Study Skills – Projects and Essays

IDENTIFY YOURSELF for all work you hand in, whether for marks or not. Follow your universities instructions about identifying yourself properly (usually via student id number). We need to be able to attribute marks after all.

If there are no university instructions, put your full name(s), student id number(s) and date on your work. Remember, common surnames can cause your marks to be wrongly attributed. Your marker may print it out so your electronic submission details will be lost when printed. If you put your name in a header, make sure it is still within the print area. It is usually better to put your name(s) etc. in the document body.

Do NOT rely on your lecturer knowing who you are when communicating with them (submission of work or otherwise). So don’t use just your first name, still less nickname or street name. They will not know who ‘Asbo’ and ‘Gazza’ are, they will not bother to find out and so you’ll get no marks. Do not abbreviate your name, but state it exactly as you did when you registered. CAPITALISE your surname, give your first name in full. Lecturers hate having to track down whether “A Fotheringay” is “Alan Turnstile-Fotheringay” or “Alice Fotheringay-Beast-Major” … give them a break!

If possible, check your marks have been correctly entered into your records and query this promptly if need be (not after the module has ended and the admin staff have entered them into a central system – changing them then may not be allowed, and in any case it is very annoying for them).

For any sort of assignment make sure you fully understand the question before you attempt it. What is required of you/your group? Analyse the question carefully, noting any restrictions on the length of your answer, how many marks the assignment is worth and how they will be distributed between the tasks required or various aspects of the assignment e.g. execution of the project, conclusions, presentation etc. If in doubt, ask.

When is the deadline?

Make sure you add it to your diary so that it doesn’t come as a nasty shock! Remember, deadlines give you the LAST date you can submit, not the time you should do it … or even the day before!

For arts and humanities, a great deal is said about essay writing since it forms such a major part of the learning process. Indeed the ‘act of writing’ helps develop ideas and a viewpoint in the first place. What’s more, learning to ‘argue your case’ from a variety of alternative viewpoints is pivotal to developing a sophisticated understanding of the content there.
This is far less true in STEM subjects, where there is often only one correct answer and your viewpoint or personal opinion is irrelevant (even if supported by evidence). Many would dispute this, but it is still true that content alone is never sufficient; one has to show how one topic follows from another in a way that brings out the internal logic of the subject. In fact, this structure is even more important in STEM, where assumptions need to be stated and built on, usually mathematically. Indeed mathematics, not writing, is normally used to develop ideas here, with writing being used to organise and communicate the subject in a coherent way. Writing is certainly not relegated to a mere reporting role, but is still an essential part of your learning. So if you have chosen e.g. maths or engineering at university to avoid writing, you are in for a nasty shock!

For all academic study, developing a sophisticated writing style is certainly not necessary (or even desirable since it often raises the alarm that you are seeking to impress rather than communicate – some academics would do well to remember this too!). Just say what you need to briefly and clearly in ordinary plain English – do not adopt a style. Here’s a real example: students wrote “It was anonymously agreed …” which (from the context) should have been “It was unanimously agreed …” but why not just say “We all agreed …”?

Writing mathematics correctly is a task that requires no less attention to detail than actually doing the mathematics in the first place. A good guide can be found in F. Vavaldi’s book. For more general writing see the Thinking Writng pages at QMUL

For most essays it is assumed you will use a word processor, so that the final submission is the result of several sessions of developing and editing your drafts. Work directly onto the screen from your notes. Many (especially dyslexic) students are enthusiastic about versions of Word which have grammar and spell checkers running while you type.. Alternatively see dyslexic.com for information on textHelp! and Inspiration.

Whatever you use, be very careful to proof read your work and/or get someone else to read it.

Group work

If the assignment is group work, your marker will also be marking how well your group has worked. Being able to set up and work in an effective group is a great way to learn new content, assimilate new ideas and is also an essential employment skill. It’s good to talk! What’s more, the person who is able to explain things to the group gains most!

