Understanding the assignment
Are you sure that your professor wants a hard copy? Did the professor require a title page? Stapled? Single-spaced or double spaced?
Check out our online resources designed to help you improve your writing in the University and beyond.
Understanding the assignment is critical before you begin writing the paper. The purpose, audience, and structure are usually included in the prompt and is your guide to completing the assignment correctly.
We have created resources below to support students identifying key aspects of written assignments and how to best approach completing it.
Purpose Accordion Open
How does your professor know that you are learning new concepts and approaches to new material? You will be asked to show your knowledge and understanding through:
- Essay Exams
- Lab notes and field notes
- Projects and project reports
- Papers written to academic or professional audiences
- Informal papers
In most cases, you will get instructions from the professor who wants to know that you:
- Listen, think, and read critically
- Apply the new concepts you learned in your courses and major by writing about it, by completing a project and writing a report and/or by presenting your findings
- Adjust your writing based on the audience and disciplinary writing conventions
Each professor has specific goals in mind when teaching a course. You will find those goals when you look at the course objectives. Similarly, for writing tasks, your professor’s goal is stated in the assignment task and/or it is related to the course objectives.
Next steps and additional information
Writing assignments don’t all have the same purpose. Because of different majors and different audiences, the purpose of an assignment changes.
To make sure that you understand the assignment purpose:
- Underline, circle, or highlight key words that help define the purpose. Does your professor want to test your knowledge or see that you can apply theoretical principles you learned about in last week’s class?
- Restate the assignment’s purpose in your own words and check with your peers.
- Ask yourself some questions: “What questions am I supposed to answer?” “How am I supposed to structure this essay?” “What am I supposed to focus on?”
- If you have any doubt, talk to your professor during office hours. If online, post a question in your Discussions Area. Sometimes your classmates are your best resources.
- Start early
- Make an appointment at the University Writing Commons
Audience Accordion Closed
Writing always has an audience. Who the audience is is not always as clearly defined as it could be. When you write for an academic course, you often walk a precarious line when you imagine your audience:
- Your professor might tell you that she is the audience. Does that mean that you don’t need to be explicit and cite sources since she knows a great deal about the subject? Then why do you get feedback that states “More details” or “Expand here” or “Examples?”
- Your professor might tell you to write to a specified outside reader – an expert in your major field, your best friend, the governor of the state, a city official, your classmates. You know, however, that the grade comes from your professor, and it doesn’t make much difference that your outside reader thought that you are the greatest writer ever.
- Your professor doesn’t say anything about the audience in the assignment sheet and you are not sure who you are supposed to focus on. You decide to write to “the public” – pretty much everybody – which makes your task even more difficult since you have no sense of who that amorphous public might be.
In many cases, you are asked to write because your professor wants to know that you:
- Understand the class materials.
- Apply the class materials.
- Remember the class materials.
- Make connections between the class materials and outside resources.
- Understand the implications of class materials on your research, project, or world peace.
Whoever your audience for your writing assignment is, keep in mind that your professor wants clear, concise, detailed, specific, and well-structured writing that can be read by an expert audience (somebody in your major and field of study) or a lay audience (somebody interested but unfamiliar with the terminology used in your major). In both cases, you can’t assume.
Next steps and additional information
Your audience, whether it’s an expert or lay audience, expects to learn something from your writing assignment. To make sure that your writing meets your professors expectations:
- Do not assume that your audience has knowledge that you gained in your course, even if the audience is your professor.
- Use the knowledge that you gained in your course to write your report, essay, presentation, blog entry to show that you understood the class lectures and class readings.
- Before you get too deep into the writing process, let your professor know who your intended audience for your writing is, and how that influences what and how you write. If your professor had another audience in mind, adjust your work to keep this audience in mind.
- Start Early!
- Make an appointment at the University Writing Commons.
Adapting to your audience: Colorado State University’s Writing Center gives you a comprehensive understanding of how audience influences your writing. You can click on the links to the right to get information on types of audiences, how to develop audience awareness, how to analyze your audience, and how to write for an audience.
Audience: The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s Writing Center provides a handout that provides answers to questions such as “How do I identify my audience” and “How much should I explain.”
