Blue Flower



Tackling an academic assignment - Ramblings of a lecturer.

C.M. Heydenrych - Lecturer: Mancosa.



One thing that I have noticed when marking the longer questions in assignments is that students do not use their introductory paragraph in a way that achieves maximum impact.

What I am going to do in this article is to show you how to tackle, write and deliver an excellent paper on graduate level. I am going to show you where the pitfalls are and how to overcome them, to give you some advice relating to referencing and how to avoid plagiarism and then highlight the point that I made in my introductory sentence - how to write an elegant, concise and stunning opening paragraph. An opening paragraph that points to the road ahead and gives the reader some structure in advance. I hope to pull all the threads together in a short summary paragraph and end with some final thoughts and a conclusion.


The quality of your academic writing will depend on the effort that you put in to making the study material your own (and of course your writing quality depends on all the skills that you have developed so far). The first problem learners face has to do with the way in which learners approach the assignment. Students seem to start writing before they have really read widely, digested and understood the topic that they are writing about. They write while they are learning about the topic. They write without trying to create a conceptual outline for themselves. While different learners may have different problem solving approaches and techniques - one's technique should not detract from delivering a product that demonstrates your scholarship.

So how should one approach the task? I found a very useful approach in an article by Katharine Hansen (mycollegesuccessstory) where she leads students through some strategies for effectively tackling a typical writing assignment. For me an important aspect of what she says is that one should also devise a timetable (of which she gives an example).

So that was the first problem - the approach to the task as a whole - and the solution seems to be a strategy that culminates into a specific timetable that starts well in advance of the actual deadline. 

Next area of concern is the issue of copying stuff from the internet. The purpose of an assignment is to help you wrap your mind around a set of concepts in the process of answering the assignment question. These days it is so easy to copy a sentence, paragraph or even a whole assignment from an internet or other resource. Doing that however defeats the purpose. It is therefore necessary that you refrain from extensive copying and if you do, and there is nothing wrong in copying small sections in support of a point that you wish to make - however, you have to reference your source so as not to be accused of plagiarism. Copying extensively from the same source is also not good practice. Academic dishonesty is taken seriously by most educational institutions and should be avoided at all costs. In most cases the appropriate referencing should clearly indicate that an external source was used an no attempt was made to pass it on as your own work. This is particularly important in post-graduate dissertations. Read a little more here.

Now that we got this important issue out of the way, let us look at two more of the more subtle skills that, if used, will differentiate your work from the pack.

This next issue, though related to the previous concerns is what can be referred to as "academic writing style". An assignment where the student does not reveal his own thinking on the issue being discussed is not worth much. While one wouldn't expect a first year student to be as incisive as a doctoral student, it remains important that you show that you understand the underlying concepts and are able to apply them to the situation as required. "Academic writing requires that no claim should be made without being backed up - either by an argument, or by stating that you have found something empirically, or by citing a source." (Bak, Nelleke, 2003, p47).

When marking an assignment I often have to say "Says who?", "Where did you get this?" or "Where is your evidence?" - all of these indications that the learner is not understanding or applying his/her mind to the task at hand. 

The fourth and last pitfall is that the reader "gets lost" when being overwhelmed by a flood of information and data - here the use of transitory phrases can help. For example, when moving from one topic to the next, some indication that you are doing so can help to maintain clarity and prepare the reader for the change. Not only does this shows that you are fully aware of what you are doing, it also helps the reader to create a mental picture of how the issues that you are discussing, relate to one another.

That then some of the main pitfalls - a systematic approach, not blatantly copying, use of an academic writing style and the use of transitory phrases (like i'm doing now - a brief summary before moving on to the next topic).  The rest of the discussion is a bit more technical when we specifically zone in on referencing and some commonly made mistakes in this regard.


One of the purposes of an assignment is to focus your reading of a particular topic area. One has to read wider than the study guide and the prescribed textbook to gain the full benefit of an assignment. There is really no sense in merely copying a definition from the study guide into ones assignment for each and every question. For you gain maximum advantage you need to read widely. Also, it is useful if a learner goes beyond the minimum that is required to merely answer a question.


This is not going to be a comprehensive guideline - there are many superb guides in this regard. No, I am going to concentrate on how to include in-line resources in your text and also to look at referencing sources, particularly those found on the Web, in your references section.

Here is a quote of a paragraph that I wrote on a student's script and take the appropriate action to ensure that it does not apply to you: "Your in-line referencing comes up a bit short. It should be more frequent and more varied to indicate the depth of your research, the extent of your reading and completeness of your understanding." The problem arises when there is a dearth of reading, superficial research and little real understanding. 

When you quote directly from a resource it is always a good idea of putting it in quotes (inverted commas). This way you will also be able to see if you are not doing it too often. If you do, you might want to paraphrase it, pull out the essence and summarise it in some way in order to get the point across without blatantly copying. The reason for not wanting to copy does not lie in the act of copying, but lies in the fact that by using the words of others directly too often, indicates the lack on your part to fully conceptualise the material that you are working with (and you can quote me on that!).

Wikipedia is not a credible resource. I deliberately inserted some incorrect information into an article once to prove this point - it took 18 months for it to be picked up and corrected. There are many cases of some fake Wikipedia articles on made up historical events that have become quite notorious.  