If your group doesn’t perform, that’s YOUR problem, not the lecturers, so don’t expect them to sort things out for you. Instead you can seek advice. Basically it boils down to everyone being professional; set an agenda for meetings and agree a set of minutes on who is to do what by when. At the end, everyone should ‘own’ the submission. That means that everyone should be capable of presenting it if the assignment is to give a talk (my PC usually chooses a person at random to do this on the day), and everyone should be able to answer questions about the WHOLE submission (not just their bit).

Remember a study or assignment group is not a friendship group; work with new people from different cultures as much as you can to widen your horizons! Do not work with people using your native language if the assignment is not required in that language. (Some time ago I had several Greeks in my class; my rules were that every group needed a Greek and no Greek could work with another Greek!).

Précis or summary work

If you are asked to write a précis or summary, it will be designed to test your comprehension and writing skills. You must therefore cover ALL OF THE MAIN POINTS AND NOTHING ELSE. Do not include ideas which were not in the original text, no matter how obvious, or your own comments, no matter how strongly you agree or disagree with the original text. You are being asked to provide an editorial summary – not a critique – of the material, and your marks will reflect this. Under exam conditions you will need to plan your time. In any case, begin by reading the whole article to get an overview of the content and how it fits together. Next read it again and make notes and/or bullet points. Order your notes in terms of the original’s structure and priorities. Only after this is clear in your mind should you start writing from your notes in your own words. Do not copy extensively from the text; use reported rather than direct speech. Your title should state you are writing a precis of “Original Title by Author “, so it is not necessary to waste words such as “The article states … ” or “Author goes on to say …”. Be economical in your sentence construction, but make sure the logic of the original still follows in your summary (remember to use paragraphs effectively); do not write a set of unconnected bullet points. Read the article again to check you have covered all the main points; expand or contract your précis as needed to fit the required length/word count. For assignments, read your work 2 days after writing it to make sure it actually makes sense before you hand it in.

View an example of a precis

Projects and essays

Start early, allowing time to give your supervisor (or at least let a friend) a draft to read, before re-writes/edits and final submission. Final year projects are typically 70 pages long and this seems daunting. To get started, make a list of all your objectives and all possible resources. Avoid the temptation to write a book, and do not wait until you have read everything on the subject – you will never get started of you do! Instead delimit the essay/project scope clearly so that it is not too big, but make a note of everything you have omitted in case you need it later (e.g. in writing Recommendations for Further Work).
Having decided the scope of your essay, draw a diagram of the subtopics and how they are connected together logically. Redraw this “mind map” several times until you are satisfied that it is complete and that you understand the connections fully. Only then should you start writing the ideas as a narrative.

Breaking the topic into such subtopics and writing them up before fully researching the others is often helpful; it helps you focus your ideas and gives you something to show for your efforts early on. Do not include material which is not relevant, simply because you find it interesting or think you need padding. Meet the required specification of the work in terms of subject and page or word limits – if you don’t you may get zero marks! Remember that garbage will still be recognised as garbage no matter how beautifully presented – there is no substitute for proper content.

The nature of a final year project has much in common with postgraduate research work, where responsibility for the management, content and content of the work passes to the student. You might therefore find the Postgraduate Research section helpful.

Another good source of advice is that given by Martins Bruveris in his blog.

PROJECT PLANNING: in planning your project (or even essay) you will find it useful to

  • Make a precise statement of your problem
  • Draw up a scheduling chart (Gantt chart – see image below)
  • Outline your ideas using spray diagrams, category charts, flow diagrams etc.
  • Identify resource and time constraints
  • Make clear connections between ideas and information flow, to identify the data you need for application of chosen statistical techniques; you will certainly need to discuss experiment or questionnaire design with a statistician before spending time collecting, analysing and reporting data and drawing conclusions from it
  • Specify any preliminary experiments or pilot studies you need
  • Pinpoint areas of concern where you need to focus your attention, requirements such as equipment, training, software etc.

Gantt chart

For projects and postgraduate work these charts and ideas should form an important part of your dissertation/thesis plan, and might even be included as an appendix in the final report. You will need to discuss these charts with your supervisor and update them regularly in the light of your agreed objectives and time plans. As a very rough guide, you could start with the schedule on the postgraduate research page, mapping the 3 years of the PhD study discussed there into the time you have available.

