How to Make Your Coursework as Good as It Can Possibly Be
Many GCSE and A-level subjects are assessed in part by coursework in addition to exams, meaning that the mark you receive for coursework contributes to your overall grade. Many students prefer coursework, because it’s a chance to showcase your academic abilities away from the high-pressured environment of the exam room, making it ideal for those who don’t perform to the best of their abilities in exams. However, the time you have available for coursework, in contrast with the time constraints of the exam room, can lull some students into a false sense of security. Coursework is arguably just as challenging as exams, just in different ways – and, given the fact that you have more time, much higher standards are expected of you in coursework than in exams. Careful planning and research are needed for successful coursework, as well as strong data-gathering and essay-writing skills. In this article, we look at how to produce excellent coursework, from planning to proofreading. This information might also be useful to you if you’re planning on attending an Oxford Summer School this summer.
What is coursework?
GCSE and A-level coursework typically takes the form of an extended essay or project. Its objectives vary from one subject to another, but there’s usually an emphasis on the student conducting independent research into a topic of their own choice. Thus coursework often takes the form of some sort of investigation; it may, therefore, help to have your ‘detective’ hat on as you explore, investigate and analyse your topic. You can usually work on your coursework at home, though it’s sometimes completed under controlled conditions through sessions at school.
To give you a better idea of how coursework varies from one subject to another, here are some examples:
- English – English coursework usually takes the form of an extended essay with a title of your choice. You’re usually given a choice of themes and/or texts to explore, and you could choose a format such as a comparison between a set text and another one.
- Geography – Geography coursework usually focuses on the gathering, reporting and interpretation of data designed to answer a particular geographical question. You could investigate usage of a shopping centre, for example, or look at erosion on a particular beach.
- Sciences – coursework for science subjects often takes the form of a scientific project or experiment that you conduct and report on yourself.
Before you start work on your coursework, it’s essential that you have a thorough understanding of the rules. Failing to conform to the rules – inadvertently or not – may result in your coursework (or possibly even your entire qualification) being disqualified, so it’s a serious matter.
- No plagiarism – this is particularly dangerous given the ready availability of relevant information on the internet these days. Make sure everything is in your own words; you’ll need to sign a declaration stating that it’s your own original work.
- There’s only so much help your teacher can give you. They can provide guidance on what you need to include, and on what the examiners will be looking for. You can ask them questions, but they’ll usually only be able to check through your first draft once and offer broad hints on updating it.
- Check the word count, and stick to it. Find out whether footnotes, appendices and bibliographies are included in the word count.
- Check what topics you’re allowed to do your coursework on; if there’s an exam on this topic, you’ll almost certainly have to choose a different one for your coursework.
Choose your topic wisely
Ideally, choose something you’re genuinely interested in, as your enthusiasm will come across and you’ll find it more enjoyable to write. If there’s something you’ve been working on for the course so far that you’ve particularly enjoyed, you may be able to focus more on this as part of your coursework. For science coursework, you’ll need to choose something to investigate that you can measure, change and control; it should be what’s called a ‘fair test’, meaning that you have to acknowledge all the controls you use in the experiment and why.
Try not to pick a topic for which the scope is too vast, as you’ll struggle to research it properly and you’re unlikely to do it justice, and it’ll be hard to keep within the word limit. Ask your teachers for some guidance on choosing your topic if you’re not sure what to write about; they might even tell you a bit about what previous students have done to give you some inspiration.
Plan how long it’s going to take
Never leave your coursework until the last minute, even if this is your normal approach to essays and it usually works for you. Make sure you understand when the deadlines are, including time for submitting a first draft for comments from your teacher. Then schedule blocks of time for working on it, allowing plenty of time before the deadline to cater for any unexpected delays. Allow ample time for making corrections based on teacher feedback on your first draft, and keep some time aside before the deadline for final editing and proofreading.
Because actual deadlines are few and far between, you’ll need to take responsibility for the writing process and impose some deadlines on yourself to ensure it’s finished in time. Write down your deadlines on a calendar, with the coursework broken into stages and dates assigned to each, by which time each task should be complete. You can base your stages on the next few points in this article – research and data gathering, a structure plan for the piece of work, writing up, and so on.
Conducting your research and gathering data
As coursework is primarily a research exercise, the research phase is crucial, so don’t be tempted to skimp on it and go straight to writing up. Use as many different resources as you can to gather data: books, journals, newspapers, television, radio, the internet and anything else you think might be relevant. For science and Geography coursework, you’ll need to base your work on a hypothesis, so the research stage should start by coming up with at least one hypothesis, otherwise your research will lack direction. The research phase for some subjects may involve site visits for gathering data, so allow plenty of time for this, particularly if you need your parents to drive you somewhere to do so.
