Assignments are great! No, seriously, they are! The fact that you can get a big chunk of the marks for each unit before you even set foot in the exam room is a good thing. In this post I’m going to look at how to make sure you get as many marks as possible in your assignments with the minimum of stress.

In previous posts I’ve looked at preparing for uni and studying effectively when you get there. Now we’re going to look at how you can show what you’ve learned in tests and essays. There are obviously going to be different assessment methods in different courses but I’m writing a blog post here, not a book. I’m therefore going to focus on MCQs (online or otherwise) and traditional essay assignments, but some of the information (for example, on referencing) will be applicable across a variety of assessment types. I would also recommend that all students, regardless of their course, become informed about and take advantage of their university’s learning support services, which can provide you with lots of help with assignments.

Online tests

Many students, especially undergraduates, are partly assessed through online tests, often delivered via Blackboard or similar. These are often multiple choice questions (MCQs) which are computer-marked. These tests are quite popular as they are much cheaper to deliver and assess than individual human-marked assignments. If your lecturer provides practice tests, then do practise the practice tests as it’ll get you used to the style of questions and the software.

The tests are usually “open” for you to attempt for a specific window of time, for example 72 hours. If that’s the case, don’t leave it until the last minute to attempt the test as there are sometimes technical problems, for example the test crashes, and you need to be able to contact the lecturer in time for it to be reset for you. If you leave it too late then s/he may not be able to do that in time.

If the test is open book, then have your well-organised file of lecture summaries next to you. You may want to attempt the test in a computer lab on campus so that if something goes wrong with the software or computer you have staff there who can provide proof of the problem.


There are particular tricks in dealing with MCQs. Good MCQs should have plausible distracters, in other words the incorrect answers should be answers that students may well think is right. What this means is that when you read an MCQ, you may see an answer that looks quite feasible, “grab” that answer and mark it as correct, not realising that it is an incorrect answer that has been provided as an option because it exemplifies a common mistake that students make.

For example, a question may ask:

“Of which country is Amsterdam the capital city?”

A        Paris

B        Belgium

C        Holland

D        The Netherlands”

Students would (hopefully) realise that Paris must be an incorrect answer as it is itself a city rather than a country. D is actually the correct answer, but B and C are plausible distracters. A student might select B as s/he knows that Amsterdam is in Europe but isn’t sure which country, or might select C without realising that the correct name of the country colloquially known as Holland is actually the Netherlands.

To avoid this problem, once you’ve spotted what you think is the correct answer, take a few moments to explain to yourself why all the other answers are wrong. If you can’t, then you may have chosen too quickly.

Although the incorrect answers should be plausible distracters, MCQs should be unambiguous, in other words there should not be more than one correct answer. Well written MCQs, such as those used by the professional accountancy bodies, go through an extensive review process to ensure the quality of the questions but this may not be the case elsewhere. If you come across a question that you believe is ambiguous, screen shot it and raise it with your lecturer.

Keep an eye on the time while doing the test, but don’t rush. Sometimes it feels that time is passing very quickly but that’s not always the case. If the test is a mixture of written and numerical questions then generally numerical ones will take longer to do.

Essays: structure

Many students find essay writing quite daunting, especially for the more lengthy essays. (Dissertations/projects can be even more daunting – I remember being told when doing my MBA project to just think of it as a (very) long essay, and it was good advice.) The key is to break it down into manageable chunks that you can deal with one at a time (which is, of course, the key to dealing with lots of large and overwhelming projects of other types too).

Start with the title and use that as your plan to break down and structure the work. For example, an essay title of “Family therapy is expensive, unpopular, has no evidence base and provides more ethical dilemmas than individual therapies. Discuss” might be broken down as:

  1. Introduction
  2. Expensive – arguments for
  3. Expensive – arguments against
  4. Unpopular – arguments for
  5. Unpopular – arguments against
  6. No evidence base – arguments for
  7. No evidence base – arguments against
  8. Ethical dilemmas in individual therapy
  9. Additional ethical dilemmas in family therapy
  10. Conclusion

In some cases you are able to choose your own topic, which is great as you can focus on areas of interest to you, but it means that you have to determine the structure of the essay yourself. For example, I have a special interest in adoption and so one of my assignments in a unit called Developmental and Social Issues in Counselling was on transnational adoption. To fit in with the content of the unit I chose a developmental stage of life to focus on (adolescence) , and then preliminary research based on the issues faced generally by adolescents steered me towards identity issues.  The structure then became:

  1. Introduction
  2. Transnational and transracial adoption in context (background information about history, statistics)
  3. Literature review
    1. Potential psychological problems faced by transnational adoptees
    1. Racial and ethnic identity development
    1. Relationship between racial/ethnic identity and psychological well-being
    1. Australasian research (see below)
  4. The application of attachment theory (as it was important to critically evaluate the issue through a particular theoretical lens, rather than just review the literature generally)
    1. Attachment and identity during adolescence
    1. Building attachment bonds with transnationally adopted children
  5. Conclusion

So how did I (and how do you) come up with a structure with an open-ended assignment such as this? Personally I’m a big fan of Post It notes. I would read a few articles to get an overview of the issue then jot down individual ideas/themes on Post It notes. I’d then shuffle these around until I had a logical order to follow and then number the Post Its (i.e. 3a, 3b etc. in the above example). Having established a draft structure, I’d then start to research each Post It/theme in more detail.