At some universities, final year maths students may have to submit a draft plan when they give their project talks about half way through the project. The following examples demonstrate good planning and serious engagement with the projects!

Draft Plan 1

Draft Plan 2

ORIGINALITY: Students often overestimate or underestimate what is required of them for a major report, such as the final year project dissertation. Undergraduates do sometimes make important discoveries … but more usually the final year project is required to be solid, honest and display some originality such as applying a known technique to a new situation. Keep a workmanlike approach (e.g. regular hours, set objectives, phone off the hook, “do not disturb” note on door) but be prepared for that “inspirational moment” and act on it immediately (keep a pen and paper by the bed).

INDEPENDENCE: Your supervisor will probably define what needs to be done quite closely at first, for example by setting model problems for you to work on. You will be expected to stand on your own feet more and more as time goes on, not only in the execution of set tasks, but also in generating and acting on your own ideas.

Keep the audience and purpose of your work in mind

Audience: who are you writing for and what do they need you to tell them? Your audience may need some basics first, and most will not mind much if you start with them since they’ll feel good about already knowing this material and want to read more. The opposite is not true! If you start off with material that is unfamiliar, you will alienate your reader immediately. They’ll then stop reading because they will be unable to link what you are saying to their own knowledge and hence have no chance of understanding your content. Check the task specification very carefully and then ask your teachers specific points if you still need clarification. If still in doubt, write at a level appropriate for your class-mates. Remember: you want to communicate, not blind them with science/mathematics.

Purpose: is the requirement for a technical report, or does it need a more discursive (or even historical) setting that would require some sort of literature survey? Why would anyone want to read your report if you do not say why it is relevant in some way? This relevance could be that it fits into or extends some broader mathematical framework, or has some applications in science or social science. Do not assume your reader will know this – give it prominence in the introduction section.

Once you have the above clear in your mind, then and only then start to make short notes of all the points you need to cover. Decide which are main points and which are subsidiary. Understand how the main points are logically connected. This prioritisation and synthesis of ideas and approaches is very important for your learning and understanding. Do not attempt to recycle lecture notes or to cover everything in the hope that some of what you say will be to the point; you will only get marks for discrimination and hard thinking about the subject. Copying, even if you edit the material afterwards, is NEVER acceptable.

Departmental or University regulations apply to the contents of dissertations and theses (ask your supervisor). Note that a satisfactory final year project may be an absolute requirement; you will not get a degree without it! Also note that it is usually worth a large part of your degree mark, so you should be spending a commensurate amount of time on the project. The marking scheme for the project can be found on the syllabus.

You must follow the formatting instructions of your Departmental or University regulations. If there are none, I suggest using 10 or 12 point in a plain font such as Times New Roman. Titles and section headings should be larger e.g. 16 and 14 point. Dissertations should be one and a half or double spaced with a left margin of at least 40 mm (to allow for binding) and a right margin of about 20 mm. A professional effect can be achieved by using headers (with title and date) and footers (with author and “Page # of 6” where # is the page number input by the word processor). Cross-referencing to other sections, pages or equations can often only be done at the end; in the meantime, mark them with e.g. “see section ++” and use the EDIT, FIND command to pick these up in the final edit. Make regular backups of all word processed work.

Structure your work

Your essay/project should flow logically, so a clear and ordered structure is vital. This will avoid repetition and your reader will not then feel lost, but rather know why it is that they are reading the content at that point and not elsewhere. At all costs, avoid steam of consciousness writing where you put down everything that might be relevant or everything you know in the hope that your reader will be able to make sense of it. Readers will not bother … and why should they?
In general, longer work such as dissertations/theses should have section headings below (N.B. see your thesis/dissertation/project report requirements guide for the exact format).
For shorter essays, formal division into sections may not be needed, since this can be done by the use of paragraphs, reflecting the sections below.

