Some of you may be familiar with the Feynman Algorithm. It is a general technique to solve any problem.
The steps are as follows:
- Write down the problem.
- Think real hard.
- Write down the solution.
As part of my MSc, I have to write a series of assignments. These are essays with a strict word count and an even stricter marking scheme. I'm proud that I've successfully developed a technique for writing these assignments. I've noticed that a number of students don't know where to begin when writing an essay, so I'd like to share my technique with you. It is slightly more complicated than Feynman's method - although still contains the "think real hard" step.
This is a "reverse engineering" technique. The aim isn't necessarily to have understood the material - but to demonstrate that you have understood the material. To do this, it is necessary to understand the marking scheme. Almost all tutors will share how your essays are to be marked. Your job is to write an answer for each point on the marking scheme.
The key is to do this at the start of term - as I'll explain later.
My assignment questions usually come in this form:
- Discuss the background of X (10 points)
- Demonstrate you understand Y (20 points)
- What uses are there for Z (20 points)
- Conclusion (10 points)
- Word count: 3,000
Great! I now have the basic structure of my essay. I divide the wordcount by the points and that give me the maximum number of words I have for each section. So, before the start of teaching, I follow Step 1 of the Feynman algorithm and write out section headings for my essay:
- History of X (500 words)
- How Y works (1,000 words)
- Uses of Z (1,000 words)
- Combining X, Y, and Z (500 words)
This means I don't waste time writing 2,000 words of history which can't score me many points. I also know that my conclusion has to be more substantial than a couple of paragraphs.
Each paragraph should contain one idea. A paragraph is usually 4 sentences. A sentence is usually about 20 words. So, under each section, I put one bullet point per 100 words. My aim is to fill each bullet point with a paragraph.
But fill it with what? We're not quite at step 2 yet. One more piece of investigation to go!
As mentioned before, it's time to find the rubric. This is the thing which tells the person marking your essay what they're looking for. It is really important to understand that you are not trying to produce a beautiful piece of literature. You are not writing florid prose. You are not proving how clever you are. All you are doing is responding to the marking scheme in as efficient way as possible.
This is a very different technique to writing a thesis, dissertation, article, or blog post. Treat the essay as an exam. If the question is "What is the Pythagorean theorem", you don't start your answer with "It was a hot and arid day in Samos, and the great philosopher was staring intently at a series of triangle crudely etched into the sand..."
A typical marking rubric for a particular section might be:
- Fail: Has not demonstrated knowledge of X
- Pass: Demonstrates basic understanding of X
- Merit: Shows thorough understanding of X and discusses some of the downsides
- Distinction: Comprehensively demonstrates understanding of X - and several related techniques. Discusses downsides and how they can be remediated.
- Exceeds: The above, and creates new techniques for managing X related problems
Here's where you get to make your first choice. What are you aiming for? Personally, I go for a pass. If I have spare words, I add in what I can for anything higher.
In my case, I just want to pass. If you're on track for something higher, go for it!
Again, get the rubric before teaching starts. That way you know what to concentrate on during the lectures.
Here's the marking scheme for section 1 of the assignment I'm currently working on:
15% of 3,000 words is 450 words. So about 4-and-a-bit paragraphs. On the left-hand side are the three things I need to cover. The other sections tell me that if I want top marks, I need relevant models from a wide range of sources with relevant arguments building to a conclusion.
Anything which isn't in that description gets cut.
OK, so we have to write 5 paragraphs about X. And, if we can can, show we understand some of the problems with it. If there's room, show something related. Let's give these paragraphs names:
- Define terms
- See also
- Wordcount reserved
Naturally, some paragraphs are going to be longer that 100 words - so feel free to steal from the final paragraph if you need.
Go through each heading and section and do this. It is a bit tedious. But you've effectively taken the essay format so beloved by academics and turned it into an exam format so hated by students. You now have a fairly rigid set of questions and associated wordcount.
During your lectures, your tutor will occasionally say something like "It's really important that you mention Smith's definition in your assignment" or "You should read Jones' opinion on that" or - if you're lucky - "Not many students bother explaining how al-Sadiq's background influenced his design - and I wish they would."
Each time your tutor drops one of these hints - go into the template you've written and find a relevant paragraph. Leave a note to yourself which says "Use Smith's definition from the course text" or "Read the paper Jones mentions in their rebuttal."
It is (almost) time to start thinking! Yay!
I find that the ratio of citations to text is about 2 references per paragraph. So about 50 per 3,000 word essay. Again, some paragraphs will be you discussing others' work - so will need more. Some paragraphs will be your own thoughts, so need less.
