Of References and Reading Lists, of Rectangles, and….String

How long is a piece of string? This is the response I’ve often heard lecturers give, in answer to a question commonly heard at this time of year

How many references do I need to put into my assignment to get a good mark?

The answer is given because the question is deceptively simple. If I were to ask you what the area of a rectangle is, given that it has width 15cm, the best you would be able to do is give me a formula for working out the area, if I were good enough to divulge the rectangle’s length.


Every assignment I have ever marked has been preceded by at least one email asking the “references question”. The above problem is very similar to the question about references. I’ve only been given one piece of information.

What matters, when I mark an assignment, is not only whether the student has carefully selected peer-reviewed, up-to-date papers that are relevant to the title, but what has been done with those papers.

The highest marks are available to students who, after Bloom’s Taxonomy,  can argue in response to an essay title. Good essays will (a) analyze the relevant research to say what it shows (often, as opposed to what the authors claim it shows) and (b) evaluate the research in terms of what it adds to their argument. The argument also needs to be a careful synthesis (drawing together into a coherent whole) of the relevant literature.

Bloom’s Taxonomy. Image from: http://classweb.gmu.edu/

Thus, it is possible to get high marks for an assignment that carefully analyzes and evaluates only a few pieces of research, and it is possible to fail an assignment by littering it with numerous irrelevant citations that fail to address the essay title.

That is the formula for finding the area of the rectangle.


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