Assignment Tips from Mr Russell Hinchy
Whether you study Crim or Trusts, it’s that time of year: assignment season. With the due date for many papers just around the corner, we thought you might find helpful the following ‘Assignment Tips’, kindly provided by Mr Russell Hinchy. This piece is merely an excerpt from the 2012 DLA Piper LLB Guide; download an online copy for even more helpful information.
The following points are not intended to be an exhaustive list. However, the list identifies some common problems that arise across different non-examination items of assessment such as: research assignments and essays involving independent student research; a problem solving assignment involving given hypothetical circumstances; or case analysis of the judgments in a particular court decision. Some of the points identified below might appear obvious but the issues do arise.
1 Plagiarism is an extremely important issue for a law student. Plagiarism amounts to academic misconduct and this must be disclosed prior to admission as a legal practitioner. Collusion between students when completing assessment amounts to plagiarism (unless the assessment involves group work). All students must be familiar with the Law School’s document, ‘Avoiding Plagiarism When Conducting Legal Research’. This document was forwarded to all students during second semester 2011. It will also be forwarded to commencing first year students in 2012.
2 Answer the required task, comply with the assignment/essay instructions and have a clear understanding of the marking/criteria prior to commencing the task. Do not make assumptions in this regard. If unsure, clarify any issues with the course co-ordinator e.g. whether the maximum word length includes direct quotations and/or footnotes. However, it is important that students show some initiative in completing the required task because usually a particular task does not have only ‘one’ correct approach or answer.
3 Clarity of reasoning is an essential aspect of any assignment. This is so even if ‘clarity of reasoning’ is not a specific criterion to be taken into account in marking. For example, sometimes a student contradicts himself/herself within an assignment and this detracts from the overall strength of argument. The line of reasoning must be consistent from the introduction through to the conclusion. However, this does not mean that counter arguments should not be raised in an assignment. This raises the issue of ‘sitting on the fence’ i.e. addressing an issue from opposing points of view without coming to a definite conclusion or without selecting one line of argument and following this through. If students are warned against ‘sitting on the fence’ or if such a comment is made by the marker in feedback, this does not mean that students should not address weaknesses in a particular line of reasoning. Often a particular assignment task is intended to raise counter arguments and these should be addressed as part of the overall line of reasoning. This does amount to ‘sitting on the fence’. Confronting weaknesses in argument provides evidence of in depth analysis.
4 Achieve a proper balance between scope of analysis and depth of analysis. This balance depends on the nature of the assessment task. For example, a problem solving task involving a hypothetical situation might involve several issues and sub-issues that have to be addressed. In view of the maximum word length, a decision must be made regarding prioritising the importance of the issues and sub-issues. In relation to a research assignment, a balance has to be made between the number of secondary sources used and the depth of analysis of each source. In writing a research assignment it is important that evidence of research is provided. This is the nature of the task. In saying this, rather than merely referring to a large number of secondary sources in footnotes without proper analysis, a research assignment should provide evidence of in depth analysis of the most relevant secondary sources. This is an important skill that students should try to develop at law school.
5 Do not use secondary sources such as journal articles for the purposes of case analysis. Case analysis must be carried out through analysis of the actual judgments of a court decision as the primary source and the assignment/essay must provide clear evidence that this has occurred. Use relevant secondary sources to ascertain and evaluate the opinions of commentators. This is a very important issue that students should always keep in mind.
6 Comply with the third edition of the Australian Guide to Legal Citation (AGLC). Talk to a law librarian if a particular circumstance does not appeared to be covered by the AGLC. Students should also be familiar with the Law School’s A Guide to Citation of Sources and Writing Style in Assignments.
7 Always use the authorised version of a law report where a particular decision is reported in an authorised report. Only use one case citation when referencing a particular decision in a footnote. Do not reference both authorised and unauthorised case citations for the same decision.
8 During the assignment/essay do not change between different versions of a case citation when referencing the same decision. This suggests that the student has analysed a particular decision through various secondary sources rather than through the actual judgments of the decision.
9 Be accurate when analysing the opinion of a commentator in a journal article or the basis of the reasoning in a particular judgment. In relation to case analysis of an appellate court decision, do not be selective when stating the basis of the decision. In other words, do not rely solely on the approach taken in one judgment when this is at odds with the majority approach taken in the decision. If a student prefers the basis of the reasoning contained in a dissenting judgment, then the fact that it is not the approach of the majority must be clearly stated.
10 Always check whether a first instance decision or a Court of Appeal decision has been taken on appeal. Sometimes students rely on a particular decision without identifying or acknowledging that it has been considered by a higher court.