Before you start you should write at least an initial plan and add some notes about what will be in each section. Note that the ORDER of writing the sections is rarely the order in which it is finally presented. Usually the Introduction is written near the end when you know what it is you are introducing! I would start somewhere in the middle with the section you know best. Then make notes, a plan and a draft before discussing with your friends or supervisor. Then rewrite to get something in the bag that’s worth reading. You will have time to polish it up and integrate it better with the rest of the work later. Then do other sections the same way … and finally write the Introduction, Conclusions and Recommendations and Abstract.

  • Start Roman numbering
  • Title/your name/ your year, the module/lecturer for the work and the date of submission. Make sure your title is correct, informative and short.
  • Table of contents incl list of tables and figures if appropriate.
  • Acknowledgements – mention any people who have helped you with the content of work you are submitting (not your lifestyle, beliefs etc.). This should include your supervisor, and might include other lecturers, academic advisors, technical support staff and possibly people who have provided or permitted the use of data (e.g. placement employers). NOBODY ELSE! A dedication is the place to mention parents/spouses or friends but remember ‘less is more’ and a simple phrase like “To my parents” will have far more impact than a long list of everyone you know. In any case, do keep it sensible: your examiners may not be impressed by such statements as “To Bob Dylan, whose songs kept me sane during this work!” unless they are Dylan fans themselves! Who? I hear you ask … look him up on Google and join the 1960’s.
  • Consider adding a Nomenclature defining all non-standard terms and symbols used.
  • Abstract – stating the main area of work covered and main results obtained. This should be concise, often not be more than half a page of type-written text (approx. 300 words) and is usually written last. Do not make the common mistake of ‘leading into’ the Abstract by including background material which properly belongs in the Introduction. Simply say what you have done, nothing else. Start your abstract with “This {report/dissertation/thesis} {comprises/considers/addresses/analyses/discusses/etc.} …” where you should choose the appropriate word in the braces.
  • End Roman/start ordinary numbering. Use decimal notation and a larger font for the 1. Main Heading and 1. 1 Sub-heading.
  • Introduction – usually a statement of the problem, why the problem is important and a review of previous work describing its strengths/generality and weaknesses/limitations. You should make clear where your work fits into existing knowledge and what gaps you have filled.
  • Method – describes the methodology you are using. This might be an overview of your experimental design, data collection methodology or an overview of the main mathematical or statistical theories you will be using.
  • Other sections – as needed, e.g. examples which fit into your main thrust. You should also include ideas which did not work out here, specifying (if possible) the reasons for their failure, and any unresolved issues or anomalies.
  • Results – describes the results obtained and any limitations on their accuracy and generality. This section will usually contain analysis of the results/data and interpretation. An analysis of the sensitivity of the results to changes in parameters should also be considered.
  • Conclusions – at least half a page of conclusions is needed. The conclusions must stress the main results only and require clear thinking. They are important and you cannot expect the reader to draw his/her own conclusions – if you are unable or can’t be bothered to draw conclusions why should you expect your reader to do so? Make sure your conclusions are objectively supported by your results, and not influenced by what you “wanted” them to be! Be self-critical and absolutely honest. Do not include new material in the conclusion.
  • Recommendations – any weaknesses in your work should be pointed out, preferably with an indication of how they might be avoided in future work. Suggestions for further work should be made.

Here’s a friendly email, sent to final year maths students just before the submission date:

Dear Folks, In the past, some students have thrown away marks by not thinking about the Conclusions and Recommendations sections. Avoid the pitfalls as follows: This section needs thought; it should not be a hasty afterthought or a collection of things that you forgot to add earlier! The Conclusions section should be no less rigorous than the maths sections; in particular your conclusions should be exactly that; they should not contain new ideas, but they should be honest conclusions that are supported by the evidence presented in your report. Think of it as claims you can make that would stand up in a court of law, under cross-examination by a clever barrister. What have you proved? What can you reasonably claim, based on the work you have done? Unsupported conclusions will cost you marks! The Recommendations for further work section could be a detailed specification for the next project student in the area of your project. You must identify what limitations are in your work (be honest and critical and we will reward you with marks, not penalise you!) and, importantly, how, at least in broad terms (but the more detailed the better), could a future project overcome them. Your project might have open up new ideas/areas/applications that are worth investigating – again avoid being vague here. Your Recommendations should certainly contain some mathematics, not just descriptive and wordy thoughts (no matter how beautiful!). If there is 10% of the marks here, that means e.g. 7 pages out of the maximum of 70 on a pro rata basis. Most maths projects will have 1-2 pages of conclusions I suppose, and this should be followed by 5 pages of Recommendations. The balance might vary, and these guidelines might not apply to all projects … so give your supervisor a draft now to allow time for comments and for you to act on them. The same probably applies to your Introduction.