Essays: research

Each theme in your essay should be individually researched and supported by a couple of references. I found the easiest way to find material was to put key words into the library search function and see what I came up with. I never found searching via library databases particularly helpful but Google Scholar may come up with some interesting leads. Having found some articles on your search themes, you can then follow references in those articles to come up with further material.

You could end up with a big pile of paper if you print all these out (which is where the laser printer I mentioned a few weeks ago comes in useful). Sort these into piles according to the numbering of each Post It/section and write the surname of the first author and the section number on the first page of each, e.g. 3a BIMMEL. If you save articles rather than print them out, save them as, for example, 3a Bimmel too.

A very common question asked by students is “how many references do I need?”. If you want a good mark, then try to double the number your lecturer says. Although you may be horrified at this prospect, most of the marking rubrics give marks for the number and quality of your references, so the more the merrier.

As far as quality of references goes, peer-reviewed articles are usually seen as being better than books, and try to get some recent research (you can select the years you want to search when you do your library search) and some research that is specific to the country you’re in (hence my reference to Australasian research above).

Having compiled your initial research (as you may end up doing further research once you start writing) it’s now time to write something.

Essays: writing

For many people, this is the hard part. Procrastination is a big problem for lots of students, caused mainly by anxiety and lack of confidence. It’s a big topic and I can see that I’ve already written 1,500 words and still have a lot to say, so I’ll write a separate post on procrastination at some stage (I’m not procrastinating, honest!). For the moment, pick one of your themes, and start writing. Don’t worry about whether it’s any good, this is just your first draft, so write SOMETHING and improve it later. Everything you write that is based on a reference should be paraphrased or quoted and referenced. At this stage just write, for example, Bimmel (2003) rather than Bimmel, Juffer, Van Ijzendoorn & Bakermans-Kranenburg ( 2003) as you’re going to fix the referencing later.

Universities nowadays use sophisticated software, such as Turnitin, to detect plagiarism. This works by comparing the wording of your assignment with that of other works in its database, including published articles and previously submitted student assignments. It’s important that you quote and reference correctly any word-for-word text you’ve taken from other works and that you paraphrase (and reference correctly) anything that’s not a direct quote. (More on referencing later.) Once you’ve submitted an assignment, Turnitin calculates a percentage similarity with other works. There is likely to be some similarity with other works, for example if you’ve used the university front sheet for your assignment then this may be highlighted as a similarity, but lecturers can set the sensitivity and the acceptable percentage and can then challenge you if your similarity percentage is too high. A few years ago now I was contracted to mark some assignments for a university in the UK. It was the first time I’d seen Turnitin and it highlighted an entire essay that a student had purchased from an online essay service.

When you get stuck and start to procrastinate, and you probably will, finalise the referencing (in text citations and reference list) for the bits you’ve written so far. This means that you’re using your time productively in doing something that will need doing at some point rather than wasting time. After a bit of time fixing your referencing, you can have another go at writing some more. By doing your referencing as you go like this, you’re less likely to rush and make mistakes at the end.

The first draft is the hardest to do but having done that you can then polish, edit, rewrite. I’d leave the introduction and conclusion until near the end of the editing process, as you won’t know what you want these to say until you’ve written the “meat” of the essay.

Essays: word count

When you’re writing your first draft, don’t worry too much about the word count, just get down what you want to say. However at some point you do have to deal with it. Most lecturers will allow 10% over or under, but check with them, and remember that reference lists, tables etc. are usually excluded from the word count.

As is probably fairly obvious from the way I’m waffling on here, I usually had too many words. However one of my lecturers said something that stuck in my mind; she said that the imposition of a word count was not about being arbitrary but about helping us to develop the vital skill (for our future professional practice) of identifying and prioritising the key areas. Once you can think of the word count as a positive training tool, it’s less of a pain to comply with it.

Essays: referencing

As I’ve touched on already, referencing is absolutely vital; if you don’t reference you could be accused of plagiarism, and if you reference incorrectly you could lose marks.

Some library systems have programs, for example Endnote, that automatically create a citation for you, but I always preferred to do it myself as the programs seemed to make mistakes sometimes. To save time in the reference list I would cut and paste “standard” references for books, journal articles and chapters in edited books from my previous assignments and then substitute the relevant details (names etc.) in my current assignment.

However you choose to do it, make sure you use the correct referencing system for your university/course, and be VERY careful; it’s really easy to make mistakes as there are so many different rules depending on, for example, the number of authors and whether the names are inside or outside of brackets. Be very pedantic about getting this exactly right as there’s a good chance your lecturer will be.

At ECU most courses use the APA referencing system, and there are lots of links on the library website here to help with referencing. I personally find these guides less useful than the comprehensive 36 page guide which I downloaded at the start of my Masters. That’s no longer on the website as, according to the library staff, ECU is trying to become a paperless organisation but if you’d like a copy feel free to email me ( and I’ll send you a copy.


So we’re almost at 2,500 words now but luckily I’m the one setting the limit! If you’ve read the blog posts over the last few weeks about preparing for uni and studying, you should be well set in your studies for a while.  There’ll be blog posts on a few other issues over the next few weeks and we’ll return to study skills for students later in the semester.


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