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Ten tips to improve written assignment grades

by Blansh Al-Awkabi

When I started my undergraduate studies at the School of Education, I was completely new to university-level academic writing. After I received my first grade, a lucky pass, I understood that I needed to do some learning as my old strategies for writing college-level assignments differed completely from the academic standards. After trial and error in my first year, I completed my second year with a first in every module. So, as a final year School of Education student, I would like to take this opportunity to share with prospective first-year undergraduate students, or anyone who may benefit, my top 10 tips that helped me improve my assignment grades. If I can do it, you can too!

1. Adopt a growth mindset

Before you begin reading this blog any further, consider adopting a Growth Mindset; a term coined by an American psychologist, Carol Dweck. In her book Mindset (2012) Dweck defined a growth mindset as a belief in the ability to improve through effort. When I received my first grade, a 45%, I found it hard to believe I can achieve a higher grade. Despite this, I believed that if I could improve my learning strategies and familiarise myself with the university expectations, I can improve my learning experiences and outcomes.

So, firstly, believe that you are more than capable of writing assignments to your desired academic standards. For example, you may draw inspiration from a time when, with practice and the right strategies, you improved drastically; be it in academics, sports, or any other skill. With this in mind, the process of developing and polishing your academic writing and achieving your desired assignment grade should not be any different, but remember, the key is consistency! Finally, set a grade goal for graduation and be as ambitious as possible. As Les Brown said, “Shoot for the moon, even if you miss you will land among the stars!” (Goodreads, n.d.).

2. Refer to the Assessment Criteria

Understanding the grading criteria is crucial as it serves to help you understand what grade you are aiming for, how to achieve it, and what assessors are looking for. The first step I took was deciding what grade band I was aiming for, and began to study it in detail i.e., by making notes of the grade band’s keywords. For example, the first-class band mentions that a student’s work may demonstrate an ability to differentiate between ideas and arguments. So, with this in mind, you already know that you should work towards demonstrating this skill in your written assignment. Sounds simple, right?

In summary, the marking criteria should help you understand what is expected from your written assignment for the grade band for which you are aiming. It will help you understand in which areas of academic writing you excel, and where you may need more help. Thus, once you break down what is expected from you and understand it, review your assignment before submission and check if your work reflects what is expected in that band criteria. This way, you can be sure that you are working to the standards you are aiming for.

3. Assignment Details & Note-taking

As soon as a module begins, what I do is access Blackboard and read the module overview so I can familiarise myself with the learning outcomes and objectives. Secondly, I open the assignment detail tab to engage with the assignment guidance and make a note of the deadline. After this, I open a word document and type in the assignment question, deadline, and any other ideas or details. For the duration of the module, I would use this document for note-taking e.g., adding quotes, references, and any ideas that I found interesting and relevant to the assignment question.

Notice that, the keyword here is note-taking. In the book Limitless (2020), the world-renowned brain coach Jim Kwik argues that one of the biggest pitfalls of note-taking is writing without a purpose, stating that by ‘…being clear on your intentions with your notes, you can distinguish between information that is relevant to you and information that is not’ p.206. So, by understanding what the learning objectives of the module are and how they may relate to the assessment question, you are likely to be better prepared in taking effective notes in lectures for learning and writing your assignment.

4. Attend 301 workshops

One of the go-to essential websites for university-level academic study skills and approaches is the 301 Academic Skills Centre at the University of Sheffield. It is a great starting point for understanding what university study skills may benefit you, as well as what learning strategies or methods are out there for improving learning outcomes. Specifically, accessing this service has helped me develop my methods of writing academic assignments through resources on everyday skills, research, and writing. Below, I have listed my top three workshops that you may choose to attend as soon as you begin your studies.

My Top Three 301 workshops

Academic Writing Essentials: This workshop is designed to help you understand the key challenges in academic writing and how to overcome them with effective strategies. It introduced me to useful tips on developing and inserting my academic voice, which is essential for a high grade!

Essay Structure and Planning: Not sure how to structure your essay? This workshop introduced me to academic essay structures in stages: analysing essay questions, creating an essay map, organising your ideas, and structuring your content.

Developing an Academic Argument: Struggling with structuring your argument? This workshop helped me learn how to develop a coherent and convincing argument, so it might be of help to you too!

