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WHSL Introduction to Research in the Biomedical Sciences: 7. Academic Writing

Helpful information for undertaking the research process in the biomedical sciences

Writing at University

When writing assignments at university, students are required to think clearly and critically, use valid evidence and produce well-structured and coherent pieces of writing. This applies to all academic fields of study or disciplines.

Writing at university is different from writing a report for work. For example, at work a concise listing of points may be required but, at university, students are expected to elaborate on points with argument and explanation.

University writing requirements also differ from the writing expected from students in high school. University students are usually expected to research more widely and in more depth. Assignments set at university also tend to be longer. University students may also be expected to take a more critical and questioning attitude to knowledge than may have been required in high school.

The writing university students are required to do for their subjects can involve a range of formats - essays, reports, papers based on case studies, literature reviews and short answers/problem solving of tutorial questions all the way through to postgraduate research reports, dissertations and theses. Writing at university must be based on reading and investigation. It is expected to present more than your own opinion based solely on past experience and general knowledge.

Also, though all academic disciplines share a common core and require intellectual rigour and skills, they have different traditions of scholarship. Writing and research in the health sciences is quite different from writing and research in business subjects, for example.

Information in this and subsequent sections based on Deakin University, Australia study support skill handouts. Available: [Accessed 31.12.2012]

Lecturer Expectations

There may be differences from course to course within a discipline and you may encounter different expectations from subject to subject within the same course. Even lecturers teaching the same subject may emphasise different aspects.

What is expected of you in a particular assignment? As a university student

  • Your purpose in writing is usually to display competence.
  • Your audience is the person who marks or examines your work.

Why are written assignments are such a popular way of assessing student learning? It is because writing is a product of learning - your finished assignment displays your learning - as well as a tool for learning - through the process of writing, you can clarify your thoughts and refine your understanding. Have you noticed that it is not possible to explain anything - even orally - if you do not really understand it? Similarly, the requirement to present work in writing forces the writer to think through a topic.

First Steps in Good Academic Writing

  • Read the assignment description and any explanatory notes provided.  Listen for any comments that the lecturer may make about the assignment. Try to work out why a particular assessment task has been set. Can you figure out how it relates to the goals of the subject, as set out in the course guide or syllabus?
  • Determine what the assignment is designed to evaluate. Some assessment tasks are planned to develop your problem-solving skills; others are devised to judge how well you can relate theory to practice; others to ascertain whether you have read deeply and critically on a topic. You are expected to know the underlying facts in all cases.
  • Some lecturers provide detailed marking criteria or rubrics, indicating how many marks are allocated to particular aspects of the assignment. You should spend your time accordingly.
  • Ask for help. After having read the assignment description and the unit guide, if you are still not quite clear about what is expected of you in the assignment, ask your lecturer or tutorYour lecturer or tutor may be willing to discuss or look at an outline plan of your assignment to let you know whether you are on the right track. They are unlikely to read your entire paper before you submit it however. If you continue to have problems in understanding what is required, please contact the Office of Student Support at the Faculty of Health Sciences.

Different Types of Assignments

You may experience confusion in the use of terminology and the blurring of distinctions between different types of written assignments - for example, essays and reports. For some essay-type assignments you may be required to use headings (a characteristic of reports, not of standard essays). Also, such assignments may be referred to as 'research reports', 'research papers','literature review reports' or 'research assignments'.

A 'case study' assignment does not automatically imply that a particular type of writing is expected. Case studies require the analysis of a particular case, that is, an event, an organisation, a process, an object, and so on. After analysing the case, you may be required to write an essay that discusses the issues arising from the scenario. Alternatively, you may be required to write the assignment as a report, using headings and subheadings and making recommendations to deal with a problem in that setting.

It is essential to clarify what individual lecturers expect in assignments. It is often the unstated and taken-for-granted assumptions that are the most difficult to uncover and address.

Getting Started

Beginning to write is often the hardest part of writing an assignment.

Writing university assignments is a challenging task. Sometimesyou may get stuck, and youcannot get started or cannot seem to move on from where you have stopped. Remember that you are not alone if this happens to you - even published writers experience this. It is important to have some strategies for dealing with this.

  • Make a preliminary plan (outline of what you want to cover) but be flexible about it.
  • Make a start. When you return to your work, you will at least have something to work on, rather than a blank page or an empty computer screen.

Think of writing as a 'messy' circular process, not a neat linear process. Reading, thinking and writing overlap. Once you have started writing it does not mean that you will not need to do any further research. In fact, after beginning to write, you may realise you need to read further because you can better identify what you do not yet know.

Writing is not easy and it takes time, but it is worth the effort in terms of the marks you will receive.

Traps to Avoid when Writing

  • Spending too long on the research stage. It is difficult to give specific rules on how long you should spend researching and when you should begin writing. Also, as noted earlier, these processes will overlap. How long you spend researching and reading should be related to the complexity of the assignment and how many marks it is worth; also how much time you have available for one assignment. Sometimes lecturers specify how many references they expect. Mainly, though, you will have to judge when you have read enough to tackle the assignment.
  • Learning what to read is an important skill. You can use the textbook or the study guide as a starting point to gather basic background information. Follow references listed in these texts to branch out to areas related to your specific topic. Don't rely on Google for all your information - use a variaty of sources. 
  • Don't waste time making lots of photocopies and printing out a lot of material that you are not going to have time to read. You can tend to feel you are doing something worthwhile because you are researching for your assignment and this can give you a false sense of security. In fact, you may be putting off having to start writing.
  • Putting off doing any work on the assignment until the deadline is close. If you leave your assignment until the last minute it will not have the substance, depth or focus it needs. You need time to allow the process of writing and thinking to take place.
  • Proofreading at an early stage of writing. Proofreading (correcting errors of grammar, spelling and punctuation) at the early stages is not a good idea because it can hinder the flow of your thought and you may later decide to delete parts of your writing and may have to discard segments you spent time proofreading.
  • Perfectionism. Remember that it is better to hand in an assignment that is less than perfect than hand one in late or not at all because you are trying to make it 'perfect'. You might complete 80% of an assignment in 12 hours and then spend six hours perfecting it. It may be more worthwhile to hand in the assignment on time rather than spend that much time on fine-tuning if this leads to late submission.

Feedback on your Assignment

Read and take note of the marker's comments! Of course, you are first interested to know what your mark is. However, do not look only at the mark. Use the marker's feedback to improve your next assignment.

Lecturers point out that if an assignment is unsatisfactory it is often because the student did not answer the specific question asked and did not limit the topic as they were required to.