Why presentation is important in assignments
By: Derek Jansen | April 2017
Working with hundreds of Henley MBA students, I often get asked a similar question. That question is:
“What can I do relatively easily to push my assignment marks up?”
Sometimes, this comes from students that are sitting right on the edge of a marking range, a percent or two away from either Merit or Distinction grade. Other times, its just students who want to get the highest mark possible.
Assuming their core content is sound, my answer is always the same.
“Put some effort into presentation.”
Yip. Presentation. The thing that most students pay the least attention to, despite it being an element of the formal marking criteria for both assignments and the MRC/dissertation.
What do you mean, presentation?
Essentially, presentation relates to everything visual in your assignment (or MRC), as well as some technical aspects. This ranges from when, why and how you use figures and diagrams, through to the quality of images and even captioning and referencing thereof.
Presentation (i.e. using visual components effectively to aid reader comprehension) is closely linked to structure (ordering and linking all components effectively to aid reader comprehension). However, to keep this post relatively digestible, I will discuss presentation only.
But why is presentation so important in a business degree?
Taking the time to ensure that your assignment is visually appealing and well-polished is often considered something of a luxury in the context of a demanding MBA. This is a justifiable position, given that the quality of the actual research, analysis and conclusion-drawing is typically what earns you the big marks. That said, a little bit of effort can go a long way when it comes to your visual presentation. There are (at least ) three reasons for this:
- No matter how objective and unbiased we may expect the markers to be, there’s no doubt that a visually appealing, well-presented assignment creates a strong first impression on the marker (i.e. one that suggests a good degree of effort has been put into the work), thus setting a positive tone from the start.
- A visually appealing, well-presented assignment helps the marker understand your analyses and arguments, thus setting a strong base from which marks can be earned. In other words, good presentation makes it easier for the marker to award marks (provided your analyses and arguments are sound).
- Henley specifically allocates marks towards presentation (as well as structure). So, good presentation can impact your marks both directly and indirectly.
Therefore, it’s pretty clear that good visual presentation is a critical aspect of quality assignments – yet it is all too often deprioritized or outright ignored by students. The good news is that it doesn’t need to be.
How can I improve my presentation?
Below, I’ll give seven suggestions that will help you improve the overall presentation of your assignment/dissertation/thesis. These points are by no means comprehensive but, if followed, should ensure that you never lose marks for something as simple as presentation.
#1: Align with Henley’s style.
While Henley Business School doesn’t publish any specific style and formatting requirements for assignments (that I’m aware of), the University of Reading does provide a guide to academic writing, which you can access here. Familiarise yourself with this and ensure that you follow the guidelines here. They also have a comprehensive collection of videos here, which cover a host of study related matter.
For the MRC, on the other hand, there are specific formatting requirements, which you can find in the study guide. Make sure that you fully understand and adhere to these.
Given that Henley is a UK-based institution, make sure that you always write in British English. Ensure that you use a clean, easy to read font (classic fonts such as Calibri and Arial are fine), along with consistent font size and line spacing. These are small details, but they will be noticed by a keen-eyed marker.
#2: Use figures and tables strategically to support your analysis.
When it comes to utilising figures and tables, there’s a simple but important rule to follow:
Don’t include a figure or a table if it does not directly add value to the discussion that surrounds it.
Sounds obvious right? Apparently not. All too often, I see figures (especially models and frameworks) dumped into an assignment with pretty much no justification, other than “because the lecturer said it was important” or “it was a key model in the study guide”. Similarly, I see lengthy tables of detailed data dumped in purely because the student had access to the data and wanted to show it off. That’s not going to help you – in fact, it’s more likely to just annoy the marker and thereby work against you.
Put bluntly, the markers have no interest in figures or tables with no relevance (or no clear reason for being there). Figures and tables should only be included when they support or enhance your discussion. Even then, do not fall into the trap of copy/paste model dumping – instead, populate and customise the model with your assignment-specific information. Make every model or framework your own. You can read more about how to use models and frameworks effectively in this post.
#3: Handhold the reader in and out of figures and tables.
Following from Point #2, you should always introduce any figure or table in the body copy that precedes it. For example, in your body copy, you would potentially write something like:
“In Figure 2.1 below, the Tovstiga’s (2007) UCS model is used to present a big-picture view of….”.
Equally important, the figure or table should be followed by some discussion directly below it. This needn’t be long but should make very clear what conclusion(s) can be drawn from the table or figure. This might sound something like
“As can be seen from Figure 2.1, the key forces at play are…”.
If done right, it will always be extremely clear to the marker why you included a particular figure or table, as well as what conclusion(s) you drew from it. This provides a very strong basis for the award of marks.
#4: Use high-quality, well-designed figures.
