If you are writing a paper for a college or university course and your instructor has given you a specific assignment or prompt, you should start working on your paper by reading that assignment carefully, long in advance of the deadline. That assignment holds some important keys for your success. This page offers advice to help you read and understand assignments carefully—so that you can get your paper off to a strong start.
Educational research makes it clear that too often students do not read an assignment closely enough, missing key elements and often underestimating the complexity of the assignment (Nelson). When you’re new—to college writing, to a particular discipline, to graduate-level writing, to a particular professor—you will want to follow some of these strategies to make sure you have a good understanding of what you’re being asked to do and so that you build a strong understanding of what a successful paper will look like.
Read an assignment through several times
For any assignment, no matter how brief or detailed, you will need to read it through more than once—slowly—in order to analyze it carefully. As you read, you should underline or highlight the key elements of the assignment. Ask about your assignment—
- What is the heart of this assignment, what’s the main thing I need to do to respond? Is there a central question I need to answer? (See the section below.)
- What kind (or genre) of paper do I need to write? How much do I know about this kind of paper? (See the section below.)
- Are there sub-questions I need to answer?
- What kind of evidence do I need to base my arguments or analysis on?
- What are the different parts of this paper?
- What are some of the other important details in this assignment? (For example, How many pages? What kinds of sources do I need to use? How many sources? Which documentation system?)
- If your instructor provided you with evaluation criteria or an evaluation rubric for your paper, be sure to skim that—what does it tell you about what matters most in your paper?
Identify the central task(s) in the assignment
Most academic writing assignments have a central task or a couple of central tasks—essentially jobs you need to do in your paper. Assignments typically ask you to “take a stand,” “argue” for one position or another, “support one position,” “explain” or “analyze” a complex text or data set or historical event, “do a close reading” of a text or event, or “compare” and “evaluate” two possible explanations or theories. . . . As you analyze your assignment, you will want to make sure to identify the central tasks in it so that you can be sure that you do those in your paper—and that you make it explicit to readers that you are foregrounding or emphasizing that work in your paper.
Here are some sample assignments from undergraduate courses, annotated to show how to identify the central task in the assignment.
From a course at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, on the history of the Soviet Union:
When the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991 it came as a surprise to the rest of the world. Some people credited (or blamed) Mikhail Gorbachev. Others credited (or blamed) the United States. Still others argued that the USSR had been unstable for decades and that it was a miracle that it had lasted for as long as it did. How would you explain the collapse of the USSR? In your opinion, what were the most important factors that led to the collapse? Be sure to provide evidence to support your argument. How long was the collapse in the making? Could Gorbachev have prevented the collapse? If so, how? If not, when did it become inevitable?
Interpreting this assignment: the central task here is to “explain the collapse of the Soviet Union” by naming and explaining “the most important factors that led to the collapse.” As you plan your paper, you will want to focus always on identifying a few of the most important factors that led to the collapse. And you will need to make the case for WHY those were the most important factors. To help you keep your paper on track and to assure your professor as she or he is reading your paper that you are focusing on the central task, in the introduction to your paper you will need to be sure to have a clear central claim or thesis statement. That thesis statement should say some version of “The collapse of the Soviet Union resulted from . . . [and then name and preview a few of the most important factors that led to the collapse, in the order in which you will discuss those in detail in the body of your paper].” To explain those factors you will, of course, need to use knowledge you have learned from your course and from your readings as evidence to support your claim—and you will need to answer the question of whether Gorbachev could have prevented the collapse and explain why. But above all, your central task in your paper is to identify the most important factors leading to the collapse.
From the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, from a course on biochemical engineering:
The chemicals of life include lipids, sugars, nucleic acids, and proteins, as you have encountered in your biology and biochemistry coursework and reading. Today an active and growing area of research is to biochemically expand the repertoire of biological products and processes by use of non-natural building blocks. For example, one may incorporate non-natural amino acids into proteins, non-natural bases into nucleic acids, or non-natural sugars into polysaccharides. These examples will serve as topic areas for your group assignment.
Review the recent literature in your topic and prepare a group presentation on the topic. Address the following:
- Why would anyone want to use non-natural building blocks in the synthesis of proteins, nucleic acids or polysaccharides? Give technological motivations.
- What challenges does one encounter when using non-natural building blocks? Provide at least one specific example to show how this challenge has been overcome.
- Describe how a specific non-natural product has bene characterized and how it offers new properties or activities. What opportunities are opened?
- Discuss the broader technological (engineering) challenges to making and applying such non-natural products.
Interpreting this assignment: The first part of this assignment offers background information, givens for this particular assignment. Your group’s central task is to find, read, and understand the literature on your specific topic and to come up with answers to the questions and tasks in 1-4. This assignment obviously has multiple parts, which the professor has helpfully outlined. When you plan your presentation, you will of course need to develop responses to the questions or tasks in ALL four parts, and when you make your presentation, you will want to clearly divide it into four parts, each clearly labeled. For part 1, the central task is to give reasons WHY someone would want to use non-natural building blocks for those purposes. In part 2, the central task is to name and explain several challenges—structuring this section around the distinct challenges for your topic AND to explain a specific example that shows how the challenge has been overcome. You can easily see how what the central tasks are in 3 and 4.
From an environmental studies course at the University of Wisconsin-Madison:
5-6 pages. Identify two different small ecosystems on campus. Describe each area as an ecosystem and analyze the interactions of significant environmental factors: soil, plant life, insect life, humans, etc. The bulk of your paper should come from your direct observations, but draw upon course readings when helpful for your explanation.