References

Keep a careful note of exact references you have made, otherwise it will be a lot of extra work finding the articles again when you write it up. You can record your references using either the British Standard or Harvard methods, see for example this guide produced by Anglia Ruskin University.

Journal articles may be referenced thus:
Greenhow M. “All you wanted to know about Calculus, but were afraid to ask” J. Interesting Results, 8, no. 4, (1983), pp 1-13.

Articles in books may be referenced thus:
Greenhow M. “Another boring paper about mathematics” in A collection of essays in mathematics by some people who ought to know better, Ch 6, ed. M, Thatcher C.U.P., 1993.

Books, CD-Roms etc may be referenced thus:
Greenhow M. A self-study guide to newt racing, J. Wiley & Sons, 1979.

Web sites should be referenced by the full URL of the site (at the top starting with http://…) and the date when it was accessed.

In the journal reference above, bold, indicates volume number, or you can write Vol 8. The standard abbreviation for the journal can usually be found inside the front cover – if in doubt use the full title. When you write the references up, put them in alphabetical order by first author’s surname. Finally when you proof read your project, tick each reference mentioned in the text to make sure they are all listed, and that you haven’t listed any which are not referred to. In the text, you should make references as explicit and informative as possible; do not say at the end “The books I used were …” but cite them in the text as you go along, for example” … as shown by Greenhow (1983), but later questioned and extended by Smith et al (1984)”. In the reference to Smith et al , full details of all the authors should be stated e.g. Smith P. Jones M. & Aardvark S. P.

  • You could also include a Bibliography which contains material not explicitly referred to in your text e.g. background or further reading.
  • Appendices A1, A2, A3 etc. – these may or may not be needed. They should include highly technical detail, such as tables of results, computer code or proofs of results which are not essential to the flow of the main write-up. You should also consider including a list of the software you used for various parts of the work and/or your logbook (if applicable) – both are useful to other students reading your thesis. You should also include programs and/or data on a CD or download as an appendix with written instructions on what the content is and how to access or run it.

Number all the pages, including the appendices, and run the spell checker again.

Writing style

You may be writing about complicated ideas, so help your reader as much as possible. Keep your sentences short in the first draft; revise them later to combine ideas which follow logically. Use a new paragraph to indicate a logical break in the work. Read your work a day or two after you have written it, eliminating any superfluous material/words and make sentence precise, logical and economical. Have you met your stated objectives? Have you communicated your ideas at the level appropriate to your audience, or are you simply trying to look flashy? Don’t give your supervisor first drafts – they are too busy to correct trivial points of English and style. Instead swap your drafts with another student at your level for correction and comments on each other’s submission. If he/she does not understand your material, it is probably your fault. Note that you will probably learn a lot by critiquing someone else’s work and you can project how you cope as a reader onto how the readers of your own work will cope. As a navigation aid for readers, it is useful to start each chapter with 1-3 sentences (in italics) outlining the chapter’s content. Similarly at the end of a chapter, a recap of the main points and where they will be used later is often helpful.

For all academic writing, use in ordinary plain formal English – no slang! Remember your reader may not speak English as a first language, and will be unable to understand slang terms and their connotations. Avoid emotional or emotive language (no matter how strongly you feel), personal opinions (you are not a world leader in your field yet, so nobody cares what you think – at least not in a formal submission!), unsupported conclusions (see above) and jokes!

You can get better marks by avoiding common mistakes.

