Ask the Doctor: tackling your first uni assignment

Hi everyone, “the Doctor’ here, this time I’m going to focus on those of you who have just started at university or college, indeed any form of higher education.

If you remember, a few weeks ago I gave you a few tips on how to approach starting adult education and by now you will probably have settled in, located the library, found the lecture hall and many other vital locations – not forgetting the student bar (as if you would)!

However, you will now be facing up to the reality of tackling your first assignment and that’s what I’m going to try to help you with now.

Starting Out

When you get your first written assignment, you’ll also be given lots of written advice. Unfortunately, the advice can often be more difficult to understand than the question, especially when it comes to referencing.

The problem is that you probably won’t have had to reference in school so that getting used to the required style can be really stressful. The main thing is to familiarise yourself with the style needed and then use it all the time, even when taking notes, that way you’ll get used to it and eventually it will be natural to you.

Examining the Question

It is extremely important that when you are given your question, you read it through carefully two or three times. Don’t plunge into panic if you think you haven’t a clue how to start and at the same time don’t feel so confident that you begin to write before you’ve thought it through.

The main thing to concentrate on is the “key words’ in the question.

Key words are words within a question that tell you exactly what the question is asking you to do and they should therefore guide your whole structure and approach to the work.

Key words are words like:

  • analyse
  • compare
  • contrast
  • discuss

Almost all questions contain at least one of these words and they really do influence the way that your tutor is expecting you to approach the question, so think carefully about how you would define each of these and apply that definition to the way you answer the question; this will really help you to focus.

Searching for Sources

It’s the old, old story with sources, everyone wants the same books! The minute your tutor recommends a text, that’s the one that vanishes from the library only to return the day the assignment is due, if not after, i.e. too late!

If you can, get together with a few other people in your group and agree to share texts, if you can afford it buy a second-hand copy of a course text to be “owned’ by the group. You’ll usually find that the second year students sell off their books, so you may be able to grab a bargain from which all will benefit.

You’ll be able to access journals etc. via the university database so that won’t be a problem and journals are a great source of the most up to date research, essential in some disciplines, like the social sciences, for example.

Make sure you use the core texts for your topic and draw on the bibliographies of these for your own work – you’ll be surprised how helpful this can be, so do give it a try: experts wrote these books so why not let them help?

Writing Up

As this is your first assignment, if it’s an essay, you can’t do better that stick to the basic “5 paragraph approach’, which is as follows:

  • Introduction (1 x paragraph)
  • Main Body  (3 x paragraphs)
  • Conclusion (1 x paragraph)

Your first assignment is unlikely to be very long so this structure should be fine. If you need it to be longer, you can always sub-divide the sections.

Make sure that your introduction has a “thesis statement’ (which is a “posh’ way of saying what your approach will be) and include a little on method but keep your introduction short. Take care that each paragraph connects – both with the others and with the main theme – and never make a point without supplying textual support as evidence. In your conclusion, sum up your ideas, say what points you think could be elaborated upon with more space, and add a strong final sentence.


Finally, don’t forget to reference – that means giving credit for any work you’ve quoted directly, or for any sources that you’ve paraphrased. You also need to give credit for any ideas you’ve found elsewhere.

Garfield plagiarism

There you are, easy isn’t it? See you again soon!

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