As you have been going through the course, you'll have been reading and discussing papers, books, websites etc. Each time you come across a paper, save it in Zotero. Every scrap of info should be saved in there. Create a folder per assignment and make sure you save anything you've read into it. Zotero will handle citation formatting in your paper as if by magic.
But! Just sticking a paper in Zotero isn't enough. You'll get to the end of the course and discover you can't remember what each entry is.
Every time you read something which might be useful, find a paragraph in your template which relates to it, and add a single sentence. Doesn't have to be the sentence you end up submitting, doesn't have to be perfect, may be deleted later.
Faster-than-light travel was invented by scientists at the University of East Anglia (Smith, 2045) when they were trying to get a printer working.
Because of the causality problem (Jones, 1854) discuss more here
(al-Saiq, 1984) disagrees with (Zhang, 10BCE) about cats - worth writing more?
These are just little notes to yourself which explains what you read and how it is relevant to what you're discussing
That's it! You've finished thinking! That wasn't so hard, was it?
This is the bit that most students seem to dread. If you're faced with acres of blank paper, how do you bash out 3,000 words? Argh!
Luckily, you don't have blank paper. You have a bunch of scope-limited questions, with some bullet points representing how many paragraphs to write. Most of those paragraphs already have a vague topic and, hopefully, a citation or two.
Now you just need to tie them all together!
Personally, I like writing and thinking in bullet points - something which earns me the ire of my tutors. So I gradually work on each bullet until it is a paragraph of prose. I shuffle citations around and delete things which are too wordy.
With each paragraph, I go back to the marking scheme. Am I being assessed on the cultural influence of the subject? No? That amazing paragraph goes in the bin. If it isn't worth points, it isn't worth the word count.
The key to this is writing regularly throughout the course. Even a sentence or two every week can be enough.
Office Hours are the most valuable part of your course. Sitting in a (virtual) lecture hall with a hundred other students is fine - but you rarely get to ask targetted questions to make sure you've understood something. But being able to speak with a tutor or assistant one-on-one is a game-changer. Don't worry if you think you look stupid in front of them or your class-mates. This is your chance to ask targetted questions.
You will probably only have a few minutes - depending on how busy the session is - so make sure you have a brief list of specific questions. Something like:
- My understanding is that X is a form of Y. But Smith describes it as a modified form of Z. Which definition should I use?
- I don't understand what al-Sidiq means in the course text. Can you explain - or point me to a guide?
- Is it OK to use Jones as a reference - or is that out of date?
Your aim is to make sure that you've understood the topics and - more importantly - your understanding aligns with the rubric. This is a deeply cynical way of looking at things, I know. Your assignment is to demonstrate to their satisfaction that you have understood.
If you've followed the above algorithm during the course, you should have about 50% of your essay done by the time teaching finishes. Most courses let you submit a draft for feedback, and then have a few more weeks before you submit the final product.
Submit your draft as soon as possible. You want feedback at the earliest point. If you get a personal 1-2-1 with a tutor, even better. You are about to follow another algorithm!
- Am I on the right path? That is - have I covered the basics and shown that I've engaged with the material?
- If not, what have I missed? Write it in your draft as you receive the feedback.
- What needs changing?
- If nothing, stop working and submit now 😁
- If stuff does need changing, write it in your draft as you receive the feedback.
- What do I need to do to improve my mark?
- Again - this is cynical. Be as blunt as you like with your tutor. They may prefer references to be post-2017, or they really love citations from business journals, or they hate quotes from blogs.
OK, you now have loads of paragraphs, and loads of notes, and loads of citations. This is where the "fun" begins. Now you have to write and edit your essay.
Personally, I like having my spouse read over what I've written. She can spot spelling errors and logical leaps that I just can't.
But, at the end of the day, it goes back to Feynman. You've already written down the problem, you know what you'll be assessed on, you've written down most of the answer - so now you just need to apply your brains to tie it all together into something cohesive and coherent.
You'll notice I haven't talked about fonts, page numbers, titles, tables-of-content etc. That's all left to the end. Your class should have been provided with a style guide. Once you've finished editing, apply their guide. Use their font - even if you think it looks ugly. Put the reference list where they expect to find it. Abandon your funky page numbering scheme and surrender to what the marker is expecting.
You are writing for this to be marked. And the marker doesn't have time to go hunting. They want everything laid out exactly as they expect. Your aesthetic considerations don't count.
Using this method, you should be able to bash out your essay and submit it before the deadline. Well… that's the plan!
I've successfully used it over 4 different assignments and it has made writing them a fairly stress-free experience.