This article has been written to address common assignment related questions that I am asked by first year public health students. It is primarily targeted for my students (and links with resources at La Trobe University in Australia), however, I hope that others find the information valuable.
Instructions for e-mailing me your work for correction
If you are asked to e-mail your work to me to for correction, please adhere to the following conventions.
1.. In the subject line of your e-mail, please write your name and the title of your work. For example:
Steven Baker: PHE1SDH Enquiry 1 Individual Report
This will allow me to quickly locate your work.
2.. Please always follow the following naming convention for your file:
For example: BAKERStevenEnquiry1Report.doc
This will allow me to sort your work by surname so that I can quickly locate your work for marking.
Can I look over your report/essay prior to you submitting?
Short answer: No
I am always happy to make time, either in a workshop/tutorial or at a mutually agreeable time, to discuss your work and any issues you may be having. Particularly clarifying issues that may be unclear. This does not extend to:
- Advising you what to read.
- Looking over your draft and advising where you need to improve.
- Telling you if you have done enough work.
How many references do I need to use?
I get asked this every semester. I realise that undergraduate study can be stressful and that you have other personal, work and subject commitments. However, I expect that at tertiary level you will be engaged and committed enough to read (reasonably) widely when preparing your work. There is no magic formula like:
word count + year level = X number of references
You must read as many sources as necessary to adequately address the questions being posed by the report/essay outline. The quality and scope of the sources that you read will largely dictate the amount of references you need. You may find ten fantastic references that contain all the information that you need for a 1000 word essay. One of your colleagues may need to find twenty five references to adequately cover the same 1000 word essay because they:
a) did not find articles of the same quality, or
b) wanted additional information, or
c) needed to read more widely to understand the topic.
As a basic guide, make sure you have a reference:
When you are using or referring to somebody else's words or ideas from a magazine, book, newspaper, song, TV program, movie, Web page, computer program, letter, advertisement, or any other medium.
When you use information gained through interviewing another person.
When you copy the exact words or a "unique phrase" from somewhere.
When you reprint any diagrams, illustrations, charts and pictures.
When you use ideas that others have given you in conversations or over email.
Hints on Referencing
Learning to reference well is a core skill for every tertiary student. I am not going to go over referencing in detail, there are excellent resources available on the La Trobe Library website to assist you and you should make yourself familiar with them. I will instead concentrate on some common issues that I see all the time.
- Firstly, I frequently receive work that is a variation on this:
Students should always reference their work. Seventy five percent of first year students do not reference their work correctly. One way that students can ensure that their work is referenced correctly is to visit the La Trobe Library website and use their excellent online referencing tools. Trying to mark a students work when they do not correctly reference can "cause university staff to develop drinking problems". Referencing correctly is a vital skill for tertiary students (Baker, 2013; La Trobe University, 2008; Smith, 2002).
Just tacking a list of in-text references at the end of a paragraph is not sufficient to demonstrate where you have sourced your ideas. I would expect something more like:
Students should always reference their work (Baker, 2013; La Trobe University, 2008; Smith, 2002). Seventy five percent of first year students do not reference their work correctly (Smith, 2002, p. 121). One way that students can ensure that their work is referenced correctly is to visit the La Trobe Library website and use their excellent online referencing tools (La Trobe University, 2008). Trying to mark a students work when they do not correctly reference can "cause university staff to develop drinking problems" (Baker, 2013, p. 1). Referencing correctly is a vital skill for tertiary students (Baker, 2013).
In this second example, I can clearly see where the students ideas have come from, and can cross check the references to ensure that they are finding their information from reputable resources.
- Secondly, some essays/reports ask the student to make suggestions as to how an issue might be tackled. For example:
Q: Discuss how first year university students might ensure that they reference correctly.
In response to this type of question, students often mistakenly think that they are being asked for their personal opinion and write an answer something like:
Students should really be careful to reference correctly. I think that referencing is pretty easy and don't understand why some students just don't get it. Students should go to the library and ask for help or make an appointment at the Student Learning Unit.
