Understanding Your Assignment

When you receive an assignment, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. However, if you break your assignment into steps that are easy to understand and accomplish, it can be easier. Begin by making sure you understand your assignment.

First Step: Read your Assignment

Writing carefully

The first thing you need to do when you are about to start working on an assignment is read the question very carefully. This might sound obvious, but many students lose marks unnecessarily because they don’t pay enough attention to what the assignment is actually asking them to do. Read through the assignment’s instructions carefully and write down any questions you have to ask your instructor or teaching assistant.

In addition to reading the assignment carefully and ensuring you understand the assignment, you also need to analyze the question. Assignment questions or instructions usually have a lot of information in them and you can use this information to help you prepare and complete the assignment. Pay specific attention to what are called content words as well as instruction words.

The information below will help you to interpret what your assignment questions are asking of you.

Content Words

The words which tell you the topic of what the assignment should be about are commonly called content words. The content words tell you what to do or what your assignment should focus on.
For example, the content words for the following topic include:

Traditionally in many societies mothers are expected to stay at home and take care of their children. However, the financial pressures of modern life have forced many mothers to find jobsoutside the home and rely on childcare for their children. With reference to one particular type of childcare facility discuss whether this arrangement is damaging for children or not.

These words tell you that the content of your assignment should relate to the effect of working mothers placing their children in childcare. Sometimes you will not be given any content words and you will be required to develop your own research question.

Instruction Words

The words which tell you how to go about answering the question are commonly called instruction words. Instruction words tell you how to do your assignment.

The instruction words give you information on what type of assignment you need to write. For example, are you being asked to discuss, argue, describe, explain, report or compare and contrast? Each of these instruction words tells you that you need to write a different type of response to the question. For example, in a description you are asked to focus on what something is like or what happened. On the other hand, if you are asked to explain, you will need to focus on how something happens or happened.

The following is a brief outline of instruction words you may find in your assignment. You need to understand the instruction words to satisfy the requirements of your assignment.

Instruction Words What They Mean
Analyse Examine in close detail. Identify important points and chief features.
Comment on Identify and write about the main issues. Base what you write on what you have read or heard in lectures. Avoid purely personal opinion.
Compare Show how two or more things are similar. Indicate the relevance or consequences of these similarities.
Contrast      The opposite of compare. Point out what is different. Indicate whether or not the differences are significant. If appropriate, give reasons why one item or argument might be preferable.
Critically Evaluate Examine arguments for and against something, assessing the strength of the evidence on both sides. Use your research to guide your assessment of which opinions, theories, models or items are preferable.
Discuss Similar to critically evaluate. Give arguments and evidence for and against something and make some judgment.
Summarize Similar to outline. Draw out the main points only. Leave out details or examples.
To what extent Consider how far or how much something is true, or contributes to a final outcome. The answer is usually somewhere between ‘completely’ and ‘not at all’. Follow the order of different stages in an event or process.

The above content was adapted from Basic Library Tutorial – UBC Okanagan: Module 1

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