Understanding Your Assignment

Your writing task begins when you receive your writing assignment from your instructor. The first step is to make sure you understand the assignment and what your instructor wants you to do with it. To do this, review the requirements of the assignment. These may be in the form of an assignment sheet or a description of the assignment, or they may be given to you verbally during a class lecture. Your requirements may also be stated as a one-line entry in your syllabus or as a short-essay question. In any case, to understand your writing project, you should ask and answer the following kinds of questions:

  • What type of assignment is this? What is its purpose?
  • Who is the audience for this assignment—my instructor, my classmates, or someone else?
  • How will I find my content—from my opinion or research?
  • When is the assignment due to the instructor, and in what form is it due?
  • How will the assignment be evaluated?
  • What are my goals in undertaking the assignment?

Answering this last question is important because your answer determines the level of effort you put into the writing project. Not all writing projects warrant the same level of effort. For example, the thesis you write in your final year of study to satisfy a graduation requirement will probably require more time and attention and stricter adherence to a systematic writing process than a response you may write for a homework assignment. If you are not sure of the importance of individual assignments, ask your instructor.

To help you understand your writing assignment and decide what approach to take to write it, look for key phrases that reveal your instructor’s expectations. Table 2.1 shows you how to identify these expectations from the directive wording of the assignment. These key phrases are often associated with essay questions, as well as informal and formal papers. As a note, the table is based on Benjamin Bloom’s cognitive objectives.

Table 2.1
Assignment Wording and Expectations

Assignment uses the
following directive wording:
When your instructor expects
you to do the following:
Define, label, list, name, repeat, order, arrange, memorize Memorize, recall, and present information
Describe, indicate, restate, explain, review, summarize, classify Interpret information in your own words
Apply, illustrate, prepare, solve, use, sketch, operate, practice, calculate Apply knowledge to new situations
Analyze, categorize, compare, test, distinguish, examine, contrast Break down knowledge into parts and show relationships among parts
Arrange, compose, formulate, organize, plan, assemble, construct Bring together parts of knowledge to form a whole; build relationships for new situations
Appraise, evaluate, conclude, judge, predict, compare, score Make judgments based on criteria; support, confirm preferences
Use supporting examples, cite passages from the text, paraphrase, summarize Quote or paraphrase to support what you have written
Provide corroborating evidence, reference other works, research, cite examples from case studies Use outside research to support your thesis or hypothesis

Once you have understood your assignment and decided on what approach to take, you can move on to identifying and targeting your audience.


The first step in prewriting is understanding the assignment and what the instructor expects from you.


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