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How to get straight distinctions in your college project work

So you're at college and the tutors keep giving you massive written projects to do. Some people get distinctions all the time. So can you...


Firstly, why do we have written projects in education?

The answer to that is that the old way was to judge students by examination, supported by what used to be called 'essays'. Exams though were judged to be unfair because some students claimed that they were just no good at them, even though they knew the subject. They would probably be diagnosed as 'disexamic' today. Of course the reason for most people flunking their exams was that they left revision until the last minute. But for people who knew their subject, exams actually did work very well. And still do in some cases (like the City & Guilds Sound Engineering exams you can take through Audio Masterclass).

So now that most courses either have no exams at all, or the exams are a small component of the assessment, essays have been beefed up into what are known as 'projects' or 'assignments'.

The theory of assignment work has developed over the years. A modern assignment must have certain features to be valid...

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  • Learning outcomes, given in the assignment brief. The learning outcomes state how the student will benefit by completing the project successfully.
  • Assessment criteria, given in the assignment brief, so that the student can see exactly what they have to do to achieve a particular grade. Assessment criteria can be given in two forms...
    • Objective - the criteria state exactly what must be done and avoid phrases like "to an acceptable standard", "to a good standard" etc. Objectivity can however be achieved by comparison - "The work must be comparable to a paper published in an industry journal", etc.
    • Subjective - the criteria do not state the 'height of the hurdles' to be jumped over, but the qualities the assessor will be looking for - "Insight into the subject matter", "Depth of original thought" etc. It is assumed that the assessor is competent to make subjective assessments and these assessments must be verified by double marking or at least a sampling of projects double marked.
  • 'Improvement points' (there doesn't seem to be any standard terminology for this), given in the assessor's summary report, so that the student knows what they have to do next time to achieve a higher grade. Plainly the improvement points will list the ways in which the student failed to meet the assessment criteria for a higher grade

So to achieve a good grade, a student must carefully consider the assessment criteria. If they are objective, then the task is made straightforward. Make sure that each sentence addresses at least one of the criteria. If any sentence does not address any of the criteria, then it is a wasted sentence. The technical term is 'waffle'.

If the assessment criteria are subjective, or objective but badly written (which is common), then you have to consider what it is that the assessor is looking for. Often, you will know who the assessor is - usually your tutor or the person who set the assignment.

Assessors fall into two categories...

  • The 'noble assessor' - they are looking for work that is impressive. They don't want to be bored by stuff they have read before; they want to see evidence of original thought processes on the paper. They'll give you a distinction when they think the work is better than what they could have done themselves, and they will enjoy giving that distinction grade when it has been well earned
  • The 'selfish assessor' - usually these are people who wish they could have followed a life plan other than education. They need to be pleased. Your work should come as close as possible to what the assessor himself or herself would have written. Butter them up, massage their egos, regurgitate their opinions and you will get a good grade. Above all, with this type of assessor, do not offer your own opinions. You'll get a fail or a bare pass grade.

It's worth saying that many projects come with 'standards for presentation' attached, or they might be written down somewhere in the course handbook. Project work isn't a place for displaying your own style. Stick to the standards rigidly. Sometimes the standards may seem bizarre. For example one particular tutor requires that projects are not enclosed in any kind of envelope, wallet or binder, so that all that is handed in are sheets of paper stapled together. Of course a binder makes the project look more attractive, but that's not what you're being judged on, supposedly. So the 'bare paper' instruction is to make everyone more equal? No - it's because when you stack up projects in binders ready to mark, you can only get about five high and then they slide off the desk!

When you get your project back, study the grade and the improvement points carefully, and of course any comments the assessor has written in the body of your project. If there are no formal improvement points given in the summary report though, then you are entitled to complain to your tutor, or to a higher authority if necessary. If the improvement points don't accurately list the deficiencies in your work compared to the assessment criteria, then once again the assessment is inadequate.

Ultimately it is my opinion that to be successful in project work, you need to be an expert in doing project work. That is more significant than your knowledge of the subject and will get you the grade you want more reliably. I have met students who can hand in a distinction level project every time, but talk to them one-on-one and you soon realize that their knowledge of the subject is flaky at best.

One day all this will be swept aside for another method of assessment, or perhaps a return to exams. But project work will be here for the foreseeable future. Learn to play by the rules and you will not only make it easier for yourself, you'll get the grades you want too!

By David Mellor Monday February 20, 2006