Before you start researching or writing, you need to take some time to analyse your assignment topic, interpret the question and decide how you are going to approach it. The title, brief and guidelines are the key elements for any assignment, so it is important to make sure that you clearly understand what is being asked of you.
A very common remark from lecturers is that a student has written a lot of information but failed to answer the question. So, rather than rush straight into reading and researching – give yourself time to think carefully about the assignment and understand what it is asking you to do. The assignment will generally be asking for something specific and will be closely related to the module content and the module reading.
Read the assignment guidelines in detail and make sure you understand exactly what type of assignment you are expected to write. For example, it could be an assignment, report, case study analysis, reflective journal, literature review or research proposal.
Why It Matters
The key to success in written assignments is to understand what is expected of you. If you do not understand what is expected from the assignment brief or the marking criteria, you will not be able to produce the result that your lecturer is expecting and hoping for. Understanding the question is the first and most important step when starting your assignments and helps to ensure that your research and writing is more focused and relevant. This means understanding both the individual words, and also the general scope of the question. A common mistake students make with their assignments is to misinterpret what the assignment is asking them to do and go off-topic.
|Fully understanding the assignment at the beginning will save you time, stress, and problems later and reduce the risk of you waffling in your writing and straying from the question. A lecturer cannot give you marks for material that is not relevant to the assignment and does not fit with the marking criteria. Close reading of the question and referring back to it throughout the assignment writing process is important to ensure that you are answering it properly.|
Deconstructing the question is the first step in answering an assignment question. You might need to clarify the meaning of some words and work out what the brief really wants you to do. Your question will contain key words related to the assignment topic, as well as directive/instructional words that tell you what to do. Highlight, circle or underline the key words in the assignment brief. Also, mark any words or phrases that you do not understand. What does the title / question mean? What is it asking you to do? Why is this important? How are you going to answer it? What do you need to find out first, second, third in order to answer the question? This is a good way of working out what important points or issues make up the overall question which in turn helps to focus your reading and your initial writing. Asking questions early also helps you to feel more in control, as it helps you to think more critically and independently about the topic prior to doing any wider research.
An assignment is usually made up of two parts: the assignment brief and the learning outcomes/objectives.
Read through the topic a few times to make sure you understand it. Think about:
The key to understanding assignments is to identify and understand the content, action and parameters of what is required otherwise known as the TAP model:
One of the key components of assignment questions or criteria are directive/instructional words – the verbs that tell you what you need to do in your assignment. There are a number of commonly used directive/instructional words, which have recognised meanings when applied to college assignments. To interpret the question accurately, you need to understand what these words mean. Recognising directive/instructional words used in your assignment titles and guidelines will help you organise your ideas appropriately and help you write more confidently. It is easy to overlook the directive/instructional words, but if you just describe something when you have been asked to analyse it, your assignment is likely to receive a lower grade.
Words commonly used in assignments can appear to have similar meanings, but there are subtle differences between them. How is analyse different to critically evaluate? These words may seem similar but do have distinct meanings. However, there are not always hard distinctions between the words and different lecturers may use them in slightly different ways. You must always go by the total meaning of the title or question in the assignment brief. Read the question carefully and do not jump to conclusions about what is required on the basis of these words only. It is always advisable to clarify an assignment with your lecturer if you do not fully understand what you are being asked to do.
Do not get put off by phrases such as "with reference to relevant literature" or "critically evaluate" and "critically analyse" (rather than simply "evaluate" or "analyse"). These phrases/words are there as a gentle reminder as it is expected that much of your writing will refer to relevant literature and have an element of criticality at college level no matter what the instructions in the assignment brief. Breaking down the assignment directive/instructional words to understand what you are being asked to do will help kickstart your critical thinking skills and help you plan the logical ordering of your ideas.
