Decoding Your Assignment, Part 1

You have just been given a writing assignment – now what? Before you start working, it is important to make sure you know exactly what the assignment is asking of you. Closely reading the assignment can help set you up for success, so here are some tips to get you started.

Tip #1: Think like your instructor

Assignments are not obstacles that you have to get through! In almost all cases, assignments are trying to identify what course materials you know well and what you need to study more. Sometimes they want you to articulate your own understanding of ideas from the readings; at other times, assignments are designed to make you discuss these ideas with your peers or to articulate your own opinions vis-à-vis the readings.

Writing assignments–shorter and long ones–are usually of two basic types: those that want you to recall information from course materials and others that want you to analyze or use the information.

Tip #2: Identify “Recall” and “Analyze” assignments

If you have taken Intro to Art History (or some other survey class), you know that some exams ask you to identify or recall information about certain images. Quizzes in those classes want students to know who created the work of art, when, where, and what genre or movement it is part of.

In your own courses, try to identify which assignments are asking you to show that you understand the readings. Usually, these will be short answer weekly response papers. You might be asked to pick out a quote and discuss, or summarize the main argument in a reading.

More complicated assignments will ask you to analyze the information you have learned. For instance, an advanced assignment from that Intro to Art History class might ask students to make a claim about the piece in a thesis-driven essay that includes all the who/what/when/why information.

In the courses you have signed up for, look for which assignments are asking you to engage on a more sophisticated level. Remember that sometimes assignments can ask that you do both things at the same time: i.e., recall information from your readings and meaningfully analyze or relate them to issues that you care about.

Generally, “recall” exercises are simpler than “analysis” exercises. The page limits on your assignments sometimes reflect this–“recall” assignments are typically low-stakes, 1-2 pages long, while analyses are higher-stakes and longer.

Professors have varying teaching styles so this is only a rule of thumb that doesn’t apply to every case. Think about your syllabus as a whole and what you’ve learned–this will help you to understand what your professor wants from your written work.

Tip #3: Recognize common keywords

The words your instructor uses in their assignment prompt are a good clue about what kind of skill they are trying to test. Below are some of the most common keywords used in assignments–remember that this list is only a guide. Each course is different, so use your judgement when deciding what kind of assignment you’ve got on your hands!




Compare (includes “contrast” as well)
Show how ABC… (i.e., show the logical steps in an argument)
Support your argument with evidence (“evidence” most often refers to quotes from your readings)
Write about XYZ

Now that you are familiar with these strategies, you are ready to continue on to the second portion of the tutorial, where you will learn how to break down an assignment using the Understanding Assignments worksheet.

NEXT: Decoding Your Assignment, Part II

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