How to write a bad assignment






A practical guide



Mike Hart


Business Management Group

School of Social Sciences

University of Winchester

How to write a bad assignment



The typical tutor sees up to 500 essays or examination scripts a year - in the course of a teaching career such a tutor may mark or moderate about 15,000-20,000 essays or scripts.  From such a varied selection, it is not difficult to deduce some principles of how to fail an assignment and so the following ‘tips’ are passed on for what they are worth.  Of course, these are not written on tablets of stone - but try to follow each principle and see what kind of grade you receive.  Each principle on its own is probably sufficient to give you a low grade or failure - using several in combination helps to guarantee the result you fear.


1.   Don’t answer the question


This is an excellent principle to follow to get atrocious marks but it comes in three or four different flavours:


Make up the title of the assignment rather than having it front of you

This is quite a good one, actually - it helps you to answer the question you wish you had rather than the one that the tutor gave you.  Of course, most students put the assignment question at the start of their assignment so this rather gives the game away that, for whatever reason, you hadn’t got the assignment brief.  Almost guaranteed to fail.


Half-remember the question

Well, this technique is not quite as good as the first for guaranteeing a failure but it certainly helps.  Your answer might be centred on the topic but you might wander off on paths of irrelevancy, which help justify a third (40’s) grade.


Totally miscue the question

Well, this happens about 1% of the time - it should not happen at all if you have followed the lecture course and done all of the recommended reading but sometimes the reading that you have done leads you astray.  Tutor reaction may vary - the exceptionally benevolent may allow you to repeat the whole assignment for no penalty (or a slight penalty) but most are quite justified if they mark you low.




Miss out a section

In a multi-part assignment, this is quite a good way to aim low.  Some assignments might be ‘sectionalised’ so that if, for example, 30% is allocated to part(c) and you don’t do it, then the rest of the assignment can only be marked out of 70 rather than 100.



2.   Don’t read around the topic


This is an excellent way to get a third or low 2(2) answer - and it reflects your time management skills as well.



Do not read beyond lecture-notes and one or two standard textbooks

Your lecture notes might be excellent and your textbook comprehensive - but a tutor is expecting more than this to justify a good grade.  To try to get a low grade, only read the minimum you can.


 If you have read around the subject, show no evidence of it in your essay

This is well tried and trusted technique and it is worth claiming that you have read lots and lots but somehow it did not get reflected in your essay.  Do not be surprised if your tutor is not convinced by your protestations



3.   Don’t reference correctly


This is a great technique and most students have tried it at one time or another.  It, too, comes in a variety of forms


Provide no references at all.

It is said that some departments give an automatic 0 to assignments without a list of references - you can always try this out and see if get a 0 or just a fail.


References in the ‘List of References’ are not cited in the text

Well, quite a good little ruse but it nearly always fails.  You might say ‘Well, I did lots of background reading and so I put the books down’ to which a tutor might snort ‘Well, there’s no evidence of it in your assignment - you might as well go into the library and copy down a list of books from the shelf.’




References cited in the text are not in the ‘References’

This is quite a common little ploy to make it look as though you have read quite widely (although we all know you got all of the references from one source, probably a textbook, anyway). Of course, when tutors mark assignments they generally cross-reference your citations - and splatter your lovely text with ‘This is not in your bibliography’ at various points.  Do it liberally to lower your grade even more.



Not a 1:1 correspondence between references cited in the text and those provided in the ‘List of References’

This does not damn your assignment at all - you are demonstrating that you do not really know the rules.  Making a distinction between Bibliography/List of References/Internet sources only confuses tutors (and could well irritate them).  Not following the principles you have been given by your tutor certainly helps to downgrade you.  If you have not got a guide to ‘Harvard Referencing’ or something similar at your elbow, it shows.  It also shows a lack of mastery of some of the elementary tools of the academic trade (rather like an electrician using a hammer rather than a screwdriver)





4.   Show evidence of poor grammar and spelling


This is a great way to depress your grade.  If you make elementary spelling and grammatical errors, then it really helps to create a bad impression.  There are several varieties of errors here but some of the most common that you should use liberally are the following:


Use of the greengrocer’s apostrophe

Student’s that put the apostrophe in a plural instead of indicating a possessive  (as in this sentence) display what is known as the greengrocer’s apostrophe -
so-called because you may well see it in signs in a greengrocer’s window (2 kilos of potato’s). A standard dictionary such as Collins says:


Usage: Possessive pronouns yours, his, hers, theirs and particularly its never have an apostrophe.  With an apostrophe, it’s is short for it is.


Sentences without a finite verb

Seeming that we are talking a lot about elementary spelling and grammatical errors.  (This first sentence does not contain a finite verb - we should have to take the first word ‘Seeming’ and turn it into ‘We seem to be talking a lot...’ to make this sentence grammatical).  Tutors are in a bit of a dilemma here because on the one hand, they are fully aware that many students have not had a good grammatical education in their schools and colleges. On the other hand, the expression ‘every teacher is a teacher of English’ rings in their ears and there is a wide-spread feeling that graduates in any discipline should be competent in their own language if they are going to get a degree from a British university...