When referencing a website article such as "List_of_hoaxes_on_Wikipedia", get rid of the underscore in the spaces between the word - see the example in the reference section of this article. As a general source of information it is excellent, you should however use the the original sources and not Wikipedia itself in academic writing.

Now for the smallest of small details - just to show your professionalism and attention to detail: In your Bibliograpy or List of References (do you know the difference?) - put a full stop after each reference listed!

For a quick reference guide on the Harvard Referencing System - go to:

And here is a link to a site that you can use to create a citation of the source that you have consulted. 

DO NOT USE or USE WITH THE UTMOST DISCRETION sites such as -; or TUTOR2U; Bankofinfo; blogspots; smallbusiness.chron;; yourarticlelibrary; slideshare; or any of these sites to quote or copy directly from and definitely don't reference to in your in-line resources. You can read them to get an overview of a topic and you can list them as a reference that you have consulted them. They are however not academically sound - you need to go to the source documents and authors and peer reviewed books and articles and create your own version of the issue under discussion. The problem is that you may be tempted to copy the content and then not reference them because you are told not to reference them - that will be even a worse transgression than to copy them and reference them! Just read them, make a few handwritten notes, close them and find more original sources of the ideas expressed there and use that in your writing. The main problem is that they often copy from original resources without acknowledgement and then you copy them without knowing that they have compromised academic integrity. You have been warned, if you are found wanting in this area you will expose yourself to a plagiarsim charge.

Students often reference sources that they have not actually consulted. this is dishonest. If you refer to someone that you have not read, you have to reference the source of your information and not the original source. I'll be giving some examples in a more technical follow-up article. 


Some learners like to use flowery terms and eloquent verbiage to hide their ignorance (exactly what I am doing here!). No seriously, to say that "Peters (2009, 490) opines that OD is planned" just does not cut it - rather say that he is of the opinion that so-and-so is so. He "posits" that - no, rather say "Peters (2009, 490) takes the position that...

Oh, Those Captials in the Middle of a Sentence just does not make Sense. Use an initial capital for proper nouns (organisation place and person) only.


Your assignment should have a TOC (Table of Contents) - preferably automatically generated by the word processing and layout software that you are using. This will ensure that it always reflects the correct page numbers and the latest update.

Oh, yes (for Mancosa learners)- don't forget the cover page with all your details (this is over and above the datasheet that is normally required by the system when uploading the document. 

Keep your layout standard and conservative - this is not the time and place to display your avant garde creative spirit. 

As a general rule: Start each question on a new (righthand page). Now this may be old fashioned and before the "save a tree" movement, but it works for me.

to be continued...(last updated on 13 September 2016). 

Here are some additional ramblings  


For a full and comprehensive guide on the writing of assignments you are referred to: This MUST READ for every student that is serious about his/her academic studies.


A last word on PLAGIARISM - Read the following (download the file and read the section on PLAGIARISM)


Then when you have done everything you can to deliver an excellent piece of work - send it to me for a final look over - but before you do: Here are some sample letters that I have sent to learners that have forwarded me their assignments: Don't make the same errors

 Also - here are some guidelines on using graphics that you may have sourced elsewhere.

Here is even more advice!



I have said a lot in this article - as I said in the beginning "ramblings". So here is the point that I began with: Indicate structure in advance - an example:

The assignment question is "Discuss the various reasons why SMMEs fai in your country, and recommend how this may be avoided"; here is an example of such an introductory paragraph:

To answer the question “Why do businesses fail?” the author will firstly define the concept of what a business is and what is regarded as business failure. The position of whether it is necessarily a bad thing will also be looked at. By means of a literature study some approaches to business failure and how it is measured will be explored. Some geographical differences in analyzing the phenomenon will also be given some attention – a distinction will be made relating to business failure in developed countries and also in developing economies (including some case studies).  The actual reasons will then be explored in depth.

With regards to the second part of the question “How can this be avoided?” The author will look at some actions that can be taken to minimize the incidence of business failure both from an individual perspective and from a policy perspective.

 Some conclusions will then be drawn. 

As a final point - here is an example from a textbook (Steiner & Steiner,2014, p 479) to show how the authors indicate structure in advance: "In this chapter we begin by explaining how pollution risks such as diesel exhaust are assessed to find out which are the most important to regulate. Then, we discuss alternative approaches to regulation with emphasis on new, more flexible initiatives. Finally we illustrate ways that some innovative companies are seeking to reduce adverse environmental impacts."

Here is another EXAMPLE of indicating structure in advance



Bibliography (not complete)

Steiner, J.F. and Steiner, G.A.: Business Government and Society - A managerial perspective. (2015), Thirteenth Edition, McGraw-Hill Irwin,.















This article is a work in progress and I will be adding to it over time - so if you are a student with mancosa or elsewhere, make a note of the URL and come back to it from time to time for some fresh ides and approaches. You may also want to give me your thoughts or have some questions - send them to cmh @ aded . co .za 



 Bak, Nelleke: Guide to Academic Writing (2003). (accessed 06 September 2015).

Hansen, Katharine. Strategies for Planning Writing Assignments. (accessed 06 September 2015).

MANCOSA GENERAL GUIDELINES (2011): Assignment Writing - Referencing - Library Resources

Wikipedia: List of hoaxes on Wikipedia. (accessed 14 September 2015).

Academic Skills Tutors/Librarians, Information Services. Harvard Quick Referencing Guide (May 2013). (accessed 24 October 2016).