Work Smart: Architecture Assignments
Throughout your architecture studies, you will carry out countless architecture assignments. These assignments will take many different forms. You certainly won’t just be asked to write essays. Whether it is model making, dissertations, designing spaces or carrying out research, I feel it is really important to understand how to get the best out of yourself for these assignments. Much of this comes from understanding how to break down an assignment brief to establish what is being asked of you. Secondly, it is being productive with your time and carry out the work efficiently.
In my opinion, study is more about efficiency than time. Some people boast about the hours they have spent researching, reading or studying, but if they have not been productive with their time it doesn’t really count for anything. However, if you maintain an effective process in carrying out your research, study, reading, note taking and so on, you will find you get better results in half the time.
Understanding your assignment brief
Generally speaking, when you are provided with an architecture assignment brief, the brief will establish the main criteria for the assignment. You will usually be given details of the assignment, the learning objectives, intended learning outcomes, assessment requirements, deadline, presentation, and so on.
It is really important to extract from the assignment brief as much information as possible, and be aware not only of what is being asked of you, but also what is the expected outcome. Understanding this will help you structure your assignment and time more efficiently.
Let’s look at each part in a bit more detail.
The main assignment information
The main assignment – what is being asked of you? What are you looking for? What information will you need to gather? What problem do you need to solve?
Pick out the keywords associated with the question or brief. Then make a list of alternative key words that will help you in your search to find relevant information.
I found this really useful guide to process words. This was courtesy of the University of Westminster (https://www.westminster.ac.uk/library-and-it/support-and-study-skills/guides-and-tutorials/researching-your-assignments/understanding-essay-questions/understanding-process-words) and originally from the Student Study Support Unit at Canterbury Christchurch College.
Explain, clarify, give the reasons for. This is quite different from “give an account of…” which is more like “describe in detail”.
Break an issue down into its component parts, discuss them and show how they interrelate.
Make a case, based on appropriate evidence and logically structured for and/or against some point of view.
Consider the value or importance of something, paying attention to positive, negative and disputable aspects, and citing the judgements of any known authorities as well as your own.
This term asks for a combination of the criteria found in “analyse” and “assess”. Although it sounds as if it would be similar to “describe “or “summarise” it is asking you to be critical and evaluative in your approach.
Identify and discuss the characteristics or qualities two or more things have in common you will probably need to point out their differences as well. Quite often an essay will ask you to “compare” and “contrast”.
Point out and discuss the differences between two things. You will probably need to identify their similarities as well. Quite often an essay will ask you to “compare” and “contrast”.
Spell out your judgement as to the value or truth of something, indicating the criteria on which you base your judgement and citing specific instances and arguments as to how the criteria apply in this case.
Make a statement as to the meaning or interpretation of something, giving sufficient detail as to allow it to be distinguished from other similar things.
Spell out the default aspects of an idea or topic, or the sequence in which a series of things happened.
Probably the most common word to appear in essay titles and usually requiring analysis and evaluation of evidence as well as weighing up arguments and drawing conclusions.
Similar to “assess” in that you need to consider the value and importance of something and weigh up its different aspects, citing evidence and argument in support of your case.
Tell how things work or how they came to be the way they are, including perhaps some need to “describe” and to “analyse”.
To what extent
Explore the case for a stated proposition or explanation, much in the manner of “assess” and “criticise”, probably arguing for a less than total acceptance of the proposition.
Pick out what you regard as the key features of something, perhaps making clear the criteria you use in doing so.
Similar to “explain” but probably requesting you give specific examples or statistics to support your case.
Clarify something or explain it, perhaps indicating how the thing relates to something else, or explaining a particular way of looking at it.
Express valid reasons for accepting a particular interpretation or conclusion, probably including the need to argue a case.
Indicate the main features of a topic or sequence of events, possibly setting them within a clear structure or framework to show how they interrelate.
Survey a topic with the emphasis on “assess” rather than “describe”.
Give the main points briefly, omitting details and illustrations.
Describe in narrative form the progress, development or sequence of events from some particular point.
Learning objectives and outcomes
Why are these important? The learning objectives and outcomes usually list what the student will have learnt or achieved by the end of the module or assignment. Being aware of these outcomes and objectives might inform the direction you take with your assignment.
Let’s say for example, one of the objectives is for the student to understand how a building fits into local context. This is suggesting that during the assignment it will likely be important that you consider the local context when carrying out your research or design. How will you demonstrate that you have considered this? How will you present this information?
