Hello Coursework! The Year One IP Experience

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So, how’s Year One?

Everyone here had to begin their AC life somewhere. And perhaps you are one such fellow whose AC journey has just begun. Welcome to the world of Secondary School.  For me, Year One brings back fond memories – late(r) nights, (much) more essay writing, and – coursework. Well, that’s something you would hear some of your seniors talk about. In Term 3, be prepared: to visit your classmates’ houses to work on “projects” at a frequency previously unseen, to churn out slides than ever before, to sleep at times in the AM range. But through all this, it’s helpful to remember some advice. If Year One is like a rollercoaster, Year Two’s a rocket.

1      Coursework

Briefings on this aspect of your total assessment, worth 30% overall, starts early – after your Mid-Year Exams in May. The coursework season is usually kick-started with briefings interspersed with your post-exam activities. So it begins before the June Holidays, so you can finish it before Term 3 actually starts, at least theoretically. That’s nice (or not if you have holiday plans). In any case, it works like this – there’s a project you have to undertake for each and every subject (that contribute to the 42 points at the end of the year, at least). Usually, it’s a written assignment (like a report or a mock diary) and/or a presentation, and maybe some get-your-hands-dirty style construction. Or all three. It really depends on the subject, so here’s a brief outline of my Year 1 Term 3 Coursework (in 2014): [SPOILER ALERT]

  • History and Current Affairs: A presentation and some construction.
  • Earth Sciences: A geographical investigation.
  • Mathematics: A report on a mathematical topic, out of a list of topics.
  • Language Arts: A mock diary.
  • Mother Tongue: A report and a presentation.
  • Physical Sciences: A presentation and some construction.
  • Life Sciences: A poster.

2      Time Management

Coursework season is going to rush by fast. Once you hit Term 3, there is only about 2 weeks before you start hitting into deadlines. And 2 deadlines as well, per week. So it’s going to get pretty intense. It is a good idea to start way ahead of time, so you will have a good leeway in case anything crops up in Term 3 itself. You will have about 2 months or less from the releasing of the coursework topic down to the first deadline, so utilize them wisely.

This is where the ‘management’ part comes in. 2 months seems like a long time, but the moment the first deadline passes, you will find yourself without time to work on pretty much anything else but the next deadline. Teachers will (hopefully) try to ramp down the homework in the heat of all this, but it still can get quite stressful. Your teachers should inform you of a timeline of coursework and the deadlines for all the subjects, so it is in your interests to prioritise them and finish them (ideally during the June holidays). Also, once the holidays end CCAs and other activities will take up much more time, and I made the grave mistake of not considering this into my planning for coursework.

Many of us would face tight schedules during and after the holidays, so it is important to make the most of your time during every precious meeting session with your coursework mates. More often than not, it will be incredibly hard to find a common date for even 4 people, and this is not even beginning to scrape the surface when coming to issues such as meeting with 6 or more people. In fact, over the course of my projects, I only had averaging one or two meetings for each coursework, which was less than ideal. So, make sure you and your group settle your meeting dates in advance, and set an agenda for each meeting to ensure you keep on task. Make sure you can squeeze the most out of each session, so you can go home satisfied that you’ve done what you had to do.

2.1    Planning

It is easy to underestimate the importance of planning your projects beforehand. Many of us have gone to that one meeting (at the other end of Singapore), only to realise that the group had lacked that essential material to build the prototype, or materials to make a poster. Whatever happens in the end, make sure you have a means of communication with your group (for most of us, that would be WhatsApp groups) so you can plan your meeting in greater detail with your group mates. Ensure that the supplies (materials for construction, and especially laptops) are ready in advance so that the meeting is fruitful.

2.2    Focus

This is something that has bogged many a student down in his coursework meeting since time immemorial. (Ok, maybe since the idea of group work came about.) So you and your team have put in a solid thirty minutes of work into your presentation. It is always easy to give yourself a “10 minute break”. Trust me, it’s never 10 minutes. That said, it’s important to tread the fine line between focusing and overworking yourself. So put in your all to finish up your work before giving yourself a well-deserved break to reward yourself, as well as set breaks to serve as an incentive to finish the next section.

