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If I knew then what I know now

Starting Assignments: What Works For Me? Part 2/2.

22 Feb 2021
Starting Assignments: What Works For Me? Part 2/2.

Hi, my name is Conor, and I am a second year PhD student in UCC’s economics department. This is Part 2 of a 2-part post telling you what has worked for me when planning and starting assignments. This piece specifically focuses on starting assignments by sourcing and reading material, eventually working to translate your notes into coherent paragraphs. 

Sourcing Material 

As discussed in the first part of this blog Planning Assignments: What Works For Me? Part 1/2., once a foundational structure for your assignment is erected, you can visualise what your paper will look like, and how big each section can be expected to be. 

From here, you are in a great place to start sourcing reading material. In the case of module assignments, this is usually facilitated by consulting the module reading list via Canvas and the relevant pieces’ reference lists. To enhance your odds of success, these sources should be supplemented with pieces from online databases (such as: Google Scholar, JSTOR, ScienceDirect, Wiley Online Library) and The Boole Library’s OneSearch function, to illustrate evidence of independent research.  

This is generally how I approach a written project. From there I usually begin a three-step process of finalising my chosen literature: 

  • Firstly, I save sources which seem relevant (that I can access).  

As a first-year history student, I was given a rule of thumb that a reference every 100-150 words is a good starting point to build on. As a result, for a 1500-word essay, I might stop this initial search at anywhere between 7-15 [academic] sources, depending on how relevant they appear to my research, something generally gauged by reading Abstracts. 

  • Secondly, the Introductions, and Conclusions of these pieces were read (accompanied by note taking).  

Following Step One usually ensures that reading these papers properly with diligent notetaking will follow, but occasionally the sources are less relevant than what I thought, so I take what relevance I can from these paragraphs and not dig further. It is important to not waste time with irrelevant sources, and arguably more important to realise it is ok that not every academic article will be useful to you. Lecturers will likely be familiar with these irrelevant citations, because they are experts in the field, and may perceive their inclusion as sloppy, despite it also being evidence of independent research. 

  • Thirdly, if necessary, I source more reading material. This is usually needed if my initial source selection encompasses numerous not-so-relevant pieces, if the assignment is worth a substantial chunk of the final grade and warrants exceptional levels of reading, or if I find my final ‘notes from articles’ document to be a bit light in content. More on that in a bit.  

Reading Material and Making Notes 

Once you have this material in front of you, gathering the motivation to read it in full can suddenly present itself as too difficult a task. When the time for reading does come, a strategy for turning these big PDFs into tangible sentences, ideas, and paragraphs, that has worked for me so far, can generally be broken into two distinct steps. 

  • Reading the sources and documenting all the major points, sentences, and ideas.  

Good file management will help you significantly here by allowing you to jump easily between sources to compare ideas, enabling the input of your own independent thinking. For me, putting the notes on the same document, and separating them internally enables this (as opposed to creating a new document for every source). 

  • Once you have this document full of every source’s main arguments, points, and conclusions, I like to create a new document, condensing these notes, into concise sentences/paragraphs describing each source’s methods, results, and conclusions, in your own words. While doing this, I am consciously comparing each source, adding additional information/thoughts/opinions of my own when I notice something interesting/unique about a particular source, or gaps in the literature which I have observed. 

Doing this makes it significantly easier to A) Form arguments B) Link these arguments to existing academic work, and C) Construct your paper, in my experience. Because you have synoptic pieces on each source already drafted in your own words, your primary arguments/paragraph topics should be intuitive. From here, I have found drafting these paragraphs to be quite a smooth process, as you can link your synoptic pieces to an overarching point/argument, culminating in your uniquely researched paragraph.  

Sometimes, it is not this straightforward. Occasionally, this notes document might be light in content if the sources are not of amazing quality, or if they address similar themes and reach near-identical conclusions. Should this occur, I would go back to search for more literature before starting the drafting of paragraphs.  

In these two posts, I have hopefully given you some useful tips on how to start and plan for upcoming assignments. Everything discussed here stems directly from my experience and far from preaching the gospel on how to conduct research, this is purely what has worked for me. Accordingly, I would encourage you to find your own way of planning and starting assignments, being careful to always be informed on your specific discipline’s rules, requirements, and guidelines on how to construct, present, and submit assignments and research projects. 

Skills Centre

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