If it’s a scientific experiment you’re conducting for your coursework, you’ll need to pay careful attention to planning the experiment using rigorous scientific methods (also noting what Health and Safety precautions you are taking), as well as reading up on the background and theory so that you have an idea of what to expect from the outcome of your experiment. In the research stage, make notes about what you expect to happen, so that you can later compare your expectations with what actually did happen. The experiment itself also forms part of the research and data-gathering stage for your science coursework; in the write-up stage, which we come onto shortly, you analyse and write up the results.
Plan your structure
Once you’ve completed your research, the process of writing up begins. Before you get down to the actual writing, however, it’s advisable to write a plan for how you’re going to structure it – essentially an essay plan for English coursework and other subjects for which the coursework is based on an extended essay. It’ll look slightly different from an essay plan for science subjects and others that revolve around project work, but the principle is the same: plan out what order you’re going to present your information in. For big projects, this is particularly important, because with a lot of information to convey, you risk being disorganised and waffling.
Writing up your project
For any coursework, but particularly coursework based around an extended essay, you’ll need to perfect your essay-writing abilities. For science coursework, writing up your project also involves data analysis, as you interpret the results of your experiment and work your notes into formal scientific language.
Follow the links below to find lots more useful advice on writing great essays.
- How to write dazzlingly brilliant essays
- How to write more original essays
- Techniques from creative writing that can improve your essays
When you’re writing up, it’s important to find a place where you can work quietly, without distractions that could cause you to make careless errors. You wouldn’t want noise or distractions when you were in an exam room, so treat your coursework with the same reverence.
Supporting materials and images
For some subjects, namely the sciences and Geography, it would be appropriate to include images, graphs, charts, tables and so on in your coursework. For example, for Geography coursework, your extra material could include annotated images and maps of the site you’re talking about, plus tables, graphs and charts. An appendix could then detail your raw data; if, for example, your coursework focused on the results of a survey, you could put the raw survey responses in an appendix and provide summaries and analysis in the main body of the coursework.
Footnotes and bibliography
As we said earlier, it’s important that you always use your own words in your coursework to avoid the possibility of falling foul of plagiarism rules. However, it’s acceptable to quote from another source, as you would in any piece of academic writing, but you must make sure that you state where it is from and use quotation marks to show that it’s a quote from somewhere else. The best way of citing another work is to use a footnote; word processors will allow you to insert one, and it just puts a little number at the end of the sentence and another in the footer of the document, into which you put the name of the author and work, and the page within that work that the quote can be found.
At the end of your piece of work, include a bibliography that includes a list of every external source you’ve used in the creation of your coursework. Stick to a set formula when including books. A common format is:
Author Surname, Initial. (Date) – Title of Book, page number
Lewis, C.S. (1960) – Studies in Words, p. 45
When you get to university, you’ll be expected to include footnotes and bibliographies in all your essays, so it’s a good habit to get into and coursework gives you good practice at it.
The final pre-submission check
Having completed a first draft, received feedback from your teacher, and honed your work into a finished piece of coursework, have a final check through it before you send off your coursework for submission.
- Sense check: have a read through your completed piece of work and check that it all makes sense. Make sure you haven’t contradicted yourself anywhere, or repeated yourself, or laboured the point. If there are any facts that you may have meant to look up to double check their accuracy, do so now.
- Word count: ensure that the completed work falls within the word count, and double check whether the bibliography should be included in the word count. If you’ve exceeded it, you’ll need to work through the piece and tighten up your writing, omitting unnecessary information, reordering sentences so that they use fewer words, and so on.
- Proofread: check your spelling and grammar, and ensure that there are no typos. Don’t just use the spellcheck – go through it with a fine toothcomb, manually, and if you can, ask someone to read through it for you to see if they spot anything you haven’t.
- Formatting: check that you’ve included page numbers, and that the font and line spacing is consistent throughout the work. Ensure that the font is plain and easy to read, such as Arial or Times New Roman.
- Bibliography: check that you’ve included everything, that the format is the same for all sources mentioned, and that the right information is included for each.
Once this stage is complete, you’re ready to submit your coursework along with your declaration that it’s entirely your own work. Get ready for a feeling of immense satisfaction when you finally send off your hard work!
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