Assignment exemplars are ruining your university experience, here’s how you should use them

In a unit I taught for many years, the course convenor had included an assignment exemplar for students to see what a High Distinction looks like.

This exemplar was mostly excellent, however it included a glaring issue that proved to be quite frustrating. The example assignment recommended a six-month retainer for a public relations client, citing a need to ensure there was time to achieve the campaign objectives, and build the relationship for future work opportunities.

The problem? Students were pitching a public relations campaign for a fictional scenario, where the case study required the campaign to support and utilise a 12-week sponsorship of a national kids’ sports program.

This is a first-time client. The client requires a 12-week campaign. A six-month retainer suggests the agency is ignoring the client’s brief. You could argue that the agency knows best, however I spent a lot of my communications career working client-side and an oversight like that was an immediate red flag that an agency would be challenging to work with.

In my class discussion, I covered this issue. I discussed with the class how exemplars are never perfect, and asked if a six-month retainer would likely be questioned by a client who is looking for a 12-week, project-based campaign (we covered project-based remuneration models in a lot of detail in the unit).

With a rare exception, I would then grade assignment-after-assignment, recommending the six-month retainer. Assignments were wording it differently, but citing the exact same source (which also discusses project-based campaigns), in barely disguised copying of the exemplar.

Most students didn’t show up to my online class. Most students didn’t watch the recording of the class (of course your tutor can see if you clicked on the recording). And most students didn’t engage with the assigned readings or additional research, citing the same list of sources used in the exemplar.

Suffice to say, I am no fan of exemplars. I have observed how providing examples can give students a bum steer, and result in a less-than-expected grade.

However, I think exemplars are here to stay. And with that in mind, I want to share with those completing their undergraduate degrees how to use an exemplar.

3 tips for utilising an exemplar in your undergraduate study

A hearty disclaimer: I have taught public relations, communications, media production, screen studies and media studies. I am not able to comment on how exemplars are used outside my field. But I think you might find this useful no matter your discipline.

1) An exemplar indicates the level of research that should go into your assignment

Here’s a trade secret, most assessors will read your reference list first. And so we notice if you use exactly the same sources as the exemplar. This makes sense for essential readings provided in the unit, but if you are writing a narrative analysis of Sleepless in Seattle (1993), why did you include the source about Star Wars that was in the exemplar (that was analysing Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)) in your reference list? Why are you citing that Star Wars source to describe the role of the second plot point for getting Annie and Sam on the path to the climax?

Instead of copying the sources used in the exemplar, simply answer the following questions:

  • How many sources were used in the exemplar?
  • Does the exemplar use only unit readings? Or are there unit readings and evidence of further research?
  • How are the sources used?
    • Are there long direct quotes, or is the exemplar utilising paraphrasing?
    • Are the sources building on the arguments/ideas made?
    • Are there instances where sources could be used better? Or Is there a source that doesn’t really make sense?
    • How could you improve the use of sources in the assignment?

2) Don’t look at the content of the exemplar until you have completed the readings and formulated your own ideas for the assignment

It’s safe to assume your tutor is familiar with the exemplar, and so running it through paraphrasing software is a bad idea. I can’t believe I have to say this but I’ve read an essay all about the protagonist Harry Cavity in The Snowman (2017). I’ve also heard stories from other university tutors about essays that discuss President Shrub’s role in the Iraq War.

Even if you paraphrase the old-fashioned way, we can see if every sentence of your essay is just paraphrasing the corresponding sentence in the exemplar (or something that was submitted to an essay sharing website). We can also see if you do this, but switch paragraphs one and three to throw us off.

In some cases where it is clear that the ideas are copied – even when the words are rewritten – this is treated as plagiarism.

Side note: in my experience, it’s never the HD students uploading their assignments to CourseDaddy (I’ve made this essay sharing website up, because I don’t want to promote any of them). But that doesn’t stop an unregulated cheating site from claiming an assignment was a HD, when I graded it and know it was a 51/100.

So what do you do instead? There’s no substitute for doing the work and forming your own ideas.

Yes, in an undergraduate essay you are all heading in the same direction and demonstrating the same understanding of knowledge and skills, but you need to do this of your own accord.

  • Do the unit readings – I know it takes time – I completed two degrees and my first two years of my PhD all while working full-time – I know it’s hard. Make the time to do the unit readings.
  • Come up with your own ideas of what you want to say.
  • If you find your ideas vary greatly from the exemplar, use your tutor’s office hours (or email them) and discuss your plan of attack (don’t send them the whole essay, just outline your approach).

3) Go through the assignment rubric and grade the exemplar yourself

I make no secret that assessing essays has made me better at writing essays. Bring up the assignment rubric and look at what is required to meet a High Distinction.

I recently completed a Grad Cert in Research and Innovation Management as part of my PhD. This qualification was the first one I have completed since I started teaching nearly six years ago. The difference in my approach was noticeable, as were my results. I turned the HD description into a check-list, and every time I worked through my assignment I honestly assessed if I was checking every box. When I couldn’t check a box, I reworked the assignment until I could.

Read the exemplar with the rubric in mind, and ask the following questions:

  • How does the exemplar meet the High Distinction requirements of the rubric?
  • Are there areas where it is lacking? What are they? How would you change the assignment to meet them?
  • In your opinion did the assignment score a High Distinction on all criteria, or are some criteria below the standard, while others are above?
  • Are you able to create a check-list from the description of the HD requirements in the rubric?

Conclusion: it takes practice

Above are just three tips for how to use an exemplar. I hope the key takeaway is that an exemplar isn’t necessarily useful in the way we all assume it might be. I also hope the takeaway is that university study takes practice. We get better at it the more we practice, and copying someone else’s work means we don’t grow with our degree.

There’s no substitute for your own research and reading. Copying an exemplar gets noticed, and often results in a drastically lower grade because the process of interpreting a second or third-hand source – the exemplar assignment – loses the context and meaning of the original source.

Ultimately, it’s how one person attempted the assignment, and you don’t get to see what feedback they were given. Copying their work as if it’s perfect usually means taking on and exacerbating the things they didn’t do well.

When you step up to your next assignment, don’t let the exemplar take you off track.

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