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Introduction to university study: Assessments

"All modules and courses at university have a set of aims and learning objectives or outcomes ... Exams and assessments are part of the way the university checks how well you're performing in relation to these”

Bill Kirton, Brilliant Study Skills

There are many different types of assessment at university and this page gives you a brief overview of the six most common methods. There are resources at the bottom that provide information about even more assignment types.


Assessment criteria

For every piece of assessment you do, there will be criteria that you are marked against. These are usually given in your module handbooks. These are designed to meet the module learning outcomes and to follow the University's Grading Descriptors which have been developed to align to the national standards required for degrees in the UK. 

Never undertake an assignment without checking your handbook or assignment information on Canvas to make sure you are clear about what is expected of you.

Many assignment marking criteria will show a breakdown of where the marks are given and if you miss any of these areas out you will not get the marks for that area. For example, if 30% of an assignment's marks are given for future recommendations and you fail to include any, your mark will only be out of 70%. Don't miss out on relatively easy marks!


Essays

Essays are the most common type of coursework and many exams require you to write them too. We have a dedicated Essay Writing SkillsGuide which goes into the details, so this is just a brief overview. 

What is a university essay?

At university, an essay is:

A piece of writing that presents a topic and defends a stance to the reader. It is not just a piece of writing about a topic. It should have an element of persuasion.

Depending on your discipline, essay assignments could be set in different ways. You could:

  • be given a specific question (or choice of questions) to answer
  • be asked to develop your own question based around a topic
  • be given a set of assignment criteria with several different elements to include

How are they structured?

For most essays you should have an introduction, a main body and a conclusion. You will be give a maximum word count (usually between 2000-4000 words) and you must stay within 10% of this to avoid penalties. Your introduction and conclusion should each be approximately 10% of the word count.

Essays do not usually have subheadings though these may be acceptable for longer essays in some disciplines. Again, depending on your discipline, you may be asked to illustrate them with images but this is usually made clear in the assignment instructions. Always check your module handbook on Canvas and your lecturer if you are unsure.

Essays should end with a reference list which is an alphabetised or numbered list of all of the information sources you have used within the essay. The list of references is not included in the word count.

visualisation of an essay showing introduction, main body, conclusion and reference list


Reports

Reports are one of the most common assignment types in science disciplines but are used extensively in some other disciplines such as business too.

Reports explain what you have done and what you found out during a project

They are always split into separate sections following a specific structure. This is different for

Each section uses headings and subheadings to allow for ease of navigation.

visualisation of a report showing different sections split over several pages


Reflections

In some ways, this is not a separate category of assessment as you usually need to write reflective essays or reflective reports. It does however, call for a different kind of writing. Whilst essays and reports should be written in an objective, impersonal manner, reflections are very subjective and very personal.

For some disciplines, where reflective practice is an integral part of the associated profession (for example nursing, social work or education), students will have to write reflectively in a large proportion of their assignments. For others, a reflection may only be required on a few occasions.

When writing a reflective assignment, you need to look back at an experience, reflect on how it made you think and feel, consider lessons learned and how this would impact on your future actions when undertaking similar tasks.

Visual representation of the previous paragraph

Many reflective assignments require you to base your reflection on a particular model of reflection and our Reflective Writing SkillsGuide gives a lot of information about reflective writing generally as well as specific models you can follow.


Presentations

We have an Academic Presentations SkillsGuide which goes into detail about presentations so this is an overview only.

There are three main types of assessed presentation: 

  1. Slide-show presentations - usually an oral presentation backed up by PowerPoint slides.
  2. Poster presentations - where you stand with your poster and answer questions.
  3. Oral-only presentations - usually given during tutorial sessions.

When you are asked to give a presentation, your tutor is assessing your ability to communicate orally and usually visually too. It is a way of showing that you can communicate enthusiastically about a topic in your discipline to different types of audience. It also helps you develop your confidence in talking in front of an audience which is a crucial employability skill.

Slide-show presentations

The most common software to use for presentations at university is Microsoft PowerPoint, though some tutors may be happy for you to use alternative software such as keynote or prezi. If you want to use something else, please check your assignment guidelines as there may be a specific file format required for electronic submission purposes. We have a Microsoft Office Software SkillsGuide which has a page covering the technical aspects of using PowerPoint if you are unfamiliar with the software.

