Q. I need help understanding my assignment.

Confused by your assignment? Here are tips for understanding what your instructor is asking you to do. 

Research assignments will vary depending on the department, the major, the course or the instructor. An assignment can be a paper, an essay, a speech, a personal narrative, a report, part of a group presentation, or many other kinds of projects. There are a few basic things to remember in order to do well on any assignment.

First, read the assignment

Read the assignment description carefully. Some are very detailed and specific, others may allow you lots of freedom to choose your own topic or approach.

Then ask yourself these questions:

  • What am I being asked to do? (provide information, create an argument, analyze a work)

  • Who is the audience? (instructor, classmates, online group)

  • What are the technical details? (length, format, citation style)

  • Check the due date. This will help you with time management to determine when you need to search for sources, make time to read them as well as write your paper or create your project or presentation. Some assignments have different parts due at different times. Make sure that you check all of the due dates!  

  • What research is required, what sources can I use? (books, journals, primary or secondary sources, websites, personal opinions). Think about where you might need to look for the different types of sources. The library website home page search box  is a good place to look for scholarly books and articles.   

  • Topic guidance and suggestions. Some instructors will offer specific suggestions while others will just provide basic guidelines to help you choose a topic. Check for points and questions that the instructor wants you to address in your assignment.   

  • Highlight or underline the elements that are key to understanding your assignment. If you find that you can not describe what your assignment is about to someone else, you should re-read the assignment or ask your instructor for clarification.  

  • Never hesitate to ask your instructor for clarification if you don't understand the assignment. You can also ask a librarian via email, 24/7 chat, phone, or in person at the Research Help Desk. 

Read the assignment again.

Look carefully at the keywords.These keywords help you understand the purpose of the assignment, and what your instructor expects you to do. Are you supposed to research a subject from a variety of sources and present an overview? Analyze how something works, or why it is important? Explain why or how something happened? Take a stand on an issue and argue your point with evidence? Demonstrate how or why something is the truth?

The following is a list of words often used in assignments and their most common meanings. Different words will prompt different approaches in the way you structure your paper.

  • Analyze: Determine how individual parts create or relate to the whole, figure out how something works, what it might mean, or why it is important.
  • Compare: Show how they are the same and how they differ.
  • Contrast: Show how they differ.
  • Criticize: Examine the pros and cons and give your own opinion.
  • Defend: Give details that prove it or show its value.
  • Define: Give the meaning.
  • Describe: Give details and examples that show what it is.
  • Discuss: Examine from all angles.
  • Evaluate: Give your opinion as to the advantages and disadvantages.
  • Explain why/how: Show how or why something happened.
  • Illustrate: Give examples.
  • Prove: Give reasons or examples to demonstrate how or why something is the truth
  • Summarize: Give the main points.

Your instructor can clarify the assignment and help with topics, methods, sources, and presentation format.

Classmates or group members can help with individual responsibilities, timelines and presentation.

A librarian can help with choosing or focusing a topic, selecting and accessing resources, and citing materials. Click here to contact a librarian via chat, email, phone, or in person. 


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  • Last Updated May 14, 2021
  • Views 134
  • Answered By Amanda Dinscore

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