Understanding Assignments

Emilie Zickel

Before you begin working on an essay or a writing assignment, don’t forget to spend some quality time analyzing the assignment sheet. By closely reading and breaking down the assignment sheet, you are setting yourself up for an easier time of planning and composing the assignment.

Understanding what you need to do

  • First, carefully read the assignment sheet.
  • Second, determine what the genre of the assignment
  • Third, identify the core assignment questions that you need to answer
  • Fourth, locate the evaluation and grading criteria
  • Time to get started!

Writing Genre

What, in the broadest sense, are you being asked to do? What writing genre is expected?

  • analysis –  Analysis questions often contain words like how, in what ways, what are some of the ____. Analysis asks you to examine small pieces of the larger whole and indicate what their meaning or significance is
  • synthesisif you are asked to draw from several different sources, then you will be doing synthesis
  • explanationany text in which you merely report (as opposed to attempting to persuade) is going to be an explanation paper. None of your own opinion is being sought. Summaries, annotations, and reports are often explanatory
  • argumentany text in which you are attempting to get a reader to accept your claim. Argument is persuasive writing, and it can include things like argument based research papers or critiques/evaluations of others’ work.

How to Answer the Assignment Question/s

Sometimes, a list of prompts or questions may appear with an assignment. It is likely that your instructor will not expect you to answer all of the questions listed. They are simply offering you some ideas so that you can think of your own questions to ask.

  • Circle all assignment questions that you see on the assignment sheet
  • Put a star next to the question that is either the most important OR that you will pursue in creating the assignment

Recognizing Implied Questions

A prompt may not include a clear ‘how’ or ‘why’ question, though one is always implied by the language of the prompt. For example:

“Discuss the effects of the No Child Left Behind Act on special education programs” is asking you to write how the act has affected special education programs.

“Consider the recent rise of autism diagnoses” is asking you to write why the diagnoses of autism are on the rise.

Identifying Writing Requirements

Some instructors offer indications of what certain parts of the essay/composition should contain. Does the assignment sheet offer suggestions or requirements for the Intro paragraph? For the thesis statement? For the structure or content of the body paragraphs or conclusion paragraphs?

Identifying Evaluation Criteria

Many assignment sheets contain a grading rubric or some other indication of evaluation criteria for the assignment. You can use these criteria to both begin the writing process and to guide your revision and editing process. If you do not see any rubric or evaluation criteria on the assignment sheet — ask!

 Recognizing Disciplinary Expectations

Depending on the discipline in which you are writing, different features and formats of your writing may be expected. Always look closely at key terms and vocabulary in the writing assignment, and be sure to note what type of evidence and citations style your instructor expects.

  • does the essay need to be in MLA, APA, CMS or another style?
  • does the professor require any specific submission elements or formats?



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Understanding Assignments by Emilie Zickel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.