Structure Accordion Closed
A professor often writes an assignment to guide their students’ work with the new materials presented in the course. You have to be able to interpret the assignment so that you can write a successful essay exam, lab notes, report, or paper. Common components of an assignment include:
Disciplinary conventions will guide specifics. When you read the assignment, look for instructions on what should go into your introduction, whether the body of your paper needs to include a synthesis and/or an analysis of the course readings, a methodology section, a section on data collection, a results section, and so on.
- In the humanities and social sciences, it is common for writing assignments to require student-writers to include themselves (first-person pronouns) in their analyses and conclusions.
- In the natural sciences, health professions, and technological fields, it is common that classroom assignments, especially in the undergraduate years, are especially interested in how the student-writer conveys an understanding of the process, the elements, the definitions of materials. They require third person in passive-voice.
- Sometimes, the assignment asks students to work on materials for a client. This changes the writing conventions that you will be using. You will need to find out who your client (audience) is before you can make choices on writing conventions.
Pay attention to your professor’s word choice:
- “Discuss how gender influences…”
- “Analyze the impact of presidential elections on…”
- “Summarize the main reasons for Chavez’ involvement in…”
Words such as discuss, analyze, and summarize ask you for different writing responses. If you are not sure, use your professor’s office hours to get clarification on the assignment. You can also make an appointment with the University Writing Commons to make sure that you understand the assignment.
Next steps and additional information
Professors are usually not trying to trick students through writing assignments. When you talk to your professor, your classmates, or the UWC Writing Assistants, it is often helpful when you:
- Let the professor know what your understanding of the assignment is before asking questions. This shows that you have read the assignment sheet.
- Underline, circle, or highlight key words that help define the purpose.
- Restate the assignment’s purpose in your own words.
- Check with classmates. Sometimes they are your best resource.
Additional resources Accordion Closed
Specifications are part of all majors. Whether they are explicitly explained in the assignment instructions, or whether they are implicitly assumed as part of your knowledge of writing in your major, pay attention to how an assignment is supposed to look once you finished revising and editing it. To make sure that you understand assignment specifications:
- Establish a habit of reviewing specifications early in the writing process.
- Keep a list of specifications close by when you write your assignment. This way, you can make sure that you remember to use upper or lower case for titles.
- Ask your professor during office hours if you are not clear about the writing assignment’s specifications.
- Make use of your major-specific handbooks. Purchase one for the duration of your studies.
Understanding the writing assignments: The UNC-Chapel Hill’s Writing Center gives you a good idea of what you can expect from a writing assignment, and what you need to pay attention to when reading an assignment. They provide specific details on format and also show you how to interpret the assignment.
How to decipher the assignment: Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab provides this handout with information on the steps to take to understand the requirements of the assignment.
Common writing assignments: Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab’s page on common writing assignments will give you a good sense of what kinds of writing assignments your professors might have in mind, and what generally accepted structures for various assignments are.
Sample lab assignment: The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Writing Center offers this page with a common outline of a sample lab assignment, with brief notes on what needs to be part of each section.
Levels of formality: Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab shows you the levels of formality you should use in your academic writing. They distinguish writing as formal, semi-formal, and informal.
Academic tone, diction, and style: The University of North Texas at Dallas shows you what you need to pay attention to when you decide on the level of formality and informality in your writing.
Effective E-mail communication: The University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill offers this handout on one form of communication often underestimated by students: email communication with professors or community members.
Writing and speaking guidelines: Pennsylvania State University has developed guidelines for engineering and science writers with great information on the structures of various genres and styles that you might need to use in engineering and the sciences.
Writing the basic business letter: Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab outlines the technical specifications for a business letter. It includes a pdf file that shows a business letter with annotations.
How to write, outline, proofread and everything in-between: The Community for Accredited Online Schools provides some excellent resources for understanding the kind of essay, writing outlines, how to do academic research, how to evaluate a source, and more!
Fold a paper R2-D2 and other awesome star wars origami: Wired.com offers this fun and challenging article on origami with complete instructions.
The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill developed several handouts that discuss genre in different fields. Each handout includes tips on how to strengthen your writer’s voice: