This blog has been on the backburner recently while I tried to drag myself from the hell that is writing an assignment. For someone (like me) who embarks on an MA course after a long break from formal study, being asked to write assignments again can be a bit of a shock to the system. All that reading and getting your head round what you want to say can easily lead to thoughts of “Why am I doing this?” (or to put it another way, #whyamIdoingthis). Thankfully, I (just about!) got it all finished ahead of last Monday’s deadline but, after such an intense bout of writing, decided to take a break from the keyboard and leave the blog waiting for a few more days.
Almost burned out… Image by stonelucifer
So what better way to return than to share a few words of advice about preparing for MA assignments. Of course, this comes a little too late for those of you who were working to similar deadlines to me but it will hopefully come in handy for future reference. The list includes some things I did to make the process easier and some things I should have done - I’ll leave you to work out which is which!
- Find out what your assignment is as soon as possible
“Well, duh!” you might think but this is an easy one to overlook. Some of my course tutors have been kind enough to include details of the assignment with the introductory materials of a course but others have not provided this information until later. The sooner you know the better as it allows your study to be more focused and gives you plenty of time to raise questions about any part of it you are not clear on, which neatly brings me to the next point…
- Make sure you are aware of exactly what the assignment entails
We may often equate ‘assignment’ with ‘extended essay’ but that’s not always the case, especially if there is a practical application element to the course. There’s nothing worse than suddenly finding out (as I did part-way through a course in my first year) that you have to create a fully-functioning website which will be assessed together with your written work or that you have to design materials to be used for a computer lab or online lesson. Also, the written part of the assignment may ask you to focus on an aspect of your teaching, or provide a rationale for choosing a certain web tool or research method, or to reflect on your experiences during the course - all of which require a very different approach.
- Start to look for inspiration everywhere
Once you know what your assignment is and exactly what you need to do, it’s best to never keep it far from your thoughts. An idea for how to approach the task may come while reading the literature, or it may come while your reading a blog post, or while you are in class, or while you are in the middle of watching a Quentin Tarantino film in the cinema (why Inglorious Basterds made me think of investigating how 9 year-olds engage in self-assessment, I’ll never know!) Make sure you have some way of noting it down as well.
- Be prepared to change your mind and start over
Having said all that about getting a head start, it’s important not to commit yourself to one avenue without exploring other paths as well. Just as a moment of inspiration may come at any time, another better one may come later. The key thing is to have no fear of changing your mind. Last year as part of a course on Teacher Development, I spent a long time looking into action research in the language classroom with the assignment very much in mind only to abandon that and decide to investigate using a blog for self-development instead. Nearly a year on, that change of heart has had a heavy bearing on the direction my dissertation will take so it’s a good thing I was ready to try another path.
- Make a note of useful articles (including page numbers!)
There’s nothing worse than thinking that you read something a while ago that would make a useful quote or be a useful reference for your article but then being unable to remember which article it was. Or maybe you will locate the article or book chapter only then to realise it is over 50 pages long and that little piece of insight that you’re looking for is buried in it somewhere. That’s why I always keep a note of articles, book chapters and page numbers that might be useful when it comes to assignment time as I read them (something like Evernote is great for this). In the end, many of them may be discarded when you actually come round to planning and writing but it saves a lot of time to have all those references to hand rather than be frantically searching for them and wondering whether you actually read or it was all a dream….
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help
In my experience of distance learning, both as a student actually taking an online course and as a student learning about effectively leading one, it has surprised me how many learners seem shy about asking for help. Some people, it would seem, prefer to stay quiet rather than ask something that may seem like a basic question (the same is true for the classroom I suppose!) Don’t be. Ask your questions and state your worries either in the online forum or directly to your tutor by email. I’ve found the tutors at the University of Manchester are always happy to help and offer advice. Even better, if you ask on the online discussion boards, you often get great help from your course mates as well.
- Plan on paper!
I don’t have a problem reading from the computer screen or from my iPad and, as I mentioned above, I make use of online discussion boards and Evernote to develop and keep track of my ideas. However, when it comes to planning an assignment, paper just works better for me. I think it’s the fact that I can spread it out on the table or floor and see how it is taking shape… It’s also nice to take a break from sitting at the computer for a while as well. Also, when you get to the writing up stage, referring to a piece of paper in your hand is easier than clicking between windows of different Word files, pdfs, the online forum and Evernote!
Of course, saying those things is easy but remembering to do all of them is not! You may be thinking that I have left something out and, you’re right, I have. There’s hardly any mention of actually writing the darn thing but that’s another story for another post…