my case) and also the Plugin for Word. You can find the plug in by clicking the ‘browse plugins’ towards the bottom of the download page. There is lots of information on how to correctly install these onto your computer.
Make sure that you create an account on Zotero so that your references can be accessible from anywhere and are backed up!
How to Use Zotero When Writing Essays
Using a reference manager will save you time and effort when writing your essays. But you have to start using Zotero from the very first stages of your research, because back-tracking later just creates problems.
In the research stages of your essay (when you are collecting your information), the browser extension does all the work for you. First, open up Zotero on your computer and create a collection (file -> new collection) on Zotero to save your references in. I usually create separate ones for each essay/assignment.
Whenever you find a webpage or journal article that you will use in your essay, all you need to do is click on the Zotero extension (shown below) in the toolbar of your browser, click on your chosen collection, and Zotero will automatically add the reference to your reference manager.
The more information that Zotero can extract from the webpage, the more correct your references will be later on (check the review process at the bottom of this post).
Please note: You will need to have Zotero open anytime you wish to save a reference using the browser extension.
When you have finished writing up your notes and essay plan, you can move on to actually writing your essay.
This part is super easy! Whenever you write a sentence that you need to reference, simply click on the Zotero section of the tool bar, click ‘add/edit citation,’ search for the reference you need and click enter. Then, Zotero will automatically add in the chosen in-text reference in your selected style! You can just continue on writing.
If you wish to use an alternate style of in-text references at any point (different from the usual Name et al., 2020), just edit the in-text reference itself and then tell Zotero not to make any further changes when the pop-up arises.
Adding your Reference List
When you have completed your essay, you will need to add your reference list for your readers to see the information about references you have used.
To do this, click on the add/edit bibliography. And just like that – Zotero will create a reference list of all the in-text references you have previously used, in the style of your selected reference. So easy!
Unfortunately, while a reference manager makes the job easier, it doesn’t mean that your references will automatically be perfect. You still need to review and check over your references once they are added in. You can do this one of two ways, depending on your preferences.
First option: Check over all the information for each reference in your chosen collection. Open up your Zotero program, and scroll through each reference, ensuring that all the correct information is in the necessary rows. The information you will need varies according to referencing style (APA, Harvard, etc.) so you may need more or less parts filled out depending on style. Next time you open up your essay in Word, this new information should be updated into your references.
Secondly, you can change your automated reference list on your word document to text only by clicking unlink citations and manually check or change anything that needs to be altered. You should do this in a second saved version of your essay, as it will unlink Zotero from your document, meaning that if you make any other changes to in-text references or in the Zotero program itself, your reference list will not include the new changes.
And that’s it!
Hopefully this How to Use Zotero for Students guide has helped you to successfully navigate your reference manager! All reference managers are pretty similar so it is likely you can transfer this process to other programs.
All the best with your essay writing (you can thank me later for the extra time you now have!)
If you enjoyed this How to Use Zotero for Students, but would like to try an alternate reference manager… click here to see my guide on using Endnote.