Coursework help: Advice for success

With teachers not being allowed to give you much help with coursework, you might feel a little lost and alone. 

This week, Helen Chaplain, the lead coach in The Extraordinaries Club, and I, Lucy Parsons, are on hand to give you some coursework advice so that you can make the absolute most of the coursework help your teachers are allowed to give.

Helen and I have extensive experience, both as students and as teachers and academic coaches giving students help with coursework. We each have slightly different subject perspectives to offer – Helen is an English specialist and I was a Geography teacher and did lots of science subjects as well. 

On Thursday 2nd December 2021 at 7 pm, we’re running the Conquer Your Coursework Masterclass in The Extraordinaries Club.

In the lead up to the masterclass, Helen and I recorded a podcast to give you some quick advice that will help you if you're struggling with coursework. Read on to find out what we had to say.

You can also listen to the full conversation using the podcast player above or listen on The School Success Formula podcast on Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. 

Defining your coursework question 

The very first step in making sure your coursework gets off on the right foot is to get clear on exactly what you’re being asked to do and define your question.

Look at what you've got to achieve in your coursework. Are there any different example questions you can find? Is there an acknowledged framework for a question? 

Defining the question was the part of the process that I found really difficult as a student. Narrowing the subject matter down and deciding what to focus on was challenging. And then I had to decide how to frame the question. The scope needed to be just right – not too broad and not too narrow.

You need to be able to answer your question within the word limit. But it also needs to give you the opportunity to get all the marks that you’re aiming for. 

A lot of the exam boards give great guidance on this. They often have examples of well-worded questions and badly-worded questions, with explanations as to why they’re either good or bad. This should help you understand how to form your own coursework question. 

Framing your question is one of the things that your teacher can give you help with. They can talk you through how to create a question that will set you off on the right path. 

How else can your teacher help with coursework? 

Helen often hears her academic coaching clients say how worried they are about their coursework and that their teachers won’t help them. 

There's often a mismatch of expectations here. We’re used to teachers being really supportive, giving great feedback and clear targets and giving advice on what you should do to succeed in an exam.

And then all of a sudden, you get to coursework and feel as if you've been left by yourself.

Your teacher isn’t being purposefully unhelpful. They aren’t allowed to give you detailed help on anything that counts as a non-examined assessment (NEA), which includes coursework. They might ask you carefully directed questions to make you think again about a section, but they’re not able to proofread, write model paragraphs or point out assessment objectives that are missing. 

Your teacher will usually be able to do one check of your draft. This is your one shot at getting feedback. You should make sure your coursework is up to the best standard you can before your teacher looks over it. This way, they can see where the gaps are and give you advice that will help you move forward.

If your coursework isn’t as complete as possible, your teacher may give you pointers that you already planned to implement and you'll waste your one chance at getting feedback.

In the masterclass, we’ll be discussing how you can manage your time so that, when you do get the opportunity to get feedback, you’re ready to make the most of it. 

How to help yourself with coursework

Luckily, your teacher isn’t the only source of coursework help you can use. 

One of the most useful sources is guidance from the exam board that you can find online. It will have lots of really helpful bullet points that cover things like how long the coursework should be, what style it should be in and what skills it should show. 

You can use it as a checklist and a roadmap for writing and producing coursework that’s going to earn you a great mark. 

We’ll be going into this in more detail in the masterclass. We'll look at how you unpick the exam board guidance and translate it from teacher speak into a practical guide. 

Knowing exactly what your coursework needs to include means you can guarantee yourself more marks. I remember a time when I was an A-Level Geography student just about to hand in a piece of coursework when I suddenly remembered that I hadn’t included a statistical technique, as the exam board guidance said I should have. I quickly added one in. It didn’t add much to the coursework conclusion, but the fact it was in there meant I got marks for the statistical technique. 

Some have described this approach as cynical, but it’s incredibly practical. Even if you write a great piece of coursework, your teacher won’t be able to give you the top marks if it doesn’t hit all the points that the mark scheme shows are required. 

Coursework writing techniques

Students that aren’t confident in their writing can hit a brick wall when it comes to coursework and struggle with a bit of imposter syndrome. So how can you ensure your coursework writing hits the mark? 

Above everything else, focus on clarity

Some students think that they have to sound incredibly clever in their coursework. But it can sometimes have the opposite effect. It can make their work hard to understand and the points they’re trying to make get lost. It’s more important to be clear on what you’re trying to say and communicate that in a succinct way.

Use an academic tone in your coursework

You're not expected to become a different person and use overly smart language. But you are writing for an academic audience and will need to use a slightly more formal tone. 

If you do the research and organise your notes in the way that we're going to talk about in the masterclass, you’ll see what good academic writing looks like and you will pick up more about the academic style of writing. 

Do the thought work 

It's very difficult to say something if you don't know what it is that you're trying to say. 

Students are often confused between doing the exploratory thought work and writing the actual finished piece.

Your initial draft will often be about exploring what you actually think about your topic. You need to go through this step of achieving clarity in what you’re talking about. Only then can you write your final draft in the succinct way that’s going to get you the marks.

It all circles back to clarity and asking yourself: 

  • Am I being clear in my writing? 
  • Am I setting out what I really want to explain here?

What’s your opinion on what you’re writing about?

An important skill that helps with coursework is demonstrating your own opinion.

As a student, it can be a little bit scary to give your own opinion. But you’ve probably made some connections that no one has made before. Demonstrating these connections is where you’ll achieve the top marks. 

I had a massive sense of imposter syndrome when I was at university when I had to give my own opinion. After reading all this stuff from very learned people with PhDs or even professors, I didn't feel I had a right to give my opinion on it. 

When it finally twigged that it was my job to have an opinion, things started to flow for me. Your opinion is valid and it’s your job to demonstrate it in your coursework. 

This makes your coursework far more interesting for your marker to read – and for you to write. 

Writing about subject matter that you’re passionate about also makes it a lot more interesting to write – and easier to form opinions on too. If you don’t have an automatic draw to what you’re writing about, learning more about it can draw that passion out of you. Becoming an expert in something makes it more intrinsically interesting. 

How can the word count help with coursework?

The word count is there for a reason so pay attention to it. It’s a signpost of the level of complexity your argument needs. 

Though there’s uncertainty over who originally wrote it, the following quote rings very true: ‘If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.’ 

It correctly implies that it’s much more difficult to say something concisely than to waffle on for a couple of pages. When it comes to writing coursework, it’s part of your job to be concise. 

It’s much easier to create an argument within the word count than it is to edit it down later. This comes back to the idea of doing the thought work first. Doing so allows you to clarify what you want to communicate before bringing it all together concisely in your final draft.

Start by getting a realistic expectation of how much you need to write to hit the word limit. Figure out what your word count looks like in terms of the number of pages it will take up. It can be clearer to think of the number of pages rather than the number of words. Once you have a better understanding of the quantity of text you’re aiming for, you can start putting your ideas together. 

In the masterclass, we’ll talk about a technique that will help you write to the word count. It can help you save you the time and heartache of editing the content down.

Do you want more help with your coursework?

In the Conquer Your Coursework Masterclass, we’ll be offering lots more advice to help you bank some great marks in your coursework. We’ll cover things like: 

  • Time planning techniques – no last-minute all-nighters required
  • Finding insights into how the marker will mark your coursework
  • How to know which sections you need to include in your coursework to get the highest number of marks (Abstract? Methodology? Bibliography?)
  • Getting the most out of the help your teachers are allowed to give you
  • And lots more!

To find out more and sign up for the masterclass, click here: Conquer Your Coursework Masterclass. 

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