Nothing screams “I don’t care about my MBA” more than pixelated, hard to interpret, low-quality images. I know that sounds harsh, but remember the prior point about first impressions – they count more than we’d like them to. Beyond just this aesthetic aspect, if your images are really low quality, there’s a chance they’ll fail to convey their intended meaning, rendering them useless in terms of mark-earning potential.
Does this mean you now have to become a Photoshop expert, in addition to a Master of Business? Thankfully, no. But I’d strongly suggest that you get comfortable using Microsoft PowerPoint to design basic images. The “Shapes” menu (Tab: Insert -> Shapes) enables you to very easily recreate theoretical models and frameworks, as well as any other basic figure you’re after (see below).
Once you’ve created your figures in PowerPoint, you can easily export them as JPEG files (Tab: File -> Export -> Change File Type -> JPEG File Interchange Format), which you can them import into Word (see below).
#5: Caption and reference correctly.
When inserting figures and tables into your assignment, make sure that you correctly caption them (e.g. Figure 5.1: My image). Generally, figures should be captioned below the figure, and tables are captioned above (see example below).
Remember that all sources need to be cited, including figures and tables (even if you’re using internal data).
It should go without saying that getting your general referencing 100% correct is essential. Sadly, this is a common problem area, and it really doesn’t need to be. To this end, I’d strongly recommend using a reference manager such as Mendeley or Zotero to handle your referencing. A good reference manager will ensure that your in-text citations are inserted correctly and that your reference list is built to spec.
There are numerous reference managers available, many of which are free. We usually recommend either Mendeley or Zotero, both of which are 100% free.
One caveat here is the old adage, “rubbish in, rubbish out”. In other words, you will still need to insert the original reference into the reference manager (once). If you put the wrong details in here (for example, the wrong date or publisher), no reference manager can save you.
#6: Keep your language simple and your arguments clear.
This point digresses somewhat into the adjacent topics of assignment structure, argument development and language use, which is beyond the scope of this post – but I can’t discuss presentation without at least mentioning it.
Some students feel the need to use big words (often incorrectly) and present complex, convoluted arguments (often flawed) in an attempt to demonstrate the quality of their thinking. This is a very dangerous practice, as it oftentimes leaves markers more confused (and even irritated) than impressed.
Simplicity of language and clarity of argument are your friends when writing your Henley MBA assignments. Remember that good presentation makes it easy for your marker to understand your assignment and consequently award marks. Therefore, it anything that puts your assignment at risk of being misunderstood is bad news.
Accordingly then, don’t be afraid to use simple, plain English, and aim for clarity when presenting your analysis and arguments. This is not to say that your thinking needs to be dumbed down – to the contrary, good analysis is all about recognising (and working with) complexity. Rather, what I am stressing is the need for you to present that complexity in a simple, easy to understand fashion. Einstein (below) said it well.
A final point regarding simplicity – always assume that the marker knows absolutely nothing about your industry and organisation (which is likely correct in any case). On this basis, be sure to clearly explain any industry jargon, acronyms, concepts, etc. Fancy terminology without explanation will only serve to frustrate and confuse the marker, so, again, keep it simple and clear. Write for the intelligent layman.
#7: Proofread your work. Always.
Another perfectly logical, but all too often neglected point, given the demanding schedule of the typical Henley MBA student. It is essential that you proofread your final assignment. Again, while the MBA is a business degree and not an English degree, typos and basic grammar errors inevitably detract from the work by at best making it difficult to read, and, at worst, suggesting carelessness and a lack of interest on the part of the writer.
Therefore, it is essential that you always proofread your final assignment at least once. Ideally, you want to do this a few times. You will likely still miss some errors. Having the odd error here and there is forgivable (I guarantee that you’ll find some errors on this website, and even within academic journals!) – the objective is simply to minimise these as much as possible so that they don’t detract from the work.
So how do you proofread your work? This is well covered online, so I’m not going to regurgitate suggestions. The University of Wisconsin’s “Writing Centre” provides some good pointers here. In addition to this, I would recommend an online grammar checking service called Grammarly, which is effectively like Word’s spellcheck on steroids! Obviously, it is not perfect, but it is a useful line of defence in the war against grammatical errors. Alternatively, if you’d prefer to outsource this task, you can have us edit and proofread it for you.
Hopefully, by now, I’ve managed to convince you that presentation is both important and relatively easily achievable by following the seven steps:
- Align your writing with Henley’s style, and use consistent language, fonts and formatting.
- Use figures and tables to strategically support and enrich your analysis.
- Handhold the reader in and out of figures and tables.
- Use high-quality images (which you can create using PowerPoint)
- Ensure that you caption and reference correctly.
- Keep your language simple and arguments clear.
- Proofread your work – ideally a few times.