Below is a list of interpretations for some of the more common directive/instructional words. These interpretations are intended as a guide only but should help you gain a better understanding of what is required when they are used.
|Term||How to Interpret the Term|
|Account for||Explain, clarify, give reasons for something and why it happens; give evidence to support your argument.|
|Analyse||Examine the topic methodically. Separate the subject into parts and then discuss, examine, or interpret each part carefully and in detail, considering how they relate to each other, how the parts contribute to the whole and why they are important. Using evidence for and against, mention any strengths/weaknesses, advantages/disadvantages. Do not simply describe or summarise; question the information.|
|Apply||Use evidence or details that you have been given to demonstrate how an idea, theory, or concept works in a particular situation. May involve transferring evidence from your reading to real life, or to a case study, perhaps applying theory to practice.|
|Argue||Methodically present the case for and/or against something basing your claims/reasons on a range of appropriate evidence; aim to influence the reader to accept your view, demonstrating weaknesses in the opposing argument.|
|Assess||Using evidence and arguments, weigh something up and consider the value, quality or importance of it, examining the positive, negative and contestable aspects. Come to a conclusion.|
|Be critical||Identify what is good and bad about the information and why; probe, question, identify inaccuracies or shortcomings in the information; estimate the value of the material.|
|Characterise||Describe the features and qualities of a concept or phenomenon, making it different and distinguished from other things.|
|Clarify||Make something clearer and simplify it; identify the key components of an issue/topic/problem, removing any potential misunderstandings; if appropriate, explain the relationship between two or more variables.|
|Classify||Organise information into categories, groups or classes; noting the influence and importance of each, outline the difference between them, explaining why and how you classified the information.|
|Comment on||Identify and write about the main issues, giving your observations and interpretations based upon what you have read and researched, explaining the meaning of a situation or statement. Be critical, give your point of view, saying why something matters but avoid opinion that is not backed up or based on evidence presented in your writing.|
|Compare||Look at the similarities more than the differences between two or more things. Explain how they are similar, say if any similarities are more important than others and indicate the relevance or consequences of them.|
|Consider||Think and write about something carefully, discussing different possibilities and perspectives on a given topic. Support your comments/explanations by using appropriate evidence - include any views which are contrary to your own and how they relate to what you think.|
|Contrast||Look at the similarities and differences between two or more things, mainly emphasising the differences and what sets them apart – explain how different they are, indicate if this is significant and, if appropriate, give reasons why one item or argument may be preferable.|
|Critically||Used in combination with another directive/instructional word to get you to analyse and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of something not simply describe or state how something is.|
|Critically evaluate||Weigh arguments for and against something, assessing the strength of the evidence on both sides. Provide evidence taken from a wide range of sources which both agree with and contradict an argument. Based on the evidence, come to a final conclusion, basing your decision on what you judge to be the most important factors and justify how you have made your choice.|
|Critique||This does not mean you have to be negative, include both positive and negative points - look at any implications. Give your judgment about the value, quality and effectiveness of a theory, opinion or methodology and how it meets specific expectations; back your judgment by discussing the evidence.|
|Define||Describe or state clearly the meaning of something, examining the different possible or often used definitions in reputable research material. Where relevant, show the boundaries and limitations of the definition and the different interpretations that may exist, indicating how the definition distinguishes this term/concept from others.|
|Demonstrate||Show clearly or prove something by giving explanations, illustrations and/or supporting evidence.|
|Describe||Give a detailed, full account of the main characteristics, properties or qualities of a topic/issue or the sequence in which a series of things happen(ed). Explain how and why something happens.|
|Determine||Find out or calculate something|
|Differentiate||Show the difference or make a distinction between two or more things.|
|Discuss||Essentially this is a written debate. Supported by carefully selected evidence, examine, analyse and present both sides of the most important aspects of a topic, pointing out advantages and disadvantages, giving arguments/reasons for and against, assessing how satisfactory something is and examining the implications. Based on the evidence you have presented, state which argument is more persuasive, examine the implications and come to a conclusion.|
|Distinguish||Identify and describe the differences between two or more items.|
|Elaborate||Explain something in greater detail and at greater length, providing reasons, examples and more information.|