As with essays, an academic presentation should have a clear structure: some introductory slides, a main section and some slides that summarise and conclude your presentation. 

Visual representation of previous paragraph

You are most likely to be given a fixed amount of time to present for (i.e. a 10-minute presentation, a 20-minute presentation) rather than a fixed number of slides. There are no hard-and-fast rules for how long you should spend presenting each slide but we usually recommend between 30 seconds to a minute each. This means you are less likely to over-fill your slides with information which can be off-putting for an audience. So a 10-minute presentation will usually have between 10 and 20 slides. This does vary a lot though, so it is important to practice your presentation before you give it and adjust your timings as necessary, perhaps adding more slides or removing some.

Poster presentations

student defending a poster

In some disciplines, producing posters is an important element of academic work. You can use many different types of software to create a poster but PowerPoint is once again the most common. There are instructions on our Posters page that show how to set the slide size up for a poster and this page also gives information about how to make them effective.

Posters are classed as presentations as often you are required to stand with your poster and defend it. This just means you describe its basic features to your tutors and answer any questions they ask. This is often part of a conference-style setting where you also talk to the other students about your poster and get a chance to do the same in return.

Oral-only presentations

Student giving oral-only presentationThese are usually short presentations given during tutorials or on field work. They can be part of formative assessments (not graded, developmental) or summative assessments (graded, final). You will be asked to talk for a set amount of time on a small topic and then usually asked questions about it by your peers or your lecturers. Preparation and reading are key to doing well here.


Exams

Most students are already familiar with exams in some form or another but that does not mean that university exams are approached with any more confidence! We have an Exams & Revision SkillsGuide which gives a lot of information about preparing for and undertaking exams, so this is just an overview.

There are two main exam periods each year (January and May-June) and some, though not all, of your modules may need you to sit a formal, written or computer-based examination as part of your assessment.

Examinations are all undertaken in what is known as exam-conditions. This means you will be at a small table of your own (or sometimes a computer workstation) and must not talk to other students.

There will be an invigilator to help if there are problems - just raise your hand for assistance. You must remember to take ID with you (usually your student card) plus any pens and equipment you have been permitted to take. Electronic devices (laptops, phones, tablets, smart watches etc) and the rest of your belongings must be kept away from your table.

Exams at university can be:


MCQ icon

Multiple choice - often combined with short answer style questions. Multiple choice questions are usually all worth the same mark. These types of exams are increasingly undertaken online in a computer lab. Some disciplines do not use them at all.


short answer question icon

Short answer - usually require you to write a few sentences or a paragraph to answer each question. Make sure you note how many marks each question is worth as you will need to write more for those with higher weighting.


essay question icon

Essay style - exam essays require a similar format to assignment essays but there are different expectations so check out our blog post on writing exam essays.


seen exam icon

Seen - you are given the questions to be answered in advance. Alternatively the topics may be given to you in advance but the actual questions are not.


open book icon

Open-book - you can take specified resources (usually books/book chapters or journal articles) with you into the exam to help you answer the questions. This means you don't need to spend a lot of time memorising information and can concentrate on understanding it during your revision.


Independent study or dissertation

In your final year at university, you will probably undertake an independent study or dissertation. These require you to work independently on a project with a supervisor to guide you. You will get less help than on previous assignments however, as the purpose is to give you the opportunity to demonstrate your independence.  

A final year independent study or dissertation is an extended piece of writing about a research project you have undertaken. This could be either primary research (where you collect the data yourself) or secondary research (where you collate data from existing literature). 

They almost always follow a set structure:

  • Title
  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Literature review
  • Methodology
  • Findings and discussion
  • Conclusion (and sometimes recommendations)
  • References/bibliography
  • Appendices

This can vary slightly depending on if you are undertaking an empirical study (primary research) or literature-based study (secondary research).

 

For further information on writing independent studies or dissertations see our dedicated Dissertation Writing SkillsGuide.

Dissertation title page


Resources

External resources

An A-Z of Assessment Methods

This document from the University of Reading gives an overview of more than 40 different assessment types in use at universities. Although it is designed as advice for tutors choosing assessments, it can be very helpful for students too. Please note, even this is not a full list and many digital and visual assessments (for example Infographics) are now becoming popular.

A Compendium of Assessment Techniques in Higher Education: From Students' Perspectives

This document from the University of Leeds is a compilation of degree level assessment techniques from similar UK and international universities researched by three of their students.