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Written assignments, whether short response essays or long research papers, often seem overwhelming at first, but carefully reading and evaluating assignment guidelines and requirements will help you understand your goals and plan your paper. This can result in a more confident, optimistic approach to the assignment, and a more relaxed writing experience.
Whenever you receive an assignment, it’s important to review the requirements several times. Reading them over as soon as you receive them will help you to plan how much time you’ll need, and get a sense of the scope, or focus, of the project. If you look over them again right before you start researching or writing, they will be fresh in your mind, and you’ll use your time more effectively, since you’ll have a better idea of what tasks you need to accomplish. Finally, always reread the assignment requirements after you’ve completed your rough draft but before you’ve started revising it. This will help you make sure that you’ve fulfilled all of the requirements before you hand the work in for a grade.
The first time you read the assignment guidelines, it’s helpful to keep these types of questions in mind:
- What is the assignment asking you to do? Although most assignments require that you do many different things within them, they almost always have a main objective or purpose. This is what the paper should “do.” Look for words like argue, persuade, define, convince, compare, contrast (or compare and contrast), analyze, explain, present, summarize, report, recommend, narrate, outline, and discuss. Are you required to develop an original thesis or argument about a topic or issue? Will you be responding to another author’s book or article? Does the assignment have a question (or “prompt”) that the assignment will answer or respond to? If you can establish your primary goal, or purpose, for the assignment, it will be much easier to plan your work and manage your time.
- What skills will the assignment emphasize or teach? Assignments usually support, or require you to use, skills, tools, and/or techniques that you’re working on in your course. Will the assignment require you to use sources (books, articles, databases) that you discussed or read in class? Are there certain topics or issues that you’ve studied during the semester, and will the assignment be your opportunity to demonstrate your knowledge of or opinions about them? How does the paper assignment relate to the focus of your course?
- Does the assignment require research from secondary sources? Sometimes you’ll be using the library, online library databases, and/or the Internet to conduct research for your assignment, while other times you’ll be required to use only your own ideas or knowledge.
- If the assignment requires use of secondary sources, does it specify what types of resources you should use? If you are incorporating secondary sources, you may be required to use a certain type of source, such as an online library database. You may also be required to use a certain number of a certain type of source (a minimum of four library databases, for example). Being clear about this before you start researching will save you time later.
- Are there particular parts or components that you must include? There may be certain elements that you’re required to incorporate into your paper, such as graphics, charts, graphs, or summaries. You may also need to discuss certain points, subtopics, or questions within the paper (sometimes in a certain order). Look for these kinds of requirements as you review the assignment guidelines.
- Does the assignment need to use a particular citation style? Sometimes your instructor will require a certain citation style. American Psychological Association (APA), Modern Language Association (MLA), Chicago, and Turabian are among the most common citation styles. If the assignment guidelines don’t specify a particular citation style, check with your instructor, so you can format the citations as you write and develop your draft.
- Are there any formatting requirements? Do you need to use a particular font, margin size, or layout? Do you need a cover page? Does the title need to be in a certain spot?
- How long does the assignment need to be? Is there a minimum or maximum length for the paper?
- When is the assignment due? Make a note of the assignment’s due date, and plan accordingly. Also check to see if there’s one date when everything is due, or if you’re required to hand in certain parts individually. Sometimes you’ll submit a thesis statement or introduction before the rest of the paper, for example.
Considering these types of questions will help you to understand your assignment requirements and develop a plan. Always check with your instructor if you are unsure about any requirements.