For this first post on slow studying, I’m going to offer some advice on writing good coursework with the mark-scheme in mind. These are all strategies I use as an aspiring academic with a 100,000-word thesis to write. I too, have a form of mark-scheme that structures my thesis. I’ll be using Geography Department marks-schemes here, but these tips will be applicable to many subjects that use essays and exam essays for assessment.

As someone who has marked student’s scripts, I can tell you the mark scheme is your bible. As a PhD student I slavishly use the guidelines for PhD students at UCL as my mark-scheme.  If you have never read one, you’re putting yourself at an immediate disadvantage when it comes to writing essays. Why?

A mark scheme is how we will assess the coursework/essay/exam you place before us. It allows us to show you where you succeeded and failed by department standards if you come storming into our office hours in tears. It's our first and last-line of defence, and how we ensure coherence across the department. External examiners will use it to see if were are consistent in how we mark. So make no mistake, module leaders will grade your paper with a copy of it in front of them.

You should be able to access them easily. I can get to UCL Geography department’s in one Google search. Royal Holloway’s is in the undergraduate module handbook. If you can’t find your departments, you need to get in contact with them right away and find out where it is. They will tell you, because a mark-scheme is not a secret cipher for staff's eyes only. It’s a code of conduct, an agreement between marker and markee that describes how your work will be assessed.

As a student, you should treat the mark-scheme as a set of decipherable codes that produce a map to a good piece of coursework. Take some time to consult it, work it out, and see what it's saying. When submitting, pause before sending an essay into the maw of Turnitin, and check off whether your essay hits the grade descriptors at the level you want..

Here's how I see mark-schemes. Every assessment criteria is a set of directions, made up of incremental grade increases. They have a direction, and this is a vital point. Mark-schemes are cumulative. You can't get 70% for analysis and critical thinking if you haven't already scored 60% in that category. 

To give you an example, let’s take the Royal Holloway Geography Mark-scheme. it's a classic, it has a marking criteria, the things we look for in an essay, and an explanation of what this would look like at each grade classification. You can find it online here in the undergraduate handbook, page 44.

As a quick disclaimer, this is only my interpretation of their mark-scheme. If you study at Royal Holloway, the best people to ask are the staff there. What I am offering is my take on what this mark-scheme says. Many people will have differing views, and the staff at Royal Holloway are the best to ask.

And the 7 Marking Criteria for coursework essays:


I don’t teach or study at Royal Holloway, but I can work out what a good coursework essay would look like just from reading it. In the sub-divisions, we see the difference between 65-70% and 70% is encapsulated in just one word: good (65-70%) vs excellent (70+). The Grade descriptors then give you an idea of what this difference looks like.

Let’s look at 60-70%, where many students end up scoring. The first marking criteria is ‘Focus on Question/Assignment’. It's number 1 for a reason. Today, too many students do not answer the question set, tending to write what they know about the topic.

if a question asks

'To what extent is anthropogenic climate change responsible for conflict in the developing world?',

Many students would write about climate change, and sometimes conflict in general, missing two key things in the question: anthropocentric climate change in developing nations'.

Back to the mark-scheme. If you want a low 2:1, the grade sub-division tells us a ‘sufficient response' in 1-4 is needed. The grade descriptor is also helpful. it asks for 'a ‘Direct focus on the question’. That can’t be clearer. If you want a 2:1 in the Royal Holloway Geography Department, you better make sure you answer the question, not just write about the topic.

The path through 60-69% is laid out for you. First, you have to do 1-7 ‘sufficiently well’ to demonstrate a good essay for 60-63%. This means an essay that ticks all the boxes. Brilliance in one area won't save you here. This is an all-rounders sport.

For convenience, here are those key grades again. 


The middle tier 63-66%, you need to do 'sufficiently well' in 1-7, as well as a a ‘good performance’ on 1-3, showing some critical flair and further reading (marking criteria 2), as well as (you guessed it) a strong response to the question (marking criteria 1).

