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Advice to a student about essays

In between my absent career path, I just wrote this in reply to a student who wanted advice on their assignments, as they got around 70% for the subject I just taught them. Many of my students were science or STEM students, and essays are hard for them. This is what I wrote:

Dear [Student]

I am so sorry for my delays here. I am no longer a teacher at Melbourne, although I remain an honorary fellow. Hence, what I tell you now is based upon my own experience as a marker. It has, I suspect, no official basis for the University.

I am guessing that you are seeking advice on how to get better marks in essays. So rather than go through your assignments, I’d rather tell you what I most desire to see in undergraduate assignments.

  1. I want my students to show engagement with the source material and topics. I used that word engagement a lot in the subject just gone. Here is my best expression of what that means. An engaged student has opinions and is willing to argue in their favour. That is, they take a stand, and provide good reasons for it, and deal with the opposing views. This needs to be researched, but not exhaustively. Just enough to meet the standards of the subject’s level (i.e., second year, third year, etc.). It is clear to markers when the writer has not engaged – they tend to repeat rote learned statements. Now in science, that might be useful; much STEM is rote learning. But in the humanities you need to let the mask slip a little so we can tell that your mind has been working furiously behind the text of the assignment.
  2. I want my students to do proper research. I can guarantee that if you cite mostly web pages, you will not get a good mark. You need to find sources and references that are
    • Written by experts
    • published in an academic place
    • preferably peer reviewed (NB: monographs or chapter in books published by academic authors are peer reviewed. Articles in popular magazines aren’t)
    • recent (usually within the last few decades) or standard (e.g., Darwin’s writings, or that one paper published long ago that everyone cites)
    • sighted by the student. Never ever cite a paper or source that you have not seen and understood.
  3. The assignment should, if it is prose, read clearly. Sentences that are able to be read several ways, or which cannot be understood by a reader (i.e., the marker), will lose you marks.

Understand this: you do not earn marks, you lose them. Most markers see bad habits and bad practices as reasons to take marks off what might otherwise be a decent submission. So avoid bad habits. That is the single most effective way (caution: in the humanities) to get a good result.

To get a great result, you need to do more; a lot more. You need to write excellently, carefully, use terms correctly, and treat the essay as if it will be read by a leading expert. It can be done. The only essay I gave 100% to in 25 years teaching was written by a VCE (year 12) student doing an advanced study at the Uni. Mind, both her parents were academics, so she may have had help, but it can be done. If I read something and say to myself “I wish I could write this sort of essay), then you can guarantee a H1 will be given. If I read an essay that I could have written, it is still a H1 but more likely around 85%. If I think I could have written it in second year, it’s a H2B [yes, Melbourne’s marking system is weird and bad – but anything above 70% in the humanities is a good mark.]

I wish you good travels as you continue to study and I hope all goes well in your life.

Best wishes


PS: retirement is just another way of saying nobody will hire you any more…


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