Monday, March 2, 2015

The cranky lecturer's tips for reading a unit guide

 Taking on full-time study this semester, I am knee deep in unit guides. Every university has them although they may be called something else: guide, outline, synopsis, document (hell, your units might be called something else: subject, course, program, block, etc). Most of them are pretty bog standard and once you've read a couple, and it's easy to make the mistake of glossing straight over it. Having written a few, I know there are sometimes a few tricksy variations that can really bugger up a student's semester.

So here's my rough and ready guide to what you want to check out in a unit guide.

Contact details
Yeah, hi. You really should know who your coordinator/lecturer and tutor are (and how they spell their name). Your tutor's your first port of call for most situations (unless you need to complain about your tutor, in which case, ouch... contact your lecturer).

Learning outcomes
This is, ideally, what you're going to know by the end of semester. It might seem like something the lecturer puts on there to tick a box (it is) but it's also a really good gauge of the semester and how much you're going to have to hustle to meet those goals. If you already know or can do all those things, have a think about whether you need to be in the unit at all. Is there a more advanced version?

Semester schedule
There's usually a table with the whole class laid out for you week by week. Ours include the weekly topics/themes, due dates for assignment and where the semester breaks or public holidays fit into the scheme of things. Yours might also have tutorial questions you need to prepare, presentation topics, exam dates or study periods, practical components or placements or things along those lines. For me, the handiest thing about this is seeing everything in a 12-13 week timescale for the first time with the important semester dates all laid out.

Assessments
All the official details about the assignments - the what, where, when, how and how much - will be in this section. I can't tell you enough how important it is to read this whole section and not just the highlights. The number of emails I received asking for details about assignments that were in the unit guide was mind-boggling - it's in the unit guide so your lecturer and tutor don't have to tell every student individually. Don't be surprised if you get a shirty email in response or get marks deducted from a half-arsed assignment if you clearly haven't read this section.

Assessment marking criteria
Not all units, but most, include an idea of the criteria or rubric they'll use to mark your work. Look at it. What is most heavily weighted? The critical analysis? The review of the literature? The quality of the written expression? These are usually big clues for what your lecturer/tutor want.

Assessment related policies
Most universities will clearly articulate or link to the assessment related policies close by the assessment details. These usually include rules about submission and return of assessments, getting worked remarked and plagiarism (what it is, how to avoid it and what happens if you're silly enough to do it anyway). It's also where the you find out about the rules and procedures for getting extensions or special consideration. Our Faculty used to have a blanket two-day extension policy for any student who asked for one (no reasons needed). Sooooo many students were caught out for the whole year after they revoked it. It was in the policy section of their unit guides but by then they'd given up reading it.


Required texts/additional texts
Yep, textbooks. Holy cow. I was lucky enough to avoid the monster textbook lists in my undergrad degree as we used readers prepared by the lecturer and sold at the cost of printing. Most of my classes this semester use a required/prescribed text and supplement that with readings that are digitsed and listed with the library. Some of the unit guides also supply a list of reccomended texts, which is a great place to start for any essay or assignment where you're required to go beyond the set readings. 

Week by week (optional)
I used to include a week-by-week synopsis of my units at the end of my unit guides, but it seems to be an optional extra. Some lecturers will give you a tonne of extra info here: readings, related readings, guides to the readings, tutorial questions, things to look out for, or information about where the topic sits in the overall scheme of the unit. These are all incredibly handy, especially for students coming to the university from a different language or learning background.

Overall, unit guides are great indicators of what's expected of you and how to perform well according to the standards of the lecturer or tutor. Read them, and after you've read a few, keep an eye out for the seemingly standard sections that can change without any warning.

Is there anything you wish was included in a unit guide?

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