Understanding Writing Assignments

In college, you will be given many different kinds of writing assignments and papers. It is essential that you take the time to understand exactly what is required. After all, if you don’t understand the assignment, how can you fulfill it? So your first and perhaps most important step when receiving an assignment is to work toward understanding it fully.

Tips to understanding the assignment:

  1. Read and re-read the assignment sheet. Often an assignment sheet contains a lot of high quality condensed information and instructions. It is easy to get the wrong impression on the first and even the second read-through. Assignment sheets are almost always short. Read them carefully and re-read them.
  2. Be sure you understand all the language on an assignment sheet. Look up any words you don’t know. Check concepts in your texts that are mentioned on an assignment sheet. If you’re unsure about words or concepts, ask your professor for clarification.
  3. Focus on the verbs, the words of instruction. Underline them on your assignment sheet. What exactly does the assignment ask you to do: Define? Explain? Describe? Reflect on? Summarize? Compare and contrast? Explore? Discuss? Each of these verbs is slightly different. Be sure you focus on exactly what your assignment is asking you to do.
  4. Look at model student papers that fulfill the assignment, or if that is not possible, then look at papers of the same type. The Writing Center has samples of model student papers, including research papers for sociology, lesson plans, and formal business reports.
  5. Think about and discuss with others, such as a consultant at the Writing Center, what the purpose of the assignment is. How will the paper you write fit in with the course you are taking? Many assignments ask for papers that fulfill a specific concern of a specific kind of course. For example, an essay about a piece of literature is often like a review, a way to share appreciation of the literature so others will appreciate it more. Understanding underlying purposes like this will help you write your papers.
  6. Visit the Writing Center.