67-69% requires a ‘good performance ‘in most’ of the marking criteria. Now this is a little vague, and a number for ‘most’ would be nice, as would a definition for 'good performance'. But there is a reason for such vagueness. Essays can take a million and one different forms, and as markers, we don't want to stop you being creative and original. A good mark-scheme has a tightrope it deftly navigates between encouraging structure on the one hand, and avoiding a formulaic, unoriginal response on the other.

What's more, the use of the word 'most' draws my attention to one thing. I know that to get 67%, I have to hit more more than half of the criteria with a good performance. Again, one brilliant aspect of an essay will not save you if you want to score in the high 60s. Lots of reading, exceptional analysis and impeccable referencing, but no direct answer to the question? Forget it, you haven’t done a good performance on 1-3 to even hit the 63-66% let alone most of the criteria.

This scheme is particularly nice, as it tells us what a 'critical' piece of looks like. Students often struggle with this word, and it is hard to define. But the sub division for 57-59% goes some way in explaining what this department views as critical: A good attempt but insufficient critical analysis (criteria 2-4) for a 2:1. Critical analysis is defined as criteria 2-4, so all three have to be present in the essay for a critical response. This means you can answer the question very well,  and still not be critical, and vice versa. You can write an exceptional essay with critical analysis, and not answer the question.

Too many students don’t know that the mark-scheme can be used this way to check their essays before submission. Proofreading is great for a broad overview of the argument and typos, but a mark-scheme is surgical. It forces you to address different aspects of the essay.

I think academics are partly to blame for this lack of knowledge. We don’t ever tell you how we write our version of the essay (the journal article) or the dissertation (the book). You are lead to then believe when we have an idea or some research findings, we simply sit down, crack our fingers and and blast away at a keyboard until a couple of days later an 8,000 word magnum opus appears in a journal. You then try to copy this style, writing a flowing, beautiful essay in one or two sittings. It’s a convenient myth for us; we look erudite, knowledgeable, and like we have ‘cracked it’ when it comes to academic writing. All we rely on is our own formidable intellect.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The peer review process is how we assess each others' writing. It’s a bloodbath, a cruel, confidence crushing forum for ridicule. Go to Twitter. Type in @YourPaperSucks. That’s the peer review process in a nutshell, where two or three anonymous reviewers will read an academic paper, and with the protection of namelessness, will trash the errors in that work.

So yes, the feedback on your essay can seem blunt, cold and unsympathetic. But we will never write this on your essay:

“I am afraid this manuscript may contribute not so much towards the field’s advancement as much as toward its eventual demise.” 

Not all of the peer review is as callous and funny as the above example, but the ability to critically evaluate a manuscript is a vital hallmark of academic writing. And it can take a long time to do it, much longer than you wait for feedback for your essays. The last article I submitted (which was outright rejected, by the way, a FAIL on the academic mark-scheme) took from January to September to get back to me. That’s how knowledge progresses: slowly and painfully. We have to be able to honestly appraise a paper to assess its findings. Are they credible? Are they repeatable? Is it plagiarised? Are they made up? Sometimes, ask Alan Sokal.

Academic papers are the result of a long, arduous and sometimes soul-destroying process of criticism, a game of manuscript whack-a-mole. My published paper was returned twice, once with major errors (in the argument, content), then again with minor errors (spelling, grammar, references). It was only after those two important assessments that I produced an article that was journal ready. It took 7 months.

When writing, I had to check the ‘Guide for Authors sections’ repeatedly. It was my mark-scheme, with the journal’s aim, the rules and descriptions for what my paper needed to get published, from font size, to referencing to paper’s content and scope. All journals have them, and all academics who want their paper published read them. You can read the ‘Geopolitics’ one here.

So you should examine the mark-schemes the same way we examine ‘Guides for Authors’ sections, as a method for avoiding an intellectual trouncing further down the line.