Note: workshops are subject to change

5. Feedback

It is important to make note of the feedback received with your assignment grades because understanding it is crucial for improving your work for a couple of reasons. Firstly, in an Annual Review Psychology article, Metcalfe (2017) draws from neurological and behaviour data to conclude mistakes can “greatly facilitate new learning” p.484. In relation to my learning journey, engaging with each feedback helped me understand what areas of academic writing I needed to improve and helped me accelerate my learning process.

As pointed out by Nicol (2013), engaging with feedback makes you a proactive learner who is developing essential evaluation skills needed for identifying gaps in knowledge and skills. This skill will equip you to become a life-long learner who is critically aware of your strengths and limitations. This awareness is necessary when you conduct a review of your academic writing, as it will help you identify learning opportunities and ultimately improve your assignment grades. Also, considering that your first-year grades do not count towards your final degree classification, taking advantage of feedback will help you find your footing in regard to academic writing, and be better prepared as you transition to your second year. Thus, take full advantage of the professional and personalised advice on your work as it will only help you improve your academic writing in the areas you need the most.

6. 1:1 with an Academic

Scheduling a meeting with my academic tutor or taking advantage of my professors’ contact hours has helped me whenever I felt stuck. For example, booking a 10-minute meeting with my academic tutor to discuss my assignment structure and feedback has helped me identify new areas for improving my academic writing i.e., developing my academic voice. According to recent research by Agricola et al., (2019), most university students in the study perceived verbal feedback “to be better in terms of quality, use, quantity and timing, and usefulness compared to students who received written feedback” p.19.

Moreover, meetings with a professor or an academic tutor are opportunities for you to ask questions about aspects of the assignment, module content, or academic writing in general. It is a chance to obtain answers to your questions, gain clarity, and start thinking about your next steps for improving your academic writing. Thus, I highly recommend taking advantage of the opportunity to schedule a private meeting with your tutor, professor, or supervisor to discuss any questions, concerns, or ideas you might have related to your assignment.

7. What works for you?

You need to explore learning techniques and strategies as they are key to improving your academic writing i.e., reading speed, note-taking, and time management. According to Clear (2018), having a goal without an effective system in place may make it difficult to achieve that goal. Thus, everyone may have the same grade goal, but the learning or study methods everyone implements make the difference in the end. For example, when I first decided to improve my assignment grade, I began to explore different learning techniques and strategies for revision, note-taking, and writing. One of the learning techniques I learned is known as The Pomodoro technique, a famous time-management method developed in the late 1980s by Francesco Cirillo, which continues to help me stay focused and productive. For instance, I would focus on a task for 25 minutes, take a 5-minute break and repeat this three more times before a full-hour break. This method is effective because our attention and retention declines after 25–30 minutes (Kwik, 2020) and regular breaks have been proven to improve focus and learning (Ariga and Lleras, 2011).

Thus, I recommend researching and experimenting with different techniques until you find the ones that work best for you and help you excel in your study skills. A great starting point for you could be clicking on this link to explore the Level Up Your Skills packages offered by 301 Academic Skills Centre.

8. Learning Environment

When writing and researching for an assignment, it is best to find a study space that works for you. You may work best alone or in a study group, at home or in a University’s library. If you choose to study mainly at home as I did, ensure you create a dedicated study space with eliminated distractions. It may sound straightforward, but I found it to be really important especially when procrastination kicks in!

I learnt the importance of this in the book Atomic Habits (2018) where Clear argues that the environment matters more than motivation. In chapter 6 of his book, he discusses how an environment with cues aimed at triggering the desired behaviour from an individual is a proven method for creating a consistent habit. For example, my dedicated study space’s cues were a laptop, a notebook and post-it notes with deadlines. Yours may be working alongside others, i.e., in the library or in small group work, which has been shown to increase intrinsic motivation (Carr and Walton, 2014). Alongside this, creating an environment free of distractions is crucial for aiding your learning process because on average, it takes up to 23 minutes to refocus on a task according to Professor Mark (Pattison, 2008). So, choose your learning space and habit cues, and ensure you eliminate distractions to meet your assignment goals and deadlines.