Don’t use a spell-checker

Spell-checkers may be a missed blessing as ‘I do not know weather the whether will be fine’ will not be flagged up as an error in Microsoft Word, for example.  However, not using a spell-checker will be evident and always helps to raise doubts abput quality - you may have hit a key next to the one you intended (as happened in the intended word ‘about’ in the line above).


5.   Do not display any evident structure in the assignment


And there’s another thing that has just occurred to me.  Anyway, I will write a little bit about that and then write something else as it occurs to me.  So what if the ideas come out as a jumbled mess – it is meant to be an essay, not a report so it does not matter if you put down one idea followed by another. This is rather like flesh without a skeleton when you think of it. And another thing...


Don’t follow the principle of ‘one paragraph, one theme’.

This is a great way both to look (and to be) disorganised.  It is not always as easy as it seems, particularly if you are used to writing reports rather than essays. Not leaving a blank line between paragraphs also helps to emphasise the lack of structure.


Forget about putting the assignment title at the beginning, references at the end of the assignment

Forgetting to put references at the end can be a fatal flaw but not putting the essay title at the beginning of the assignment can make a tutor wonder what question you are actually answering.




6.   Copy and plagiarise your work.


This is the way not only to fail an assignment but also to fail it publicly with real style.  Let us say that you wanted to be hauled up in front of a disciplinary committee and, after process of investigation, it is proved that you have copied large sections of your work from another source, or a friend.  In serious cases, you would end up without a degree and with the injunction ‘Leave this college immediately and never darken our doors again!’  Even if you thought you had just copied a teeny, weeny bit (that a tutor wouldn’t notice), this practice will almost certainly give you an automatic 0 for an assignment.  Of course, tutors will not have read everything that you have but they do notice abrupt changes in style as illustrated below.  Laurie Taylor (ex-professor of Sociology at York University) writes a weekly column in the Times Higher Education Supplement and an imaginary conversation between a tutor and his student, Bloggs, Taylor reported like this...


Tutor:          Now then, Bloggs, you have written your essay on the influence of Karl Marx.  Let me take your very first sentence:

 ‘Marx was a German wot wrote that the workers got exploited real rotten’ 

Yes, Bloggs, I can see that you are trying to warm to your theme but this sentence is not at all grammatical and is a very crude and blunt introduction to your theme.  But let us now turn to your second sentence in which you are explaining  elements of Marx’s philosophy..
 ‘It is not man’s consciousness that determines his species-life but his species-life that determines his consciousness....’

Would you say that you had expressed these elements of Marx’s philosophy in completely your own words, Bloggs?


Another well-known example goes along the following lines...


Tutor:          This essay is incomplete - you have forgotten the attribution marks that show that you have quoted this from another author.

Student:      But I haven’t forgotten any quotation marks in my essay...

Tutor:          Yes you have – those at the beginning and those at the end.

So, to summarise, in order to fail an essay spectacularly and draw attention to it in front of all your friends and classmates then copy liberally from books (plagiarism) or a friend (copying).  Incidentally, a good way to fail your assignment is to let a friend have a copy of it or a disk (‘just to look over it and see how you have tackled it’) as the offence of allowing your work to be copied is just as real as copying in the first place.



7.   Show real lack of understanding of the subject matter


There are several ways in which you can show that you do not any real idea of the subject matter of the assignment but the following are helpful


Do not follow any of the themes of the course as explained in the lectures

This is quite a good one, really, as you may be skilfully creating the impression that you have missed some of the weeks of the course and therefore have missed the lecture notes and/or any advice that the tutor may have given to the class how the assignment was to be tackled.


Show no connection between what you have written and your references

This again is quite subtle.  You might think that putting some references down at the end show that you have done some work but if you have flicked through them and not read them systematically (in a panic the night before) then this, too, is an excellent way to get a third.


Avoid contact with the tutor

This too is quite a good way to get into really deep water.  Avoiding contact with the tutor who might be able to explain a point to you (or with fellow students come to that) is an excellent way to show you really do not have a clue


8.   Show no evidence of thought and/or evaluation


This is a more difficult one because if you have shown your comprehension of the material and applied yourself, you should manage a low grade 2(2).  So, following this advice does not really make an essay really bad - but on the other hand, it does limit the extent it can possibly be considered good.   The old-fashioned expression used to be ‘Reading for a degree’ but to this we need to add as well ‘Thinking for a degree’.   To avoid high marks, it is better to reproduce the line of argument from a book without applying your own critical thought processes to it or indicating what authors have said without an attempt to evaluate or contextualise their argument (‘John Bowlby’s Child Care and the Growth of Love written in the highly economically and conservative 1950’s appeared to be a sound academic justification for women to be confined to traditional domestic roles of housekeeping and childrearing but similar sentiments would not hold true today’ is an example)  However, do this with care.  If you say ‘Taylor is out-of-date’ this may be true in the sense that it was written a long time ago but not true in the sense that the influence of Tayloristic thinking can probably be found in every factory in the world...


