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Understanding the Assignment: sub-module 1 of 3 of planning your essay

Understanding what is being asked in an assignment is the first step in planning your academic essay.
If Google Maps says turn left and you turn right, you may not arrive at your destination. Following directions carefully is very important in academic essay writing and the consequences for going in the wrong direction can be serious.



  • Read the assignment carefully. Paying special attention to key or ‘command’ words like 'Compare', 'Contrast', 'Discuss'.
  • Understand the instructions.Make sure you know what command words mean before you start writing.
  • Highlight key terms.Refer to them often to ensure that you are doing what the assignment asks.
  • Access help when in doubt.Discuss the assignment with your instructor if you have doubts about assignment instructions. Peer tutors can also be good resources.

Study Tools

Planning a Written Assignment

Understanding Key Terms

There are many key terms in essay assignment questions that often confuse students. Having a good understanding of the differences between each term can help determine how you should approach your paper.

Definition - Write an essay or answer about a particular topic.

Tip - Give a brief summary of the character(s) or idea(s) that you will be mentioning in your paper. You can do this by defining key terms or by using quick anecdotes from the piece.

Definition - Describe any similarities, differences, or associations between two or more subjects.

Tip - Do not simply summarize the story or article in your paper. You must go beyond surface ideas and dig deep for further meaning.

Definition - Provide concrete evidence as to why something is true or false.

Tip - This term directs you to show, not tell readers why something is true or false. The important thing here is how well you can support your position on a topic, not what the actual position is.

Definition - Provide an explanation on a specific subject or object.

Tip - Imagine that your readers have no background information on your topic. Consider the point of view of the reader when you write, so that your description can be clear and concise.

Definition - This term asks for your opinion on a particular subject.

Tip - Remember, your opinion is valid only when you are able to justify and support it with solid evidence. Be sure to look at both sides of an argument, and counter the opposing arguments.

Definition - This term asks for your position on a particular subject.

Tip - Do not simply critique something independent of its relationship to other parts. Instead, you should relate this idea or object to other parts of the text and explain how it helps you understand the overall meaning of the text.

Brainstorming Techniques

Once you understand what your assignment is asking you to do, you can begin to come up with ideas of how to accomplish it. Brainstorming is a process of creative thinking that is used to generate ideas and/or solutions to a problem.

Watch this video or read the text below to learn how to brainstorm and generate ideas for an essay or assignment. You can also download the How to Brainstorm video transcript.

  • Define your topic. Be sure you understand your assignment. What have you been asked to write about and why? These questions will help you focus on the purpose of the essay.
  • Understand your audience. Who are your potential readers? Think about the type of information they will be looking for and what will interest them.
  • Become familiar with the topic. What do you already know? What are your immediate ideas and reactions to this topic? Make a note of your thoughts.
  • Determine what you need to find out. What areas are you still unfamiliar with? Create a list so your research is focused; this will also break the process down into smaller steps so that it’s less time consuming.
  • Select a topic that describes something of personal importance. Researching and writing your essay will be more enjoyable if you choose to write about something you are interested in.
  • Plan your objective. What is the goal of your essay? If you are presenting research, choose a topic that you have great interest in and one that you can find sufficient information about. If you are arguing a point, choose a side you can strongly defend.
  • Talk about your essay. Telling someone about your essay allows you to hear your ideas and prompts you to clarify your points. Feedback from your listener can also help you refine your ideas.
  • Pass the paper. Working with others often results in more good ideas than working on your own. If you are working on a group assignment, start by writing your ideas on a paper, then pass the paper to each of your group members so that they can write their ideas down.

Patterns of Organization

At the point where you are reading your assignment and making sure you understand what you are being asked to do, it is also important to start to think about how you are going to organize your writing. Thinking about the different patterns of organization helps you not only to understand the expectations of the assignment, but to generate ideas as well.

It allows writers to clearly outline their ideas and for readers to understand those ideas because a recognizable pattern is being used.

The patterns of organization include description, cause and effect, sequence, compare and contrast and problem and solution.