9. Prioritise Wellbeing

For optimal brain performance, you need a diet that supplies your brain with needed nutrients and protection. A study by Zwilling et al., (2019) provides evidence of an association between cognitive performance and nutrition. So, whatever your dietary preferences or needs, I highly recommend researching food for improved cognitive performance.

Alongside this, schedule time off to rest or do something you love. If you find yourself struggling with mental health or going through hard times in general, do not hesitate to request an extension for your assignment deadlines.

In addition, aim to maintain a healthy sleeping routine. Sacrificing sleep to write your assignment is something I am guilty of doing, but I never found myself as productive as I am after a good night’s rest. This is because research shows that lack of sleep reduces the ability to learn, memorise or acquire new information (Stickgold, 2007). Lastly, reward yourself for every achievement. As suggested in Skinner’s operant conditioning theory, rewarding desired behaviour acts as positive reinforcement (McLeod, 2018). It is up to you how you decide to reward yourself, but make sure it is something special.

10. Take Action

Last but not least, remember to be an active learner as it has been emphasised that you learn more through active rather than passive engagement with content and materials (Kwik, 2020). Examples of this could look something like reflecting in a notebook about the key points and ideas you found most interesting from this blog, or as soon as you start your studies, securing an internship to apply learnt theory into practice. In addition, in the case of becoming an active learner, I highly recommend creating an action plan which may consist of your grade goals, why you want to achieve them, and how. Whether you choose for your plan to be informed by key takeaways from this blog or not, it should encourage you to start thinking about methods to help you achieve your main assignment goals by breaking them down into small, achievable, and manageable baby steps. Also, I would encourage you to hand-write your action plan instead of using digital means, solely because it was found that writing compared to typing up information improves learning by increasing the chances of retaining information (Mueller and Oppenheimer, 2014). Finally, this plan can also act as one of your cues in your study space by reminding you of your goals, helping you track your progress throughout the degree, and encouraging you to continue improving your learning and academic outcomes.

I hope you find the idea of the action plan useful for actively reflecting on your learning needs and planning your next steps. Wishing you the best of luck with your studies!

Reference List
Agricola, B., Prins, F. and Sluijsmans, D., (2019). Impact of feedback request forms and verbal feedback on higher education students’ feedback perception, self-efficacy, and motivation. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 27(1), pp.6–25.

Ariga, A., and Lleras. A. (2011). Brief and rare mental ‘breaks’ keep you focused: Deactivation and reactivation of task goals preempt vigilance decrements. Cognition; DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2010.12.007

Carr, P. and Walton, G., 2014. Cues of working together fuel intrinsic motivation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 53, pp.169–184.

Clear, J., (2018). Atomic Habits. London: Cornerstone, pp.81–90.

Dweck, C.S. (2012) Mindset. London: Robinson.

Goodreads.com. (n.d.). A quote by Les Brown. [online] Available at: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/1091121-shoot-for-the-moon-even-if-you-miss-you-ll-land

McLeod, S. A. (2018, Jan, 21). Skinner — operant conditioning. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/operant-conditioning.html

Metcalfe, J., (2017). Learning from Errors. Annual Review of Psychology, 68(1), pp.465–489.

Mueller, P. A. and Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014) ‘The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking’, Psychological Science, 25(6), pp. 1159–1168. DOI: 10.1177/0956797614524581.

Nicol, D. (2013). ‘Resituating feedback from the reactive to the proactive’, in Boud, D. and Molloy, Elizabeth, Feedback in Higher and Professional Education: Understanding It and Doing It Well. London: Taylor & Francis Group, pp. 34–49

Pattison, K., (2008). Worker, Interrupted: The Cost of Task Switching. [online] Fast Company. Available at: https://www.fastcompany.com/944128/worker-interrupted-cost-task-switching

Stickgold, R., (2007). Sleep, Learning, and Memory | Healthy Sleep. [online] Available at: https://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/healthy/matters/benefits-of-sleep/learning-memory

Zwilling, C., Talukdar, T., Zamroziewicz, M. and Barbey, A., (2019). Nutrient biomarker patterns, cognitive function, and fMRI measures of network efficiency in the ageing brain. NeuroImage, 188, pp.239–251.

Blansh Al-Awkabi is a 3rd Year student on the BA Education, Culture and Childhood at The School of Education.

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