I. Understanding Assignments

Some writing assignments are straightforward, but others may need careful deciphering to make sure you are following the guidelines. Look carefully at the instructions provided for any writing assignment to be sure that you understand the guidelines to prevent missteps and help you develop strategies for completing the assignment correctly.

A. General Considerations

Some terms found in assignments include  close reading, literature review, report, study, memorandum, and proposal. Important differences can be found between these terms. For example, a close reading of a piece of literature requires more analysis than a literature review, which asks for key points of summary that relate to an argument. If you are unfamiliar with these terms and they show up in an assignment, be sure to clarify the guidelines with your instructor.

B. Ask Questions

One of the most important things to know about understanding assignments is that if an assignment or any part of an assignment confuses you, you can ask your instructor for clarification. Asking questions can also help your instructor realize what other students might be struggling with as well. The suggestions below can also help you identify parts of the assignment that may be unclear.

C. Become Familiar with Common Assignment Goals

Assignments often contain a variety of terms that can help you to identify the task(s) you need to perform. Some of these terms are:

1. Summarize – A summary provides a condensed explanation of key features from a text or activity. Many assignments might require some summary even if summarizing isn’t the main goal of the assignment. A summary may be required if the assignment includes words such as describe, explain, depict, and illustrate.

2. Analyze – If an assignment asks you to analyze something, it is asking for your own logical interpretation of the meaning behind the constituent parts of the subject. An analysis is different than a summary as it provides a new understanding about the subject in question, not just an overview. Other words that may be asking for analysis are elaborate, examine, discuss, explore, investigate, and determine.

3. Argue – If an assignment asks you to make an argument, you need to take a stand on a topic and develop your claim to show why your position makes sense. There are many terms related to an argument. For example, evaluate, critique, assess, and review may ask for an argument about the worth of a subject. Propose, recommend, and advise may ask for a solution to a problem. Define asks for an argument about what a word or concept means Compare/contrast, synthesize, and apply (as in apply one text to another) may ask for an argument about key points of similarity and difference in your subjects, and an analysis about why those points matter.

D. Break Down the Tasks and Locate the Central Goal

Assignment can be broken down and analyzed. Any good essay will have one main goal and one central argument or thesis that incorporates various subparts.

1. What Should This Essay Really Contain? Highlight each separate task included in the instructions. Consider the terms above as you identify the tasks you need to perform. If the assignment is relatively simple, write out the tasks that will need to be performed.

2. What Should the Thesis/Argument Be About? Once you identify the tasks and goals, determine which is the main goal. Every essay should have a well-stated, debatable, and complex thesis statement that guides the essay, but it might be up to you to figure out what the focus of the argument should be. Think about the most important issues discussed in class as they can be clues to what an instructor wants. What would your instructor want you to take a stand on?

3. How Should This Essay Be Structured? Once you determine the central goal, outline the essay according to how you think it should be completed, showing how each sub-goal will relate to the main goal or goals. Consider how the other tasks or sub-goals connect to the main argument. If you find you can’t outline with confidence or still aren’t sure how the assignment should be completed, make a note of which elements remain unclear and plan to meet with your instructor.


Hjorthoj, Keith. Transitions to College Writing. 3rd Ed. Boston: Bedford St. Martin’s, 2001.