Interpreting this assignment: To succeed with this paper, you will, of course, have to do close observations of two small local ecosystems, describe those ecosystems fully with rich details from your observations (“the bulk of your paper should come from your direct observations”), and convey a good understanding of relevant course principles about ecosystems in your descriptions (“draw upon course readings when helpful”). In addition, you need to recognize with this kind of assignment that you will have to make a number of choices. Recognizing that you have to make choices to narrow and focus what you’re doing is a big part of successfully interpreting a fairly general paper assignment like this one. Here are some examples of the kinds of questions you need to think about for this paper: Which two small ecosystems do you want to analyze and describe? What’s an appropriate size for a “small ecosystem”? Which two will be different enough to make for interesting comparisons? How can you schedule your observations so that you have sufficient time to observe deeply—and so that you can return again to refine and add to your observations? How can you effectively organize the notes you take as you observe each system, around “significant environmental factors” such as “soil, plant life, insect life, humans, etc.”? How can you keep the focus on analyzing “the interactions [emphasis added] of significant environmental factors,” rather than just describing those factors? Does this paper need a thesis statement of some sort, one that sums up the ecosystems and makes a claim about the interactions within these systems, and one that compares the two? Or is it really a description of interactions within each of the two systems, not a comparison of the two? How can you have a good conversation with your course instructor to answer your question about the need for a thesis statement and about a comparative element? What’s a good structure for this paper? Should you include images, quantitative information, or figures about your two small ecosystems? Should you divide your paper into sections with subheadings? How much space (i.e., depth and details) should you go into about each factor? . . .
For help with structure, look for a key plural noun in the assignment
Some assignments (not all, but many) include an important plural noun that will help you structure your paper. In Sample Assignment A above, from a course on Soviet history, the key plural noun is “factors.” You will probably want to organize your paper around the factors that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and your explanation of why those were the most important ones. In Sample Assignment B above, from the biochemical engineering course, the key plural noun in part a is “motivations” (or reasons), answering the question why; you will want to organize section 1 around those reasons or motivations. In part 2, the key plural noun is “challenges”—here you will want to organize your presentation around several distinct challenges.
If an assignment in a cultural anthropology course, for example, asks you to explain kinship in a particular culture through three current anthropological theories, you will probably want to organize your paper around the theories.
Be sure you understand the basics of the genre the paper you’re writing
Most paper assignments represent a genre (or kind) of paper typical of particular academic disciplines. As you analyze your paper assignment, you should think about what kind or genre of paper you will be writing. And if you’re new to writing that kind of paper, you should learn some more about that genre—especially about the rhetoric of that kind of paper, in other words, what kind of intellectual work it does, which audience is it usually written for and what prior knowledge it assumes, how it is usually structured.
When you are new to a particular discipline or level of writing, an important part of what you need to learn are the common genres of that discipline. It takes a while to do that. Look for successful samples, ask questions, ask for feedback on approaches and drafts (strategies all discussed below), and learn from the feedback your instructors have given you on your previous papers in that genre.
In introductory courses, many course instructors provide advice about writing the kinds of papers they assign. Your course instructor may also provide some samples of successful papers in that genre, from which you can learn a great deal. The online Writer’s Handbook from the UW-Madison Writing Center offers introductions to many common genres of academic writing. Here are some examples:
Find, analyze, and learn from some successful models
One of the best ways to learn about a genre of academic writing that’s new to you is to analyze some successful papers written in that genre, samples that are appropriate for your level of study. You can ask your course instructors whether they are willing to share some successful samples of that type of paper, you can consult writing textbooks in your field, you can see some in the Online Writer’s Handbook here from the Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and you can find others on the web. As you look at a sample, you will want to consider its purpose, its organization, its assumptions about readers, its use of evidence, and its style. But be careful not to over-generalize from samples: the particular demands and instructions for your course assignment take precedence over the samples you may find from other sources.
If you have are unsure about interpreting an assignment, ask some specific clarifying questions
Most course instructors welcome questions from students about paper assignments. But it’s always a good idea to ask well in advance of a due date, which shows that you are thinking ahead. Before you take up some of your instructor’s time, it’s important to learn what you can from a thorough reading of the assignment, and plan some specific questions that show that you have read the assignment carefully and that you are thinking carefully about the assignment. For example, if it’s not clear from the assignment whether your instructor wants you to argue for a specific environmental or political policy (out of several policy policies) or just to critically evaluate those policies, that’s a great clarifying question to ask. You could say, “I’ve read the assignment carefully and want to make sure that I’m making a good choice about how to approach my paper.” If you’re really not sure how to approach an assignment and you can imagine two different possible approaches, you could outline both or draft the introduction to one and ask your instructor whether she or he would be willing to give you some quick feedback to help make sure you are on the right track.
In addition to talking with your course instructor, it can be helpful to ask peers in your class, friends who have taken that course or are majoring in that subject, and writing center tutors. It’s possible that you might get clear, helpful advice. Don’t be surprised if sometimes you get some conflicting advice, which you will have to sort out. What really counts, of course, is advice from your course instructor who designed the assignment, who is an expert in the field, and who will evaluate your paper.
Good luck with your papers—enjoy your writing!
Nelson, Jenny. “This Was an Easy Assignment: Examining How Students Interpret Academic Writing Tasks.” Research in the Teaching of English, vol. 24, no. 4, 1990, pp. 362-96.
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