It is important to plan your approach to an assignment. It will ensure that you understand the task, can manage your time, and present a structured and focused argument.
For each assignment you should make time to:
- interpret your assignment
- create a schedule
- plan your answer
Interpreting your assignment
Start by working out what you are being asked to do and what type of assignment you should produce.
Take time to understand the conventions of each type of assignment. You might be asked to produce a report, an essay, an annotated bibliography or a literature review. This will shape how you will research and write.
The next step is to analyse your question. Are you being asked to discuss, analyse or evaluate something? Instructional verbs in the assignment question will set out how you will approach the task.
Our interpreting assignments tutorial explains how to analyse different parts of the title and brief as well as what questions you need to consider before you start writing.
You can also download our understanding instructional verbs (PDF) help sheet, which offers a glossary of common words that you will find in your assignments, such as"analyse", "discuss", "compare" and "describe".
Creating a schedule
Planning your schedule before you begin an assignment will help you to ensure you have enough time to complete a high-quality piece of work.
Break down your assignment into manageable tasks and deadlines. As well as planning, these will include:
This assignment survival kit (produced by the University of Kent) will help you to build a schedule based on the time you have and the type of assignment.
Planning your answer
We would strongly recommend that you plan your answer before you start writing your assignment. This will make the writing process far easier.
A plan will help you to produce a clear, coherent and well-structured assignment, stay focused on answering the question, and stick to the main points that you want to make.
Our tips for planning:
1. Create a plan to help you gather your initial ideas and response to the question. Think about:
- what you already know
- what sources of information you already have (lectures, seminars, labs, reading etc.) and what you still might need to gather
- what aspects of the topic you might want to cover
- what different perspectives might there be on this topic.
Learn more about finding high-quality information for your assignments.
2. Use a planning technique that suits you.
- Use mind-maps: a visual planning method that helps you to quickly come up with ideas and make connections between those ideas. Look at this quick guide to mind mapping.
- Use linear (list) plans: use headings,subheadings, and bullet points to plan your main ideas. This can be useful to plan out your writing paragraph by paragraph.
- You can use a mixture of techniques. Perhaps a visual method when you are gathering initial ideas followed by a more structured plan before you start writing.
3. Use your plan to create a structure.
- From your plan pick out the most relevant points. If you don't have any evidence to back up your points don't include them.
- Think about what your reader needs to know. Whether you are writing a report, essay or another assignment, don't include too much background material. Ask yourself whether what you are writing answers the question or brief you have been set.
- Consider in what order you need to present the information, arguments or points you want to make.
- Plan in paragraphs, under headings or in sections to help you build a logical structure.
The key to good time planning is to have systems to keep everything under control, and to make them simple so that you'll actually use them. In the past students would use a diary and notebook to keep track of work and commitments but now there are some very good free mobile apps that you can use to stay organised.
How many hours should I study? If you are a full-time student, you should be spending about 40 hours a week on academic activities, including independent study, lectures, seminars, tutorials and lab work.
Remember - things usually take longer than you think! Be generous in your time allocation. If you find you don't need all the time you've allotted, it's extra free time.
Getting a work/life balance You shouldn't feel that you have to study all the time. If you can take your study times seriously, you won't need to feel guilty when you do something else at other times.
Make a term plan
One simple way to get a clear visual overview of the time you have and the tasks you need to fit into it is to make a term plan which could be on paper, fixed somewhere you will see it every day (e.g. above your desk) or in a digital app such as OneNote where you can access it on all your devices.
Draw up a table with a row for each week of term and columns for deadlines, targets and things to remember (at Sussex there are three terms and two assessment periods check the Sussex website for term dates).
- Work backwards: start by entering deadlines for your assignments so you can see when your busy times will be. Include seminars and presentations you need to prepare for. For sections of essays, decide how many words you are going to write for each.
- In the ‘Remember' column, add any events which you need to take into account when planning, e.g. family birthdays, social events, sports fixtures etc.
- Decide on the major tasks you need to complete for each of your deadlines, and roughly how long you need to spend on each. Prioritise according to marks each assignment is worth.
- Fit them into the 'Targets' column, working back from the deadline.
Give yourself contingency time by setting your own essay deadlines a week before they are actually due so that your plan doesn't go right up to the last ten minutes of the deadline.
So the plan for one essay might look like this:
Remember that this is only for one essay - you will need to fit all your work in. So you may need to set artificial deadlines so you're not trying to finish all your essays at the same time. Download a term plan template.
Use task management apps
There are many mobile apps available which can help you keep track of your commitments. For example, Wunderlist lets you:
- Create lists, tasks, checklists and reminders
- Attach files, notes and comments
- Sync across all your devices
- Sort by list, day, priority etc.
- Share lists and tasks
It is available as a mobile app and on the web so you can access it from any device with internet access. With multiple separate lists you can organise all areas of your life in one place and get reminders and push notifications on your mobile devices. If you are organising a group project then sharing a list can be a really useful way to keep on top of multiple tasks involving several people.
Here are some other task management apps you might like:
Make a study timetable
If you schedule your study times in advance, you won't be wasting time each day deciding whether and when to study. Book study times into your timetable with lectures and seminars, as academic commitments. Some students like to use electronic diaries or task management apps (see above) for planning and others prefer hardcopy - find out what works best for you.
- Enter lectures, seminars and other fixed academic commitments. Check Sussex Direct for your teaching timetable.
- Add regular commitments like paid work, club meetings, sports fixtures and training.
- Mark up times which you are going to commit to as study sessions. You will have busy weeks when you need to add more sessions, and quiet weeks when you can claim time back.
- Plan to be flexible - if something else comes up, you can trade a study session with a free session.
See examples of weekly student timetables and download a weekly timetable template.