Writing coursework assignments

Summarizes some key issues relating to coursework assignments: grammar, spelling, and references

Prof. Anne-Wil Harzing, University of Melbourne

© Copyright 2001 Anne-Wil Harzing. All rights reserved.

This guide is meant to help you in writing coursework assignments. Most of what is discussed here will be applicable to your course. However, always contact your instructor to make sure that he or she does not have other requirements.

Grammar and spelling

A lot of the coursework I have received over the years includes many typing & spelling errors and weak grammar. Unfortunately, it is not just non-native speakers who are guilty of this. Many of these issues can be solved so easily that making a lot of mistakes is really unforgivable.

A couple of years ago, one student forgot a key word in her conclusion (“not”) and was hence completely negating the whole argument of her paper. Many other students forget words in a sentence or letters in a word or seem to think it is a good idea to occasionally use capitals in the middle of a sentence (you are writing English, not German!) or not use a capital letter at the beginning of a sentence.

Submitting a paper in this form doesn’t show great respect for the reader. This is what you can do to avoid mistakes:

  1. First of all, READ your paper before you hand it in. Many of these issues are simply caused by haste.
  2. Second, if you use a word processor (and who doesn't?) then set the options so that the word processor corrects your spelling and grammar, even while you are typing (Tools > Options > Spelling and Grammar)!

You can even let the word-processor check jargon, clichés, wordiness and spaces between sentences. Learning to use word processing programmes effectively is also a key skill you are expected to have mastered by the end of your course (ideally at the beginning!).

When and how do I refer to literature sources

In general, we can distinguish the following situations:

  1. A fact is common knowledge, applicable over a large time frame, e.g. “a chair has four legs” (although some haven’t actually). No reference is needed.
  2. A fact is common knowledge over a more limited time frame, e.g. “Labour won the recent Victorian State election and returned to power”. No reference would be needed for papers written NOW. However, if you wrote a paper in ten years’ time and analysed different periods in the Victorian political system, a reference would be necessary.
  3. Factual information that cannot be considered to be common knowledge, e.g. “the level of unionisation in France is 12%”, needs a reference.
  4. A statement such as “globalisation leads to a convergence of cultures” would need to be backed up by at least one of the following: (1) a solid explanation of your own, (2) references to (academic) authors who argue this link, (3) references to (academic) authors who report on research proving this relationship, and (4) a report on your own research in this area (e.g in the case of a masters thesis). At the very least you should indicate whether certain statements are your own opinion, based on the writings of others or a combination of both. Newspaper and magazine (as opposed to journal) articles can be used to illustrate certain issues. Solid evidence, however, cannot be based on newspaper or magazine articles alone. Also, textbook information can be useful, but can never be the only basis for an academic paper.
  5. Although many students might appreciate the need to back up the statement in (4), this is also necessary for statements such as: “the welfare state leads to a lack of entrepreneurial activity”. Although there might be some “factual” truth in this statement, writing it down like this is an overly generalised and unnuanced statement. Your task is to write papers that contain a well-motivated and nuanced view on certain issues and to analyse a situation from various perspectives. It is not to give one clear-cut answer to a complex problem. (You can leave that to management consultants and politicians.)

In addition the following issues are important to consider:

  1. If you refer to the work of authors you have found in other publications (e.g. Hofstede 19.. in Harzing 2001b), without reading or checking the actual publication itself, do not pretend to have read it. In the text refer to: Hofstede, 19.. in Harzing, 2001b. However, you should include the Hofstede publication in the list of references. In more substantial works (e.g. a master’s thesis) you should make it a habit to track down these references yourself, especially if they are important for your story. The other author may have misinterpreted the original work or its con-clusions might have been taken out of context. [see Harzing (2002): Are our referencing errors undermining our scholarship and credibility? The case of expatriate failure rates, Journal of Organizational Behavior, vol. 23/1, pp. 127-148, for some striking examples.]
  2. There is only one situation in which you can literally copy a limited amount of text from other sources (typically a few lines to, at most, a few paragraphs) and this is when you cite the author in question, using quotation marks and mentioning the exact source (e.g. Harzing, 2001b, page 585). Of course you can only use citations sparingly. Your paper should not consist of a simple list of quotes, connected by some sentences written by yourself. If you do not copy text from other sources literally, but use the ideas put forward by someone else, you will have to include a reference. In that case you do not necessarily have to include the page number (but you can if you want to). If you copy either literal text or ideas from someone else without proper referencing, you are committing plagiarism, which will be punished according to university guidelines.
  3. Don’t worry if you sometimes have difficulty in deciding when and where to use references, it is not one of the easiest things to do in academic writing. Do, however, pay attention to referencing in future papers and in articles you read for your subjects. The only way you can get a feel for this is by practising this process a lot.

How do I set up my list of references

A substantial number of students submit coursework with an incorrect or incomplete list of references. It is absolutely foolish to make mistakes in this respect because there are only a few basic, very simple rules:

  • Include all books/articles you refer to in the list of references.
  • Put the references in alphabetical order.
  • Use a standard recognised system. One common method references publications thus:
    1. Refer to a book like this: Harzing, A.W.; Van Ruysseveldt, J. (eds.) (1995) International Human Resource Management, London: Sage Publications.
    2. Refer to an article like this: Harzing, A.W.K (1997) Research Note: About the paucity of empirical research in IHRM: A test of Downes framework of staffing foreign subsidiaries, Journal of International Management, Vol. 3, no. 2, pp. 153-167.
    3. Refer to a contribution in an edited book like this: Harzing, A.W.; Hofstede, G. (1996) Planned change in organizations: the influence of national culture, in: Bamberger, P.A., Erez, M.; Bacharach, S.B., Research in the Sociology of Organizations: Cross-Cultural Analysis of Organisations, Greenwich: JAI Press, pp. 297-340.

You can also use underline instead of italics, but do make sure you emphasise the journal title and not the title of the article in (b) and do not forget the pages in (b) and (c). References should enable other people to track down your sources easily. This becomes more difficult if you forget the page numbers, but it becomes impossible if you do not even mention the journal.

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