Skip to Main Content

Understanding the Assignment: Writing

Overview of understanding the assignment

So you have been given an essay title: now what? Many writers move straight from reading the assignment prompt to paddling around in a swimming pool of bewildered dread. If that's you, please hop out of the dread-pool and inhale. It's going to be okay!

Getting to grips with the expectations for an assignment can take a lot of back-and-forth: read the prompt or title; jot down some ideas; take a walk; revisit the prompt to highlight key phrases; read a couple journal articles; and so on. Please don't expect to read the essay title and immediately sit down to write a focused rough draft. That's not how writing works.

That said, there are organised approaches you can deploy when you don't get what you're supposed to do. Stick with this guide to discover quick activities that will help you lay a productive foundation.


Guide contents

The tabs of this guide will support you in unpicking assignment prompts and learning what to do with them. The sections are organised as follows:

  • The Verb - Begin breaking down the essay title, and get to grips with what you are actually meant to do.
  • The Tension - Identify the zone of uncertainty where ideas start to take shape.
  • The Question - Use question-based tactics to begin moving from essay title to essay plan.
  • The Scope - Learn why instructors love to assign essay titles that feel totally mismatched to the word count limits, and how to navigate this.

What's the verb?

Highlighting key words in the essay title or assignment brief is a great first step in understanding the assignment. Among those words, make sure you pay close attention to the verb – that is, the action word that indicates what you are expected to do. Consider this example:

"Critically evaluate whether the Magna Carta is still relevant today."

To evaluate, you reach a conclusion about a topic by considering evidence that supports different positions on, or perspectives about, that topic. The adverb critically emphasizes the need not only to explore a range of evidence, but to assess it in an argumentative (rather than simply descriptive) manner.

What if we slightly amend the verb? Consider this change:

"Critically discuss whether the Magna Carta is still relevant today."

Does changing the verb from evaluate to discuss meaningfully change your goal? To be honest, most instructors use these verbs interchangeably in essay briefs. For some, though, discuss would suggest greater emphasis on forging a dialogue between sources, demonstrating where perspectives align and where they diverge.

Top tip: Visit your instructor during their office hours if you are unsure about the key verb in an essay title. To get the most out of the conversation, DON’T just show up and say, “I’m confused.” Instead, bring along a tentative/partial outline that illustrates how you THINK you could execute the essay. This will create a productive foundation for your instructor to gauge whether you are on the right track.

 

Importantly, the expectation to be critical exists with essay verbs like discuss, evaluate, analyse, examine, etc. even if the adverb critically isn’t used. Unless you are specifically asked to summarise or describe something in an objective way, criticality is key.


The likely suspects

Instructors describe assignment aims in any number of ways, but there tends to be shared language when it comes to the key verbs. Below, you will find a sampling of the most common "actions" to conduct as a writer, with explanations and tips to help you out.

Top tip: Remember that one assignment prompt can feature (explicitly or implicitly) multiple verbs. For example, you might need to analyse a situation, first, in order to then propose a solution.

 

Advise, suggest, recommend, propose

  • With verbs like these, you need to use informed logic and relevant supporting evidence to put forward an approach, idea, solution, or similar. For example, you might propose a specific treatment protocol based on critically synthesizing a patient's case history, NHS guidelines, and evidence from medical journals. You might recommend a specific advertising approach based on a company's financial goals, their target consumers, and marketing research.
  • When asked to suggest a path forward, don't sit on the fence: it would be unwise to list a variety of options without critically and clearly "backing" one of them. However, it does demonstrate good critical thought to address any shortcomings or risks in your proposal, and how these might be mitigated.

Analyse, examine

  • Here, you are being asked to break something down and consider its parts. This requires close critical attention.
  • Imagine your topic as a cube. Instead of standing back and saying, "That's a cube," you will take the cube into your hands and rotate it again and again, carefully investigating each of its facets.
  • For example, to analyse a business model, you would break the model down into its parts (e.g. management, target clients, production, distribution, etc.) and "dig into" those. Depending on the scope of the assignment, you might need to further break down the parts you identify.