  • Learn the difference between there/their/they’re, to/too/two, its/it’s.
  • Learn how to use apostrophes e.g. Students’ Union, but do not use them to abbreviate it is, they are, will not, etc. which would then sound too informal. Do not use apostophies for plurals e.g. supplies not supply’s. If in doubt about a plural, consult a dictionary.
  • Hyphens should be used for compound adjectives such as five-carbon molecule, free-surface effect, etc. Some nouns are also hyphenated e.g. cross-section.
  • Do not start sentences with AND or BUT. Use moreover, however, nonetheless etc.

A comprehensive list of these issues (and much else) can be found at the Grammar slammer web site

Using bullet points is a good idea. Make sure that each point can be read as the continuation of the preceding sentences as in the following example. “The main points to remember when swimming are that you should: avoid breathing when underwater, keep the legs moving, staying fairly flat in the water.” Here the first two points complete the sentence grammatically, but the third should have started with “stay …”.

For protracted projects, such as the final year dissertation, keep your supervisor informed of your progress all the time by submitting thesis plans and draft chapters (not first drafts). Note that the abstract, introduction and conclusions are usually the last to be written after you have got the whole problem in your mind. You should aim to submit a short summary of what you have achieved, and a plan for what you will do next, roughly half way through the project. Near the end of the project, your supervisor will need to see a draft of the complete thesis in order to judge the overall development of the story line. Keep a logbook of what you have done (failures as well as successes, and how long each topic took to do) – this will make writing up far easier and provide evidence of your work. If you do stop work for a while (e.g. to concentrate on exams), make sure that you document where you are and what to do next – don’t rely on your memory.

Before you submit your work

You must allow time to proof read your work. This should be done a day or two after you have finished, not straight afterwards. Then you will read it with fresh eyes and read what you have actually written, not what you think you wrote!
Firstly go through your words and cross out everything you do not actually need. This will make it much briefer and clearer. Then simplfy your English as much as possible by keeping your sentences short, clear, concise and (above all) correct (i.e. not phrases, but including a verb in the correct tense).

For example “I personally expect this mathematics to make more sense, however its structure and also complexity have gotten difficult for myself.” is horrible! It should be “I expect this mathematics to make more sense but its structure and complexity have become difficult for me.” (Note the word ‘gotten’ went out in the Middle Ages – except in America where they still seem to like it!).

Avoid the word ‘would’ unless there is a condition attached; for example “I would say …” makes no sense unless qualified, as in “I would say I could write much better than this, given some training.”

Do not adopt what you think is a mature style since your purpose is to communicate, not impress. Just say what you mean in ordinary plain English. Then you should do everything you can to order your material, diagrams, tables, paragraphs and sentences clearly to make it as easy as possible for the reader. Make sure that diagrams and tables have a number and a caption. If a report is required, use separate sections each with a section header (and possibly sub-sections and subheaders). If an essay, use paragraphs to indicate that you have moved on to a new topic or idea. Make sure you have proper pagination and that you do in fact submit all the content (I have seen submissions with whole sections missing or sudden jumps from e.g. page 13 to 27).

Avoid slang and jargon: for example, ‘out of my comfort zone’, ‘at this moment in time’ or any use of the word ‘massive’ (apart from a descriptor of a physical body like the Earth) have no place in academic English and make it difficult for non-native English readers. Check you have correctly CITED your references in the text itself, and included full references at the end in the References section. Finally, make sure it has a TITLE and your FULL NAME (and student number if required). Your marker needs to know who to award the marks to!

Remember: no waffle, no padding, no unsupported claims!

 

About the Study Skills pages

These pages were originally created by Martin Greenhow.

Creative Commons Licence
Study Skills by Martin Greenhow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Study Skills – Introduction

Study Skills – Time Management

Study Skills – Lectures

Study Skills – Reading

Study Skills – Projects and Essays

Study Skills – Using Charts and Graphs

Study Skills – Problem Sheets

Study Skills – Experiments

Study Skills -Presentations

Study Skills – Revision

Study Skills – Exams

Study Skills – Getting a Job

Study Skills – Help

Study Skills – Postgraduate Research