How international students should approach writing coursework

Introduction

Most degree courses will require students and international students to produce written coursework as part of the assessment for different course modules. This coursework could be essays, reports, or a piece of reflective writing, usually between 1,500 and 3,000 words in length. This blog post will outline some important factors to consider when preparing essays and reports.

 

Time and organization

One common student mistake is to use the same approach to assessed coursework as for a high school essay. Essentially, assessed coursework requires a research process which involves gradual work over several weeks, rather than intensive work very close to a deadline. Writing an essay the night before the deadline is possible at high school, but not at university. Equally, students will often receive multiple written coursework assignments with the same, or very similar, deadlines. In this situation, international students must plan the research and writing process for several parallel assignments over three or four weeks.

International students need to learn when is their best time in the day or night to do writing and thinking. Some people concentrate best early in the mornings, and others late at night.  As most university courses have relatively little-taught content, perhaps 10 hours a week, University is an excellent opportunity for a student to discover the writing schedule which suits their natural inclinations.

 

 

Research

Firstly, variety is important in the research process. In general, students are expected to use a range of sources, such as published books, academic journal articles and media articles posted online. The marking criteria which lecturers use to grade student essays explicitly associate a range of sources with higher grade bands. Equally, international students should consider using a range of media in their sources – video interviews with famous professors, or podcasts by recognized academics, experts or social commentators.

Secondly, at the research stage, it is important to plan how to incorporate critical thinking into the essay. In many assignments, this is easily done, as the question requires two sides of an argument to be researched and commented on by the writer. In this scenario, it is important to understand that the role of the essay writer is to research arguments made by established contributors, or theories used to support opposing points of view and to present those arguments or theories with commentary from yourself. However, in some other types of assignment, the question may not require you to present two sides of an argument. In this situation, you should try to identify and discuss any weaknesses in your research evidence, or comment on any limitations in your own reasoning, in order to INSERT IGNORE as much critical thinking as possible into the essay.

 

 

Avoiding Plagiarism

Very few of the students who commit plagiarism in a coursework essay intend to plagiarise at the start of the writing process. However, time pressures and a lack of care in the essay composition process often lead to plagiarism. First of all, many students copy sentences or paragraphs from online sources directly into their essay and paraphrase the sentence or paragraph there. The problem with this strategy is that a student might forget which sentences or paragraphs have been paraphrased, and which have not. So, when the essay is submitted, there are some unchanged sentences or paragraphs in the text, and the student has committed plagiarism.  The solution is to copy all text from online sources into a separate document, paraphrase the sentences or paragraphs there, and then copy the finished paraphrase into the essay document. Equally, many students commit plagiarism when they are rushing to finish an essay the night before the deadline, and don’t leave time to paraphrase their sources properly.

 

Drafting

Drafting is rewriting the essay several times during the composition process, where each rewrite is an improvement on the previous version. Usually, the first draft is a simple version, where the writer is establishing the basic structure of the text. For an undergraduate or master’s essay, this basic structure would include the thesis statement, what the main arguments and theories are, and the principal sources for those arguments. This stage also involves deciding to use a block or chain structure, where the different sides of the argument are either in separate paragraphs in each half of the essay or are united into single paragraphs where the opposing arguments follow one after the other. This draft should be completed before the research process starts, and should make use of the existing knowledge of the student.  It’s important that the student has an idea of the overall essay structure before starting any research, because otherwise, the first few sources can lead the writer to present minor or less relevant arguments as major ones.

In the second draft, the writer focuses on paragraph structure, deciding what the opening topic sentence should be, which points should be made in the paragraph, and what evidence should be used to support those points. This draft happens in parallel with the research process and involves the writer selecting the strongest arguments, evidence or theories to support their main points. Equally, it is a good idea to state why particular ideas, evidence or theories have been chosen, as this demonstrates critical thinking.

In the third draft, an essay writer focuses on sentence composition and checks that they are using appropriate academic language, particularly nouns and verbs. Also, an international student should ensure that their grammar is as good as possible: relative pronouns and conditional forms are common areas of weakness for East Asian students. Finally, the third draft is where the writer should choose a point to comment on or develop in the conclusion.

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