Assess, appraise, evaluate

  • Here, you are being asked to reach conclusions about the validity, efficacy, reliability, impacts, etc. of something. That "something" could be a piece of academic literature (e.g. critical appraisals of medical studies). It might be a policy, law, or similar (e.g. assessment of a judicial change intended to reduce crime). Maybe it's a business campaign or financial restructure – many options exist!
  • In any case, ensure you understand not only what you are meant to assess (the object), but how that object is best evaluated in your field (the approach/method). Are there industry standards that govern "success"? Do you need to use a particular appraisal tool that features set steps?

Compare, contrast

  • Compare suggests the need to find the similarities and differences between two things; contrast calls for you to compare two things with more attention paid to differences.
  • Instructors will almost never ask you to compare/contrast in a merely descriptive way, so look for the next step: what are you expected to do with, or make of, the comparison(s)? For example, you might contrast two interpretations of a cultural artefact in order to analyse how and why the differences exist.

Defend, argue, make an argument

  • These verbs call for you to back a stance or perspective. You should focus on making clear claims and offering solid academic evidence to support them.
  • When you have to argue a point, don't forget to engage with counterarguments. Think of it this way: your instructor KNOWS that multiple perspectives exist, or they wouldn't have assigned the essay! Actively grappling with any counterarguments (and conceding minor points as needed) boosts the sense that a) you are trustworthy, and b) you conducted balanced research.

Discuss, explore

  • These verbs are worryingly vague, but don't fret. Discuss and explore imply that you should consider the topic from more than one angle, using academic literature to capture multiple perspectives.
  • Hint: if you pretend the assignment says analyse, instead, this tends to produce what the instructor was hoping for.

Outline, delineate

  • The goal with these verbs is to identify the main beats of something. For example, if you are asked to "outline the political strategy used by Politician ABC in Election XYZ," make sure you communicate the primary components or elements of the overall strategy. Imagine boiling the whole strategy down into a TL;DR version.
  • As with compare/contrast, you should look out for an additional step or expectation that takes the assignment from descriptive to critical. For example, you might have to delineate a diagnostic procedure in order to critically reflect on its relevance to your nursing practice.

Reflect, write a critical reflection/account

  • The assignment verbs can get redundant, but reflect is its own beast. Unlike most essays, reflective assignments prioritise your own relevant experience. Project work, for example, may culminate in a reflective component (i.e., reflecting on how a business presentation went; reflecting on the process of creating a video game).
  • Although reflection centres something you completed or did, avoid relying on biased feelings and personal opinion: this is still academic writing!
  • Think of it as a reflective analysis. Break the subject down into parts: namely, decisions you made along the way, why you made them, their effects (good, bad, or neutral), and what you learned. Justify the "why" with evidence relevant to your field. In nursing, tying your actions to best practices from NHS guidelines would make sense. In a creative writing module, you might cite craft manuals when discussing your approach to backstory and dialogue.

Synthesize, "use a range of literature to..."

  • To synthesize means to create a new thing by combining parts of other things. For example, you are synthesizing if you write a paragraph that defines "influencer" by weaving together how the concept has been defined in two academic articles, in a digital newspaper, and on social media platforms. Synthesis demonstrates your ability to draw relevant connections between multiple sources of information.
  • Synthesis is the heart of academic writing. Odds are that you ought to be synthesizing ideas, facts, and data from different sources even if the assignment prompt doesn't use this term.
  • As with compare/contrast and outline/delineate, look for additional cues on how to use your synthesis. Are you meant to synthesize in order to defend an argument, support a reflective account, etc.?

What's the tension?

With any essay title you receive, you'll notice that some tension or uncertainty exists at the heart of it. It would be rare (and pointless!) for an instructor to assign an essay title that has one clear answer. Consider this invented essay question:

"How many people own houseplants in the UK now compared to pre-COVID?"

This is a terrible essay title because it is flat. There is nothing to explore or think through critically: just the expectation to provide the pre-pandemic number, find the post-pandemic number, and...then what? There is no tension.

Now, consider this essay question:

“Analyse the rising popularity of houseplants that began in the UK during the pandemic.”

This is a better essay prompt because it leaves room for the writer to discover and develop an angle. The question itself begets more questions. For example, what factors (social, personal, economic, etc.) influenced this change? Did popularity shift across all demographics or just some (and which, and why)? In other words, this question reveals layers of uncertainty that you can dig into as a writer.

Let’s return to examine the tension in an earlier essay prompt:

“Critically evaluate whether the Magna Carta is still relevant today.”

The word still suggests potential change over time, and there we discover a tension between the past and present. The writer will need to closely consider if/how the Magna Carta (i.e., a legal document of the past) translates or applies to contemporary society (i.e., the present).

Top tip: In the assignment question, keywords and phrases such as to what extent and whether point you directly to the crux of the uncertainty.

 

If you are still struggling to identify the tension in an essay title, turning it into a question can help. We'll explore that trick in the next tab of this guide.

Can you turn the statement into a question?

Instructors often use statements as essay titles. Keep the required title when you submit, of course, but as you plan your approach to the essay, it often helps to reformat the statement as a question for yourself. Returning to our now familiar example…

“Critically evaluate whether the Magna Carta is still relevant today.”

This could be posed in question form as the following:

Is the Magna Carta still relevant today?”

This slight change gives you something more tangible to focus on since, by nature, questions spark the mind to begin contemplating answers. You can also play with more specific variations of the questions you form to get your ideas flowing:

“Is the Magna Carta still relevant today, and if so, how?”

"Which tenets of the Magna Carta are still relevant today? How can the relevance of those tenets be proven?”

"What factors or qualities make the Magna Carta less relevant today?”

As you can see, framing and reframing such questions in new ways lays the groundwork for you to truly dig in and analyse the situation as a writer.


What if it's already a question?

If the assignment prompt is already in question form, you can still build it out with relevant questions to help you think through your writing strategy and potential content. For example, let's say this is the essay question:

"How do a nurse's communication practices influence trust when treating gender-diverse patients?"

Try putting this central question at the centre of a mind map, then adding branches for questions that help you dig in. You can also use a bulleted list to try this out, as so:

"How do a nurse's communication practices influence trust when treating gender-diverse patients?"

  • "What behaviours and skills do nursing 'communication practices' entail?"
    • "What kinds of literature could I use to unpack and define this?"
  • "How is patient 'trust' defined and understood in medical contexts?"
    • "And why is 'trust' imperative? What risks exist when trust is absent?"
  • "What are the positive/beneficial modes of 'influence'?"
    • "And how might negative/damaging 'influence' arise?"
  • "How is 'gender-diverse' defined and understood?"
    • "Do LGBTQ+ groups and medical literature define this differently?"
    • "What could make 'communication practices' more inclusive of gender-diverse patients?"

Note that each grouping of questions expands on keywords from the original question. By interrogating the question itself with further questions, you can really get the ball rolling! This will help you develop an initial sense of the research you need to conduct and points that might be relevant to make.

Can you narrow the scope?

By design, most assignment titles give you a great deal of breadth or scope. The seeming bigness of an assignment can be daunting: you might panic and ask yourself, “How in the world am I supposed to discuss ALL OF THIS in just 2,000 words?!”

The short answer? You likely aren’t supposed to discuss all of it, so take a deep breath! When the essay title is broad, instructors generally expect you to narrow the scope of your response. This means you limit your evaluation in some manner, finding one “angle” of exploration amongst the many options that exist. Let's return to our old title friend:

“Critically evaluate whether the Magna Carta is still relevant today.”

Okay, the Magna Carta is a very long, significant document. So if you're responding to this title, your essay will lack depth and feel rushed if you try to evaluate whether EVERY aspect of the Magna Carta is relevant in EVERY way in EVERY place, today. Instead, you can narrow the scope by doing things like…

  • Focusing on a specific clause or a couple related clauses of the Magna Carta (i.e., not the whole document);
  • Limiting the evaluation of relevance to a specific legal area, such as criminal court or land rights (i.e., not the entirety of LAW).

The way you choose to narrow the scope will vary according to the essay and field. Analysing a situation through one theoretical lens might sufficiently limit the scope: for example, analysing a poem using ecocritical theory rather than analysing the poem "in general." In other cases, the narrowing might relate to the evidence bank you choose to use, the demographic/population discussed, a tool or model used, etc.

Once you have found your angle, remember to use your introduction to clearly communicate your focus and argument (see our Crafting the Introduction guide for tips on thesis statements, aim statements, and essay maps).

Top tip: Think of narrowing the scope as a means to demonstrate your critical thinking. By limiting the breadth of your writing, you can enhance its depth – and focused depth tends to produce better marks than unfocused breadth.