The Student's Guide to Everything

The Student's Guide to Everything: university student and graduate life from a New Zealand perspective

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

How to navigate the minefield of 'unwritten rules' at uni

In New Zealand, there are a few rules around academic work which aren’t really stated, but assumed: the ‘unwritten rules’. It's a bit like fallen logs in the bush at night: you only really find one by tripping over it!

The Dos and Don'ts of Doing Assignments

New Zealand culture is individualist, rather than collective, so students are expected to do all work themselves. Unless the assignment explicitly says you must work with a partner or a team, you must do the work yourself. You may ask others for a limited amount of help such as spelling or grammar checks, and you can work together with another student on the approach to a problem. So you can ask another classmate, “What approach did you take to solve this math problem?” Or, “What do you think the lecturer meant about the exam when (s)he said X?”

However, you can’t do the exact same topic or a similar one to your classmate, or use their original notes on that topic. You also can’t repeat a topic you studied previously in another assignment or paper.

New Zealanders often become defensive if asked their approach or the answer to a question, as grades in New Zealand emphasise individual merit and giving the answer is seen as allowing someone else to take their merit. Classes focus on self-learning and discovery rather than rote-learning things from memory. Hence assignments are designed to help you research and learn about the topic yourself, and decide what you want to think about it.

You can’t tell another student the answers to all or part of an assignment, or copy from another person’s answers. (Lecturers in non-technical papers are especially good at spotting copied work, and at spotting who the copier is. Universities tend to have harsh penalties for plagarism, accidental or otherwise.)

Work done in a team is marked as a team. Members usually get an opportunity to grade the work done by each person in the team, to minimise instances of slack people being awarded grades they didn’t deserve.

If you ask someone for help, generally it's expected you will help them in return on something else in the future.

Dealing with lecturers

Lecturers and tutors cannot directly tell you the answers to an assignment. They will instead guide you to work it out yourself by showing you how to approach the assignment or a similar problem.

Lecturers may refuse to mark your work if they can’t read it. Sometimes they will give you the benefit of the doubt, or call you back to read it for them, but not often. Mostly they will fail you. If you know you have messy handwriting, be aware.

Knowing when to shut up

What gets said in class, stays in class. Sometimes case studies or research are actually confidential. The concept of "academic privilege" basically means that university classes are open places where all kinds of ideas can be discussed for study, but not published in the wider world where it may affect business or politics.

There are other ‘unwritten rules’ which you'll only find out by breaking them. Listen and look closely at what other people do, to help you avoid the pitfalls.

What other 'unwritten rules' has anyone else noticed?



Anonymous Anonymous said...

My handwriting is absolutely appalling, and it's even worse when I am in a hurry (like in an exam). I was amazed that I never got marked down for it.

I think experienced lecturers get pretty good at reading even the worst handwriting.

November 26, 2008 at 1:36 PM  
Blogger Amy said...

While I'd agree you should definitely assume that "you must do the work yourself," get to know what is expected in your papers. I know that in English especially, my friends and I quite often worked together when researching and writing essays, often answering the same question. We all decided on our essay plans individually, so that we would have lots of different arguments to make(and inevitably, some of the same arguments, but arrived on independently). We'd discuss our ideas with each other, and provide helpful sounding boards for refining arguments, and sometimes suggesting new ideas to follow. Our lecturers and tutors didn't have a problem with it.

All-nighters working on interesting essays with good friends are some of my fondest memories of my undergrad studies.

December 9, 2008 at 9:57 PM  

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