Thoughts on Psychology

On Word Limits in Assignments

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It’s a commonly held belief that when you’re set an assignment with a particular word limit, you’re allowed to go over or under by 10%. So, for example, if the word limit is 2000 words then you’d be okay producing between 1800 and 2200 words. Outside of that range, you attract penalties for going over or under the limit. As is often the case, this belief is commonly held, but partially wrong 😉

Within the University regulations for assessment there’s no mechanism to penalise students for writing significantly less than the word limit. You can go under by as much as you want. On the other hand, there IS a set penalty for going more than 10% over the limit. If you go more than 10% over the limit then we’ll mark the work as normal and then apply the University’s standard penalty. This is that for every additional 10% above the allowance, inclusive, we take off 5 marks. In the case of an essay with a 2000 word limit, if you do 2190 words you’re fine; if you do 2230 words you lose 5 marks off the final mark; 2450 you lose ten marks, etc.

Having said that, word limits are there for a reason: it’s very difficult to produce a good answer in response to a given question in less words than the limit. While there’s no fixed penalty for going under the word limit, we set word limits in the expectation that students will need to write that many words, after selecting and rejecting appropriate material, to produce a good essay. If you find you’re well short of the word limit you will end up with a low mark because it’s a poor piece of work, in that you’ve probably left stuff out we expected to be included. The same actually holds true for going over the word limit also – if you write 2400 words for an essay with a 2000 word limit then you’re probably waffling a bit, and you’ll lose marks for that; and then lose more marks when we apply the penalty for breaching the word limit.

As a general guide, you should aim to write somewhat more than the word limit, but then identify the most relevant material to keep in to get down to the limit. Part of any assessment task is deciding what goes in and what doesn’t. If you find yourself short of the word limit think about what you might have left out that we were expecting you to include. Don’t though just pad out the essay to make up the words – the marker will notice irrelevant padding and you’ll lose marks for poor choice of material. If you find yourself well over the word limit, look for the least relevant material that you can remove. Remember we expect proper grammar, so just deleting every occurrence of “the” isn’t a good strategy!

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