9.   Display poor time management skills


There are really a lot of ways in ways in which you can follow the principles of Just in Time management skills - and fail spectacularly. The most important of these are:


Delay getting hold of your reading matter until it is too late

Leaving all of your primary research until the very end is quite a good recipe for failure, which is highly recommended.  Of course, it means that all of the other sources are on loan from the library, the bookshop has sold out and so on.


Don’t read a draft of your assignment before submitting it

Again, this really helps you score a nice low in the quality stakes.  The more you can show that you have typing errors (transpositions), genuine spelling mistakes, misplaced and green-grocer apostrophe’s the better (Did you spot that one?).  Whatever you do, do not leave a day or so before the assignment is due in so that you can read it over to your pet goldfish, flatmate, friend, or what have you.  Leaving as little as time before writing and submission is an excellent idea.  Try to run off the final version from the word-processor only two minutes before the hand-in time to test this principle to the full.


Don’t leave any time to refine your ideas.

This is another great way to badly mismanage your time.  If you have said to yourself ‘There’s a mistake or a badly expressed idea on this page and it is my job to find it and correct it somehow’ then you have evidently not followed the time management principle here.


Don’t hand in your assignment on time

This is a well-tried and well-trusted technique. Ask for concessions evidence only a day before the due date (or preferably still, a few hours).  This helps to convince your tutor you have been working on your assignment for weeks beforehand.


10.   How else can I possibly fail?


Well, we have tried most of the major ways here - but there are probably several more that could be mentioned e.g.


Length                                      is the assignment too short (2 pages) or too long (90 pages)


Complied with instructions          Is the assignment presented in the way that it ought not to be (e.g. have you ignored all of the instructions given in the assignment brief?


Learning from past essays          Don’t read the comments of a tutor on a previous assignment – file it away as quickly as possible without learning from any of the comments made by the tutor.


Irrespective of the above, what else can I do to really irritate my tutor ?


Well, there are several ways in which you can really send up your tutor’s blood pressure. Some of the most common are the following:


Put your assignment into lots of fancy folders or binders.

This makes it difficult for a tutor to take your assignment apart for marking and photocopying (for quality assessment purposes).  The most superb way to do this is to put every individual sheet into a separate plastic sheet so that you tutor has to take every one to write comments on it and then put it back again.  It’s a good way to spend money needlessly as well.


Do staple your assignment

This is a good one for pushing up your tutor’s irritation level.  Have you noticed how you can break your tutor’s thumb nails (from taking out your staples) and increase their frustration level (as the staple holes left in your assignment cause jams in the photocopier).  If you want do this really well then, then staple twice (first your assignment, then your cover sheet to your already stapled assignment).  Use the heaviest staples you can find (the kind that rivets plates in a ship-builders yard are the best if you can find them)


Don’t fill in a cover sheet

After all, they do not have much to do all day and love to spend their time filling in cover sheets for students who did neglected to do this first time.


Hand in assignments in a non-standard way

Despite the procedures designed to ensure that all assignments are handed in at the same time and are receipted, try to shortcut the system if you possibly can.  One good way of doing this are to push an assignment into a tutor’s hands when they are evidently loaded up with other teaching materials.  Even better, why not email it to them. All you have to do is to press ‘Send’ without stirring from your word-processor or office.  All tutors have to do is to find the assignment in their own mountain of email, print if off, fill in a cover sheet for you and remember to file it with the rest of the assignments (and there may be over a hundred coming in at the same time, in any case).  This doesn’t affect your grade in any way, of course, but it’s a marvellous way to push up your tutor’s irritation level (at no cost to yourself).


Don’t number the pages of your assignment.

Make your tutor do it for you - it saves you a few vital seconds in any case.  So what if you were in a hurry - we all are nowadays, aren’t we?


Don’t use 1.5 spacing to leave space for a tutor’s comments

This is another good one.  Make your tutor squeeze their comments into little margins here and there - this can help to make them illegible saving you the trouble of reading them in the first place.


If I ignore all of the advice given above, will I get a decent grade for my essay then?


Don’t be silly.   You can still make a tremendous mess of things if you apply yourself well.  However, if you ignore all of the advice given above, then you will be avoiding the pitfalls that typically result in low grades and therefore by avoiding the commonest sources of error, you may well be improving your chances of getting a better mark.  But of course, there’s more to higher education than just getting good marks, isn’t there ?

Summary of points (to keep in front of you)


1.   Do not answer the question

2.   Do not read around the topic

3.   Do not reference correctly

4.   Show evidence of poor grammar and spelling

5.   Do not display any evident structure in the assignment

6.   Copy and plagiarise your work

7.   Show real lack of understanding of the subject matter

8.   Show no evidence of thought and/or evaluation

9.   Display poor time management skills

10.  How else can I possibly fail?




Mike Hart

Business Management Group


September, 2000