You get the idea….
Assessment requirements/ presentation / deadline
This of course, this is the really important stuff. What do you have to produce, and by when?
Some assignment briefs will show how many credits each part of the assignment is worth. This is really useful as it can help you to understand which parts of the assignment carry more weight, and therefore focus more time on those areas.
If your assignment is asking for submissions in multiple media formats, for example, plans, an isometric, photographs, a model, design journal etc, I find it useful to sketch out a story board of how that might look. To make bullet points into a more visual storyboard can help you start to envisage what your final output might look like.
As your assignment develops and you get closer to the end of the project you can start to make a more detailed storyboard of the expected output. This type of thing is particularly useful for design projects when you need to produce multiple sets of drawings, visuals and so on.
If it is a large assignment, with a deadline in the distant future, consider breaking it down into chunks, making milestones that you have to achieve by certain dates. This will help spread the work out, give you plenty of time to complete the assignment and not leave everything till the last minute.
So now you understand your project brief, you know what is required of you and what the output must be.
Carry out your research
Depending on the type of assignment you are working on, it is easy to skip the research and start sketching out ideas and getting carried away with the fun stuff before really understanding the task in hand.
Check the assignment brief for any suggested or compulsory reference material that you should check out.
Next, start collecting information.
If you are a student, the chances are you will have access to a library with some sort of electronic database. This is a good place to start finding the resources you need. Every system is different, so if you aren’t sure how to access the information you are looking for, speak with your librarian, I’m sure they will be very happy to help.
Don’t forget there is more to life that just the internet! Yes, google comes up with some good results, but you need to expand your research beyond the comfort and ease of google. Make sure you consider books, journals, articles, audio, video as part of your research wherever possible. This will give you a much wider and valuable set of information to start your work from.
Film and television programmes
Official publications (government etc)
British Standards Institution
Be careful not to spend too much time researching and not enough time actually doing. Limit your research to a certain amount of time, then get started. If you find you still need more information later, you can circle back and do a bit more research.
Make an outline
Call it what you will, a journey, road map, plan. Start looking at the bigger picture of the assignment, what topics are you tackling? Of course, the requirements of a plan or outline will very wildly according to the type of assignment you are doing. A great start to an essay is usually a simple outline that helps you get from A to B. A studio design project might be a bit different.
Either way, make a bit of a plan, however loose it may be. I find that having a list of topics or titles really helps me to get started when I am stuck on writing. Rather look at the broader picture first and then start fleshing out the details, instead of trying to get into the details straight away which can be daunting.
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Be productive with your time
This is pretty obvious, but in a way it’s not. Sometimes you can get caught up on a tiny detail without realising you have lost hours to something that has a small part to play in the assignment as a whole.
Use your time wisely. You can read more about my productivity tips here.
Give yourself the best working environment
You’ve read the brief, you know what is required of you. You’ve carried out your research, collected your data. Now you need to get started…
Distractions can be the perfect productivity blocker. So make sure you give yourself the working environment that you need. For some, this might be working in the busy studio, with your colleagues around you to bounce ideas. Others might need a quiet space to work alone, without distractions of social media, friends etc.
Do what works for you. Personally I always work better by minimising my distractions. I switch off my email, put my phone on silent, and usually play some background music (that has no words!). I know I don’t work well with background noise or distractions, so if I have anything important to do, especially any writing, it works for me to be a recluse for a while.
Remember – quality, not hours spent…
Make sure you are making good quality work, not just spending hours on something for the sake of it. Architects can be perfectionists, and it is easy to tweak, adjust, tweak for hours on end. Be aware, there comes a point where the tweaks you make won’t be having a positive affect on your overall mark, just a sap on your time. Stay focussed.
Keep checking the assignment brief to be sure you are covering all of the tasks that are being asked of you, and you have a plan to produce each of the items that form part of the assignment, whether it be drawings, models etc.
Review – later
If you are writing an essay, take time away from the assignment before coming back to make edits. You need to give yourself a break from writing before returning to read it through with fresh eyes.
If it is a big design project, then you will no doubt continue to review and edit as you work through your design solutions.
Architecture assignments are often huge bodies of work that can feel insurmountable at times. Breaking it down into manageable chunks, and drawing out what the deliverables will be can really help.
Give yourself the right environment to work in, be structured in your approach to the project, and take not of the weight of each part of the assignment.
Best of luck!