3      People Problems

Finally. The touchy part. Many a time in coursework meetings, an issue that will repeatedly dog most teams is settling people problems. My first impression when dealing with people was that one needs the tact of a diplomat, the nuanced politically-correctness of a politician in order to get stuff done. But it turned out that sincerity and in-your-face bluntness are sometimes needed to get the ball rolling. True, it is not productive or at all helpful to hurl insults, complain or annoy your group mate every 5 minutes (no one would find that useful), but earnestness towards others is the best first step to guide your group along. In many cases issues will arise, regarding meeting timings and especially the workloads. As I’ve mentioned earlier, the former can be easily dealt with by starting early, but the latter is a more tenuous issue.

Coursework has the potential to bring people together, but I have seen cases where relationships were ruined because of poor decisions made during coursework. Many a time, the group (especially in larger ones) include one or two members who slack off and take on the most minor of roles. The inverse also happens – where there is only one or two people committed (or as you might be familiar with, “enthu”) enough to finish the job. Either case is undesirable. A steady first step in the right direction would be to allocate certain jobs to group members before the start of the project to prevent conflict. Also, ensure that group members keep to their workloads so there is no imbalance in the work share. Doing extra work to finish the project on the night before (or wee hours of the morning of) the deadline is the worst-case scenario that unfortunately plagues groups with no proper work allocation.

The allocation of work is naturally a very sore topic for most people, especially for those unfamiliar with the complexities of project work. It is never a good idea to have everyone work on everything. Everyone working on the document/presentation/chart/poster gives not so committed members a reason to do minimal work while having “contributed his part”. Instead allocate the work objectively according to each person’s strengths (visual design, construction, writing lengthy reports etc.) to build up trust, as well as to be able to tell whether the person has finished his part.

At the heart of the matter lies dealing with confrontations between group members. Inevitably, there will be one or two “Cuban Missile Crises” and standoffs – nuclear missiles pointed towards each other and all – where there is nothing you can do to diplomatically solve issues. In such extreme and unfortunate cases, it is important to hold your ground to avoid getting trampled over. In cases where there you or the other person/people have legitimate reasons, it is essential to voice them out so you do not get misunderstood.

At the end of the day, each person must face the reality that most coursework consists of group work, so it is key that everybody puts in their best for the collective good of the team. Seeing the big picture is important – every successful group work well managed brings you trust and positive reputation, while every piece of work undone or squirreled to another person only breeds enmity and hostility with others, and tags yourself with the “DON’T PICK ME IF YOU WANT TO DO WELL” brand. No one will ever work with someone with perpetual and unnegotiably important “family gatherings” or “tuition” (there are other variations, trust me) in the next project work assigned. In Year One, you are given a clean slate to start with, it is up to you to make yourself desirable as a good working partner. It is that simple. Tread the line between being a pushover and a complete slacker well, and your group will succeed.

4      Conclusion

Year One is ultimately a foundational year. The aim is not to kill you by overloading you with work (that’s for Years 3 and up), but to get you accustomed to different individual and group working styles. (Nah, I was just joking!) Don’t be afraid to try different styles of group management, work with different people and explore your interests in this period of your life. For any Year One student, looking back on Term 3 coursework can reminisce a period mostly enjoyable and refreshing or a dreaded time of unfinishable tasks.

With this in mind, remember to take care of your own health, and do seek support from your friends, parents and teachers if needed. Most importantly, do not let your coursework unnecessarily burden you down and affect other areas in your life – like your social life and your physical fitness. For believers, don’t hesitate to bring to God your issues and allow Him to work in your lives and to turn situations around. I hope that through seeing the ideas brought up here you’ll have a much better coursework experience this year and for the years to come.

Joseph Chan is from the class of 2.10 (2015).

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