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National College of Ireland


Academic Writing Skills Guide: Understanding Assignments

Understanding Assignments

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.

  1. Assignment Brief: The assignment brief will tell you what you need to produce,.
  2. Learning Outcomes/Objectives: Learning outcomes or objectives are a description of what you need to demonstrate to pass a module / assignment. By reading and understanding the expected learning outcomes/objectives for a module, you can help improve your grades for each assignment.
Set the question in context – how does it fit with the key issues in your module and the topic as a whole? Looking at your lecture notes, module readings and learning outcomes/objectives will help you determine how the key themes, concepts and theories you have been studying on your module are linked to the question.  

Read through the topic a few times to make sure you understand it.  Think about: 

  • Assignment guidelines and criteria you will be marked on including the allocation of marks. The marking criteria/rubric for the assignment is what you are being graded on, so it helps to understand exactly what you need to do to get a good grade. These list the parts of the assignment, how many marks each part is worth, and/or list the qualities in the assignment that will achieve certain grades. 

  • Learning outcomes/objectives listed in the module descriptor – they can help you further understand what the lecturer is looking for from you. Find the outcomes/objectives that seem to fit the assignment the best and ask yourself what you can put in the assignment to make it clear you have achieved these outcomes/objectives? Why has the lecturer asked this particular question (what do they want you to learn)? 

  • Module content - How does the assignment link to what you have read or heard in lectures?  What other material on your Moodle page seems relevant?

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:

Topic (Content) – What is the key theme? Content words are usually nouns or noun phrases and tell you what the assignment/question is about and identify the ideas, concepts or issues you need to discuss; this indicates what should be the main focus of your assignment and research  
Action (Direction/Instruction) - What do you need to do? Directive/instructional words are usually verbs, they tell you what you are required to do in the assessment, how to approach the assignment or question
Parameters (Limitations) – What is the scope of the task? Limiting words restrict and narrow the focus and scope of the assignment/question (for example, to a place, population/group, time period, type of information), telling you what to include and/or exclude

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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