|Enumerate||List, organise or outline relevant items/ideas one by one, and concisely describe them.|
|Estimate||Weigh up the evidence and say by how much a theory or opinion may be preferable; calculate; predict.|
|Evaluate||Present a careful judgement on the worth, value, significance, relevance or usefulness of something; weighing up the arguments for and against something, show the advantages and disadvantages, strengths and weaknesses. Refer to relevant and reliable evidence and use logic and reason to argue and justify your case. Come to a conclusion.|
|Examine||Critically discuss, investigate or look at a subject in close detail and evaluate the key facts and important issues, giving reasons why they are the most important and explaining the different ways they could be understood/interpreted.|
|Explain||Make plain and clear in an understandable way; give reasons for differences of opinion or results and analyse. Clarify and interpret the topic by giving a detailed account as to how and why something happens (analysing the causes), why it is the way it is or what is meant by the use of a term in a particular context. Define key terms where appropriate and back up with evidence and examples.|
|Explore||Examine thoroughly, considering a variety of different viewpoints and perspectives, adopting a questioning approach. Show why there might be debate and where possible, reconcile opposing views by presenting a final line of argument.|
|Formulate||Use current understanding from evidence and theory to create an idea, definition or interpretation on a topic.|
|Give an account of||Give a detailed description of something, showing the important steps, stages or developments in the subject|
|Highlight||Bring attention to something or emphasise its importance (for example, highlight the main points in an argument).|
|Identify||Select/point out/list what you regard as the key features, problems, needs or issues in relation to something, explaining how and why they are important or relevant.|
|Illustrate||Make something very clear and explicit, by providing visual or written examples - use figures, diagrams, graphs, statistics, charts, tables or other visual concepts.|
|Indicate||Point out, show or explain something.|
|Infer||Conclude something from facts or reasoning.|
|Interpret||Demonstrate your understanding of something in a detailed and methodical way about which there may be more than one opinion. Backed by evidence, explain the meaning and significance of it, how or why it is important, giving your own judgement. Perhaps indicate how it relates to some other thing or perspective.|
|Investigate||Enquire into all aspects of a topic through research.|
|Justify||Make a case for a particular viewpoint, decision or conclusion; give convincing evidence and reasons which support this while also taking into account the opposing view, considering objections that others might make before stating your conclusion.|
|List||Write your answer as an itemised series of brief points in a logical order|
|Outline||Give a general summary of the main points, ideas or features; emphasise the structure and how they fit together or complement each other. Leaving out minor details, present the information in a logical order.|
|Prove||Show by argument or logic that something is true or false by presenting and evaluating adequate evidence to back up your reasoning.|
|Reconcile||Show how two apparently opposed or mutually exclusive ideas or propositions can be seen to be similar in important respects, if not identical.|
|Reflect (on)||Analyse a past experience to improve future performance. Think carefully about something, and consider different views and possibilities.|
|Relate||Show or describe the connections, similarities or associations between things and the extent to which they are alike or affect each other.|
|Review||Examine a subject critically, analysing and commenting on the main points in an organised manner, bringing together and critiquing the current evidence and understanding on a topic. Assess rather than simply describe, drawing a conclusion based on the evidence presented.|
|Show||Demonstrate with supporting evidence.|
|Specify||Give details of something.|
|State||Specify the main points of an idea or topic in brief, precise terms; no need to be overly descriptive – leave out minor details. Generally does not call for argument or discussion or a judgement from you, just the presentation of the facts.|
|Suggest||Make a proposal and support it.|
|Summarise||Give a concise/condensed account of the main points / ideas that are worth noting and remembering – leave out unnecessary detail, side-issues or examples, reducing your discussion to the basic essentials, the key ideas.|
|Support||Give reasons or evidence for something with appropriate evidence, usually academic sources promoted by your lecturer (books, academic journals or reputable websites).|
|Synthesise||Combine or bring together research or information from several different sources and integrate into your writing to create a single, cohesive discussion / argument which effectively presents your ideas or opinions.|
|To what extent||How far is something true or not true? Consider in what ways something meets the requirements of a purpose or contributes to an outcome; support with evidence. Exploring these alternative explanations, make a judgment and defend it. The answer is unlikely to be 100% true or false but somewhere in between.|
|Trace||Outline how something has changed or developed from an earlier time to its current form. Identify connections.|
|Verify||Prove something by showing evidence or information. It could also mean that you check and see to make sure certain information is correct and accurate.|
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