Managing Coursework, Assignments and Exams
Writing your first University or College academic assignment or essay can be quite a daunting experience – assignments can have a different feel and follow a different format to the assignments and assessments you had at school, and it might be hard to know where to begin if you’re not used to completing them.
The key to achieving the result you want on an assignment or essay is to:
- Understand what is expected of you from the assignment,
- Give yourself the time and headspace you need to research and write the assignment to the standard you want,
- Make sure that you edit the assignment before submitting it
- Try to reference and write a bibliography at the same time as you write the assignment if you can. This saves you time from having to go through the materials you referenced again and the stress of having to do the referencing and bibliography at the end.
Any tutorials you might have on the module will usually cover the assignment in the run up to the deadline. In these tutorials, your tutor will explain what might be expected of you from the essay. You can use these tutorials as an opportunity to ask the tutor any questions you might have about the assignment, particularly if you might have any questions around the assignment’s length, the content, the grading scheme and format (which might be essay-based or a group project). Some assignments might be essay-based, others might take the form of group projects or group presentations, whereas others might expect you to solve a problem similar to one that you might have encountered earlier in the module. These questions might also have specific guidelines around how to reference material you’ve researched in your essay that you need to follow. The lecturer might also take time on a lecture to explain the assignment, the referencing format expected of you and there might be referencing guides or workshops that explain how to reference materials in a particular style.
If you find writing assignments difficult, you can schedule a meeting with your University or College’s Disability Support Office or Academic Writing Centre, and they can support you to learn how to plan your essay or assignment in a way that best fits your writing style.
- Make a schedule of what you want to do with the given time. Planning out your schedule can be a really helpful way of giving you control over the assignment and can also help you to avoid feeling overwhelmed or too stressed by what is expected of you.
- Give yourself as much time as possible to write the essay or assignment, and plan your assignment as far in advance as possible. Planning ahead means that you know in advance how much time you have to complete the assignment, and can help you to spread out your workload over a longer period of time, and avoid the stress of having to do an all-nighter.
- Break down big tasks into smaller steps. Assignments can be intimidating at first glance, and this might cause you to procrastinate and put off writing the essay until it’s close to deadline and you’re forced to pull an all-nighter writing the assignment or cramming before a big test. However, completing assignments can be a less stressful experience than you think – By planning in advance and breaking down the assignment into smaller, more manageable steps, you can complete the assignment over a longer period, for example, a few hours a day over a week or two, you can get the assignment done without the added stress of having to pull an all-nighter.
- Identify where there might be gaps in the schedule for the week where you can work on the assignment. You can create your own timetable if you find it helpful, where you organise your class time, and where you can concentrate on what pieces of reading, coursework or revision that you need to prioritise and complete.
- Avoid pulling an all-nighter if you can – Whilst sometimes it might be impossible to avoid pulling all-nighters on every assessment or exam, it’s worth noting that it is possible to complete assignments without having to put your body or head through the stress of an all-nighter, by planning your assignment in advance and breaking the assignment into smaller steps. Repeatedly doing all-nighters can take its toll on your physical and mental health, leading to symptoms like weight gain, as well as issues with remembering information, concentration, decision-making and interrupted sleeping patterns.
- Sometimes it might be impossible to avoid an all-nighter. Try to only pull all-nighters as a last resort. If there’s a task or assignment that has to be done for tomorrow and there’s no other time that it can be done, there are steps you can take to reduce the health impact of an all-nighter. These include limiting caffeine intake and eating and drinking plenty of water and healthy snacks, taking regular breaks, getting some sleep where possible, avoiding activities like cooking or driving when tired, and getting back the lost sleep as soon as possible.
Your first exam or assessment at University or College can also be a stressful experience for everyone but can be particularly so if you’re an autistic student. Exams and assessments are a fact of student life for many at University or College, and it can be a very different experience to exams you might’ve had at school, both on the University’s expectations and the need to study independently to achieve the grades you want.
- Preparation is key to success at exams. With some thought and preparation, exams and assessments can be made a little bit less stressful. The best way to deal with exam stress is to know the material (doing past exam questions might be helpful with this) and to give yourself enough time to study the material in advance of the exam, as this can help to avoid burnout. Try to give yourself an extra week or two before Reading Week, or after your last assignment, to give yourself the best chance to study the material.
- Make a study timetable and give enough time to each subject. There are lots of handy planners and timetable applications that can help you with this, like the USI’s Study Planner.
- Get rid of any distractions that you don’t want. If you find yourself procrastinating in the lead up to sitting an exam, it might be useful to put away or restrict things that might distract you from studying – this might include turning off your TV, getting away from social media and putting some distance between you and your phone. Try to keep your study space tidy and organised, if you feel that this helps you to concentrate.
- Stay hydrated – Keep a bottle of water handy, and try to drink at least 2 litres of water per day, as dehydration can lead to a lack of focus and concentration.
- Try to strike a balance between studying and relaxing, as this can help you to manage the exam period more effectively and to retain the information you need. Try to avoid spending all your time studying as studying all the time can be physically and mentally exhausting.
- Get enough sleep, and try to avoid staying up all night cramming the night before an exam. Lack of sleep will impact your concentration, your memory and energy levels, which can be extremely important in exams to getting the grades you want.
- Make sure to eat as healthily as you can and try to take time out to go for a walk, run or cycle. Looking after your physical and mental health can help you to retain information and to perform better when going into a busy exam period.
- Reward yourself after a productive study session. Exams can be hard going at the best of times, so it’s equally important to treat yourself when you’ve done some good work. This might include indulging in your hobbies or interests, reading a book or watching a film or TV show that you like, or playing a video game.
- Stay in contact with your family and friends and/or significant other. Keeping in touch with your support network, your lecturer or tutor can be a good way of dealing with exam stress if you feel that things are getting out of hand – whilst this won’t solve every problem, it’s always good to talk (or communicate) with someone and let it out!
Watch Clíodhna’s video on her Top Tips for Studying.
Clíodhna’s is a 3rd year Computer Applications and Software Engineering Student in DCU. She is the events officer for DCU’s Computer Networking Society.