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Athabasca University

Planning & Drafting a Graduate Assignment

Graduate work is designed to be more demanding than college or undergraduate study, but the basic studying and writing skills are similar. Although graduate students usually have the experience of many years of studying and writing, completing a graduate paper can still be a daunting task. Very few students, or for that matter faculty, find academic writing easy. Structuring an argument, developing a critical, reflective approach to evidence and ideas, thinking theoretically and being analytical are all hard work. Writing generally improves with practice, although you will have days when your writing does not flow or you have a topic that is particularly troublesome. The notes that follow are not comprehensive; they are designed to help you think about some of the key aspects of writing graduate assignments.

Writing a good assignment requires careful, focused research of the issues. You should be thinking in terms of answering the study question from the outset. What is the central argument – or thesis – that you are expounding? What other viewpoints will you have to refute? In many graduate courses you can choose your own topic for your term paper. Try framing the topic as a question. You will need to develop a good grasp of the issues AND develop a point of view about them. A survey "essay" may be appropriate at some stage of your knowledge exploration, but a survey or overview will not score as highly as an original thesis that incorporates the survey material. Therefore, you should turn your topic into a question, as in this example:

You may be interested in the topic of "adult education within Women's Institutes." If you use that as your essay heading and are simply going to describe what goes on, you may write a competent paper, but it would have no central thesis and you could not expect to score well.

If you pose a question such as, "To what extent were Women's Institutes able to develop independent adult education?" then you will still write about WIs but with more purpose, since you are now exploring an argument.

Having set your question, you need to develop your own argument. If you feel that you agree with everything said about the WIs in the Welton (1987) edited text, then there may be little point in writing on that topic. If you have something original to say, and have some evidence to back it up that will demonstrate a solid analysis and the superiority of your interpretation over others, then write. For example:

In reading about WIs, you formed the view that the BC institutes were not as independent as those in Alberta. You consider that the independence of the organization reflected a number of factors, such as the particular location and farming community, the role of the provincial government, the proximity of other more independent women's organizations.

You want to argue that Alberta was more independent because of the existence of these variables and you are going to show how that affected the provincial WIs and their educational output.

Having determined your argument you need to undertake (or return to) your research. You need to critically review key and recent sources, interrogating the data. You should be able to explain the complexity of debate. For example:

The account of the government rule in the life of BC Institutes reproduced in the 1925 County Life in British Columbia provides direct evidence contrary to the argument of the Welton (1987) text. Both viewpoints need to be evaluated and interpreted – to what extent was the WI "incorporated" by the "state?"

Motions proposed to the annual Alberta WI provide evidence of membership opinion and activity. They would need to be considered against other evidence and interpretations of Alberta activity to see to what extent they can be used to support your thesis. You might want to discuss whether the motions provide evidence of "counter-hegemonic" education.

A graduate paper which has all these features will attract good grades. Grading is always a subjective activity but, in general terms, a paper that makes an argument that uses an original and interesting thesis (and research), is critical (including self-critique), theoretical, analytical, well-structured, with a strong introduction and conclusion, will attract good grades.

Sample Graduate Marking Scheme

  A+ to A- B+ to B- C+ to C-
Thesis Original. Logical interpretation and criticism to establish unique perspective. Analytically superior to other interpretations. Clearly stated. Establishes a perspective which accounts for its selection. Clear analysis. Clearly organized and presented. Some weaknesses.
Research Contains key and current sources. Grasps complexity of debates. Critically reviews all sources and perspectives. Contains appropriate, detailed data. Includes a range of sources but treated unproblematically. Appropriate information. Limited range of research. Requires more sources.
Argument Pros and cons of evidence presented. Uses detailed sources, examples and/or statistics. Juxtaposes social theories. Evidence used to reinforce points. Pro/con arguments poor. Uses some social theory. Evidence used sparingly. Little con argument. Opinion replaces theory.

This marking scheme has been adapted from one developed by Jerry Kachur, University of Alberta.

The above chart illustrates some of the elements looked for in a graduate marking scheme. It is suggestive but should, nonetheless, give you an idea of the factors which influence grading. Graduate students should be scoring an "A" or "B," a student scoring a "C" may be asked to rewrite the paper.


Welton, M. (ed.) (1997). Knowledge for the People. Toronto: OISE

The note on Planning and Drafting a Graduate Assignment is taken from B. Spencer. (1998). The Purposes of Adult Education: A Guide for Students. Toronto: Thompson Educational Publishing. (139-142)

Updated February 25 2016 by Student & Academic Services

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