When you are asked a question like the one above, we do want your ideas about how you would address the issue, however, they must be linked to relevant research. For example:
It is understandable that some students struggle to reference correctly. One way that students can ensure that they improve their referencing skills would be to thoroughly review the Academic Referencing Tool at the La Trobe Library website (La Trobe University, 2008). A recent study (Smith, 2012) found that "students who make themselves familiar with online referencing tools make far fewer referencing errors and get better marks" (p. 12). Students who are still struggling with their referencing skills could also make an appointment with the Student Learning Unit (La Trobe University, 2008). The Student Learning Unit has proved very beneficial for students with 95% finding that their confidence with referencing is improved (La Trobe University, 2008, p. 15).
- A final hint is to remember that good referencing includes adhering to style conventions. The Online Academic Referencing Tool at the La Trobe Library website includes a section entitled "Style Notes" that gives you information about title pages, font selection and size, line spacing and how to write common abbreviations (to name but a few). You should make yourself familiar with these prior to writing and should make up a basic template for your work so that you do not need to re-format your work every time. You may even find some good templates online, but be careful to check that they are current and conform with the online referencing tool as referencing styles are updated regularly.
Do you count in-text references, headings, direct quotes as part of our word count?
All content, with the exception of your title page and reference list, is included in any word count. I simply highlight your work and look at the number, it must be within 10% of the allocated word count.
Some general academic writing tips
1.. Do not use abbreviations like "don't, can't, we'll" when you are writing an essay/report, use "do not, can not, we will".
2.. Do not use casual or colloquial language such as:
Did you know that 90% of university staff drink while correcting student work, isn't that weird?
If you think about it, writing essays is pretty great, don't you think?
Academic staff who get upset about referencing should just calm the farm.
3.. Do not use a word without fully understanding its meaning, simply to make yourself look smart. For example:
University staff who rant about writing assignments are so ambivalent.
4.. On a related note, write clearly and directly. Convoluted sentences do not look intelligent, they just look... convoluted. For example:
Bipedal males frequenting water closets should always, as a matter of principle, ensure that they fully disinfect their prehensile, multi-fingered extremities prior to exiting as to fail to take this step would be gauche.
Better instead to simply say:
Men who go to the toilet should always wash their hands.
5.. When you are being asked to look at legislation or government documents, make sure that they are Australian (unless you are specifically asked to cite international literature). If you are looking to demonstrate a point about public health (for example), look for Australian data first and only use international data if it is relevant. For example:
The residents of Grand Rapids Michigan have installed water fountains on every street corner.
This is of little value when considering the use of tap water in the Australian context, better to find an example of an Australian council or government department that is installing water fountains.
6.. On a related point, avoid "American" English spelling such as "organize, color" etc. Also avoid using common American terms like gallons, pints, soda etc. If you use a word processor like Word, you can change the settings to either Australian or British English to help minimise the chance of this happening.
7.. Remember to proof read your work before you submit. I receive a lot of essays that contain errors of grammar and punctuation and poor spelling that can easily be fixed with a simple proof read. I think that it can be really valuable to read your work out loud before you submit. If you struggle to read it out loud or can't make sense of what you are saying, chances are you need to revise your work.
8.. Do a small amount of reading on your essay/report topic each week. This way, when it comes time to start writing your assignment or report you will have a good general understanding of the topic. First year subjects usually have a list of suggested readings in the subject guide for each week, so it is easy to locate a relevant article or book chapter to read.
9.. Make sure that you visit the subject librarian and ask them for tips on searching the library catalogue for relevant articles. This can save you a lot of time as you will be able to effectively refine your searches. You will also get to meet a fantastic person who will be able to help you throughout your university career! I would also suggest that you familiarise yourself with Google Scholar and learn how to access full text articles by linking Google Scholar to the La Trobe Library (the librarian will also be able to help with this).
10.. One final tip. If you get a poor mark for your first effort don't give up. Academic writing is a skill that can be learnt and developed over time. Start by making an appointment with the Student Learning Unit. Take along your essay and ask the staff member to look over your work and give you some advice. You can also make an appointment to show them your next piece of work before you submit so that you can make sure you are on track.
Good luck. Steven Baker (firstname.lastname@example.org)