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The University of Southampton
English for Engineers

Key Skills for Success

Although assignments test different skills and knowledge, there are core skills that will help you succeed.

Demonstrate critical thinking

Most assignments are looking for evidence of critical thinking. This means that not only do you need to be able to think critically, but you also need to show you are thinking critically. This means developing a structured argument that is supported with reasons and evidence for claims you make.

Identify your audience

Before you start writing an assignment, you need to think carefully about who you are writing for, your audience, and why you are writing, your purpose.  These affect the language you use, the information and visuals you include, and how you organise them.

Communicate clearly and appropriately

Having identified your audience, you need to communicate your ideas clearly

Clarity You want to minimise potential sources of confusion so that the reader can focus on your ideas rather than the words you use. Can you simplify your language?
Are you using any overly pompous words?
Appropriacy You want the reader to take your work seriously. It is therefore important you use the appropriate style and conventions. Is any of your language inappropriately informal?
Accuracy You want your reader to take your ideas seriously. It is therefore important that your writing and tables, figures and calculations show attention to detail. Have you proofread your work?
Are you confident about the rules on sentence structure and punctuation?

Communication isn’t just an issue for reports and essays; rather as Professor Grant Hearn explains in the short video below, it is also relevant to engineering problem sheets.

Follow instructions carefully

It is very important to read instructions you are given and follow them exactly. Carefully read and analyse what the question involves; see if there is guidance on layout and formatting, or suggested reading. You should pay close attention to the word limit as there are usually penalties for being over or under this.

Get help when you need it

Contact your tutor if you have a query. Send them an email with a specific question or ask them when it would be convenient for you to meet. Some tutors hold office hours when students can go to their office to ask questions; others may be happy for you to drop by at any time.

For guidance on communicating with tutors by email, see Swales, J and Feak, C 2009, Academic Writing for Graduate Students. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

The Centre for Language Study runs language support classes. 

Our YouTube Channel, English for Engineers, offers advice on how to approach some assessments.

Comments from engineering tutors

“One of the issues was a failure to ask for help from staff members early enough.” (Tutor, Oceanography)

“The reason for low marks is mainly limited evidence of critical assessment of the literature.” (Tutor, Institute of Sound and Vibration)

“For most written answers, credit will be given for the overall “quality” of the writing – for clarity, structure and appropriate style – as well as for content.” (Tutor, Environmental Sciences)

“The groups that do well are the ones where all students contribute to the planning and analysis discussions; the groups that don't do well are those where students don't engage with the group.” (Tutor, Civil Engineering)

Note the wording of the assignment, in particular the action verbs, and ensure that you answer the question asked and not the one you think should have been asked!

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