After an undergraduate degree at McGill University and most of a masters at the University of Leeds, you would think that I have learned how to do a coursework the way the professor expects it to be done.

Unfortunately, I can’t say I’m an expert. But here are a few thoughts on the subject.

Looking back at all the work I’ve done, and all the sub-optimal marks I’ve received, I detect a few underlying problems. The first problem, of course, is time. Time is always ticking, and especially with programming, there is an exciting (and frustrating) air of mystery when it comes to determining how long something will take. I may decide to restructure and add a neat feature to my code, which seems simple enough in my head, but then I get stuck for 5 hours because I need to install a certain library and the new update to my OS changed the locations of things. Or I misspell a variable and spend 30 minutes figuring out why my algorithm does not give good performance. Or the feature wasn’t as simple as I thought. The Or’s go on and on. On the flip-side, sometimes things take an hour when you expected it to take three. Somehow those moments aren’t as memorable…

Other times, there actually is enough time, but I can’t bring myself to spend it on the coursework. I’d rather be cooking peanut sesame noodles, or visiting friends, or going grocery shopping. Or there’s another coursework for another class that is just more exciting and rewarding to work on.

That leads to the second problem, which historically poses an even greater threat to my marks than time: lack of interest. It’s hard to be motivated to do something which I do not find interesting. I still don’t know how to solve this problem. There is an element of forcing yourself to just work.

Here are five general pointers which have been helpful to me:

  1. Read the coursework spec carefully. Emphasis on the word carefully. Yes, I managed to get 50% on a paper simply because I wrote it on the wrong premise, which was clearly stated once in the second sentence of the two-page coursework spec. The lecturer commented that she was “very surprised,” and so was I. Surprises are to be avoided.
  2. Look at the points distribution. Where are most of the points to be rewarded? Sometimes specs don’t include this, but when they do, take advantage of it! If a task is worth 10 marks and you think you can solve it in a few lines of code, think again. It may be doable in a few lines, but there better be something complex, elegant, or particularly intelligent happening in those lines. Length of writing or code is not a good measurement, but time is. Generally, more difficult tasks take more time than ones that are expected to be simpler. Professors roughly allocate more marks for tasks they consider to be more difficult.
  3. Read your professor. How does s/he think? How are all the lectures conducted, how are the power points designed, what is the format of the spec? How clean is his/her office?! (Alright, it’s not necessary to go examine, but you get the idea). This should give you an idea of how the professor will mark work, and what is important to him/her. A very detailed professor who carefully organises the structure of the lectures, writes a thorough coursework spec and prepares well for labs probably will also be a detailed, conscientious marker. Other professors are very literal and direct in teaching and answering questions. They may also be very direct markers, giving points for work which clearly does what is asked for.
  4. Review past coursework for the same course. This also has to do with reading your professor. Compare the way you and your professor think, and your interpretation of the work. If I was proud of the code, but the marker clearly didn’t agree, then something must be off. If you did exactly as the spec asked for, and you received less than full marks, then the professor may be reserving marks for the students who go beyond what is expected. This becomes more and more true in taught postgraduate studies.
  5. Don’t believe everything the professor says! Sometimes when asked questions about the coursework, the professor may respond in a way which indicates that the coursework is not that important, or not that difficult, or not that complex. I find that these professors often are harder markers than they let on. Never underestimate the difficulty of a task.

When you’ve done all you can do given the circumstances, submit the assignment!