Student Learning

Most assignments, essays and reports ask you to look at the topic from all sides. You will often look at the reasons for and against an issue. You will compare and contrast different points of view. You will discuss the advantages and disadvantages of a proposal, etc.

For most assignments, you should expect to spend several weeks brainstorming and planning, drafting, writing, and revising your assignment. Two handouts worth reading are:
What are academics looking for (pdf - 304KB)
Essay writing process (pdf - 510KB)

Assignment writing has several steps. These steps are:

  • analysing the assignment question

  • researching

  • drafting

  • editing

  • proofreading.

Step 1: Analysing the assignment question

The first stage (even before you begin researching) is to make sure you know what you are being asked to do. Our handout, Analysing the question (pdf - 454KB), helps you clarify what you're being asked to do in your assignment. Another handout, Instructional words (pdf - 384KB), gives exact definitions for many of the words used in assignment questions. Try to discuss your assignment questions with classmates in order to ensure you're all really clear about the task. Being very clear about what to do will mean you can research efficiently.

Step 2: Research

After you've established what your question is asking:

  • brainstorm all possible approaches to the topic

  • make a list of research questions (things to read about).

You will probably read a variety of material: books, journal articles, course readings and electronic sources. Remember when you are doing your reading that you will use some of this material to support your arguments in your assignment. Make sure you record all the bibliographic details for each reading so that you can reference correctly when you incorporate this material into your assignment. When you reference, you are:

  • acknowledging the creator of the knowledge

  • demonstrating your ideas pathway (how your thoughts progressed)

  • helping others find the same material

  • avoiding plagiarism (read out handout Avoiding plagiarism - 726KB)

More information on how to incorporate sources into your writing is given under Step 3: Drafting.

Step 3: Drafting

When you write your first draft, you should write quickly. This will ensure you have good logical flow to your writing. Read the following handouts for information on how to structure your essays and what to put in each part.

Structure of an essay (pdf - 416KB)
Introduction & conclusion (pdf - 309KB)
Support for your essay (pdf - 495KB)

Reports are structured differently to essays. The following handout will help you understand the requirements of a report.

Business report writing (pdf - 495KB)

In most of your assignments, you will need to support your arguments by citing support material from your reading. A citation can be either a paraphrase or a quote; however, you should paraphrase most of the time so that your marker knows you understand the material you are citing. Sometimes a paraphrase will be a summary of an author's idea or argument. Paraphrasing and summarising can be difficult skills to master. Read our handouts, Paraphrasing and summarising (pdf - 300KB) and Reporting verbs (pdf - 290KB) for help with these skills.

Step 4: Editing

Always leave yourself time between writing and editing (ideally 24 hours). This will help you see your work objectively. Editing means 'changing'. It is a different step to proofreading, which means 'checking'. When editing you should check:

  • that you have answered the question

  • that your ideas are logically organised (read our handout pdfLinking words and phrases - 384KB)

  • that your paragraphs are cohesive (relate to one topic)

  • that you have good topic sentences in your paragraphs

  • that you have paraphrased clearly and tied your paraphrases into your argument effectively.

For more advice on editing, refer to our handout Editing checklist (pdf - 370KB).

Step 5: Proofreading

Leave your work another 24 hours between editing and proofreading. When you proofread, you should look for errors in:

  • spelling

  • punctuation

  • referencing

  • formatting

  • consistency

The handout, Clear writing tips (pdf - 269KB), will tell you what pitfalls to look out for while you are proofreading. If you are worried that your English is not clear and correct, read the page on Using clear English.

While proofreading, you should check that your citations (paraphrases and quotes) are correctly referenced throughout your assignment, and that your reference list at the end of your assignment is correctly formatted. To check these details, you should read your school's specific referencing requirements. You can also read our handouts, Referencing (pdf - 460KB), and APA (pdf - 464KB); also look at our handout Update on the APA Style(pdf - 382KB) to see what is different between APA 5th edition and APA 6th edition.. The VUW library also has information on citing and referencing.

This APA Referencing Handbook (pdf - 5MB)is from the University of Lincoln in the UK. It is a good guide to referencing a wide range of sources, including artwork, film, television and music.

To further improve your writing skills: