Four things new students need to know before tackling a university assessment

So you’re going to university. You’re not alone – last year there were 1.7m undergraduates studying in UK higher education institutions and almost 30% of these students will go on to get a first-class degree.

The employment market is saturated with graduates with good degrees and qualifications, so it’s important to achieve your full potential to help you stand out from the crowd when you graduate.

To do well academically you’re going to have to pass a whole range of assessed pieces of work. These can also include essays, projects, reports, reflective journals, case studies, presentations, debates, experiments, interviews and fieldwork – to name but a few.

Most universities have facilities and people in place to maximise your academic success (and support your mental well-being) but there’s also an expectation you’ll take responsibility for your own achievements. And approaching assessments with a bit of know-how can make all the difference. My research has looked specifically at assessment in higher education along with techniques to help students improve their learning. So here are my top pieces of advice to help new students with their studies.

Get with the programme

Universities in the UK have to include details about assessments on their web pages. There will be learning outcomes and assessment criteria for the whole programme and the individual modules or courses. Tutors write these so you know how you are being assessed. Research shows that if you actively seek out and meet the expectations in your discipline you are more likely to do well. So read what it says about your degree programme. How is it assessed? Will there be lots of pieces of work (continuous assessment) or will there be a couple at the end of the semester or term?

Also be prepared to undertake some digital assessments. You might have to write a blog, tweet your ideas as part of project or solicit information via an online survey. Lecture notes and assessments may well be held on a virtual learning environment, so get used to accessing information in this way and make Google Scholar and ERIC – online digital libraries of research – your new best friends.

Reflect and revisit

When it comes to tackling assessments, don’t leave them until the last minute. Have a go at the task, consider how well you’ve done in light of the criteria, form new ideas, get some feedback and then have another go.

This process of learning through doing and reflection is known as the Experiential Learning Theory and underpins the design of many courses in higher education. The model is attributed to Donald Schon, an American philosopher, who in his 1983 seminal work The Reflective Practitioner, defined learning as “the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience.”

The theory goes like this: as learners we do something – write an essay, conduct an experiment – and we get a result. To transform this into something better we need to reflect, refine and reboot. This allows the original learning to be transformed and refreshed with new content based on feedback and self-assessment. It’s a powerful model because it works – if you follow it, you can’t fail to get better.

Research suggests that writing with a pen, rather than a laptop, gives students a better grasp of the subject. Pexels

Evidence and reference properly

Your tutors are looking for evidence that you have researched what you are writing and talking about and that you have demonstrated critical thinking. That is to say, you have an educated opinion based on evidence.

Accurately referencing sources is part of academic writing and prevents any accusations of cheating (plagiarism). The chances are that your thinking has been influenced by someone else’s ideas so reference them following your university’s guidelines. If you don’t, your lecturers will think you’ve copied.

Plagiarism is a big problem in universities – a 2016 investigation by the Quality Assurance Agency found hundreds of companies regularly produce papers for students to pass off as their own. Downloading a pre-written essay may seem like a quick fix, but it can have serious repercussions. So own your ideas, reference other people’s and all will be well.

Adopt a growth mindset

Carole Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford University in the US, says if you believe you can achieve success through dedication and hard work you are likely to succeed. By contrast if you believe intelligence is fixed and you’ll fail then there is no point having another go. At university you need to have several, if not many, attempts. Indeed, the word essay comes from the French “essayer” which translates as to try or have a go at.

So, be brave in your ideas, seek help when you need it (lecturers want you to love their subject as much as they do) and most importantly enjoy your studies.

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