It is important that as a student you always answer the set question. While this sounds simple and like basic common sense it is not always as easy as it sounds. Once you have begun to research a topic, your mind is full of thoughts and ideas, some of which go off on a tangent which is not always related to the prescribed question.
One way to ensure your response is on target is to analyse the question carefully.
Rewrite the task
In order to start on track, complete the following steps.
This task asks me to…
Use words that you are familiar and comfortable with.
Write your version of the question on a piece of paper. Whenever you are working on the assignment, either researching or writing, make sure you have the piece of paper with you. Glance at it regularly to ensure you are staying on task.
A task word is the directive word/words in your assignment. There are a number of task words that are common to university assignments. They include such words as discuss, identify, explain, evaluate, analyse. These words have defined and recognised meanings when applied to university assignments. Sometimes courses/faculties will supply a list of task words and their meanings for students and staff too to observe. This helps with both consistency of answer on the students' part and the requirements and expectations of the lecturer.
It is important to search through the information provided for you by your course lecturer and the faculty to see if information like this has been supplied. If it has not, then you will need to rely on generic information. The University of South Australia has defined the most frequently used task words.
Your assignment question may contain instructions about the structure you should use for your assignment. For example your task might be:
Write an essay on the following statement or
Write a report on …
If this is the case, it is important to know what your lecturer's interpretation of an essay or report is. You need to be quite clear on what is involved in meeting the assignment's requirements. So firstly check the material supplied by your lecturer and your faculty. Sometimes lecturers provide detailed guidelines on what they require. Many also provide criteria sheets. If no advice is provided, use generic guidelines and advice on how to develop these assignment structures appropriately. Other sections of ALSOnline explain what is generally required in an academic essay and a report.
Sometimes a question or topic will ask you to develop an argument. This is a different task to being asked to argue a ‘for or against' case. An academic argument is the development of a position or stand on an issue. As a student you arrive at this stance after having thoroughly researched the topic and explored a number of researchers' different positions or points of view on the issue. While the position you decide to take is your own and should be expressed in your own words, it is based on research and not personal opinion. This position can also be termed your thesis statement and can be presented using the words:
This essay will argue that…
The thesis statement you arrive at is the focal point of your essay. It is produced in the introduction to your essay. The argument you develop throughout the essay expounds and supports the position taken in the thesis statement.
Once you have decided on your thesis statement, you can work on developing an academic argument to support it. It is important that your argument develops logically and supports the thesis, while at the same time answering the assignment question. To do this, you need to select a set of main ideas that substantiate your thesis. These main ideas become the focus of each paragraph with a main idea beginning each paragraph. For further details, see paragraph structure or essay writing.
The following analysis of a simple, sample assignment illustrates the steps involved in analysing assignment questions.
The topic of the sample assignment is:
Describe Maslow's hierarchy of needs.
The question can be analysed in terms of the topic, limits, task:
Describe Maslow's hierarchy of needs.
- Topic: hierarchy of needs
- Limits: Maslow's
- Task: Describe
Topic = content words; Limits = limiting words; Task=task words
When you read a question look for the topic. It contains the content words of the question eg Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Think what you know already about this topic.You recognise that the topic is a well-known hypothesis proposed by humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow.
The topic has limiting words. You are required to control your writing so it is within the scope of the topic you have to write about. The limiting word in this question is Maslow's. You need to control the scope of your answer to theorist Maslow. Do not be tempted to compare and contrast another analyst's proposition.
Also take care to control your answer to hierarchy of needs not to personality traits or management or another aspect of Maslow's propositions.
The task is the academic action you must take to satisfy the requirements of the question. The task is describe. Academic questions usually include at least one task word. Sometimes the tasks are explicit like this one. The task is clearly describe which means:
Give a detailed account or recount of facts, features, processes or events or relate in sequence or in story form. Be prepared to give explicit characteristics when you describe.
Other clear task words often used in assignment questions are analyse, arrange, compare, contrast, criticise. describe, discuss, enumerate, examine, evaluate, illustrate, interpret, justify, list, outline, prove, relate, review, state, summarise, trace.
More Complex Assignments
Some assignments are more complex and students have to perform more than one task in the one question, or they have to understand tasks that are implied rather than explicitly stated.
Focus on the relationship between the task(s) and the content of the questions. The question may appear in more than one sentence. Read the whole question and analyse what you have to focus on in your answer.
Focussing Strategy: Chunk and Synthesise
When you read an assignment question you are expected to break the text into smaller meaningful chunks, and to think about each chunk. If you then write in your own words what you are expected to do, then you will synthesise meaning in the process.
Applying the Strategy to a Sample Question
The sample question is:
Define loneliness. Describe the potential effects of a long period of loneliness on a person's health and well-being
First chunk: Define loneliness.
- Read the chunk with the purpose of understanding: Define loneliness.
- Think about what you already know on the topic and ask yourself a question to explore the topic thoroughly: A definition of this term could be in sociological terms or medical terms. What are the significant differences?
- Write out in your own words your next action. Look up the definition which is relevant to this question. Keep this definition in mind as you work through the readings and make notes.
Second chunk: Describe the potential effects of a long period of loneliness on a person's health and well-being.
- Read the chunk with the purpose of understanding: Describe the potential effects of a long period of loneliness on a person's health and well-being.
- Think about what you already know on the topic and ask yourself a question to explore the topic thoroughly: There are many possible physical results of a person being alone and feeling lonely over a long time. How could you describe the features and characteristics of a person whose health is being affected?
- Write out in your own words your next action: Look for readings on the topic of loneliness and health. Make notes on features of different effects.
Some assignment topics are complex because the task is not explicit; it is implied. You have to look for clues in the relationships between words and phrases in the assignment topic, and in the limits, to understand the intention of the question.
Read through the sample assignment questions below which are examples of implied tasks.
Questions which imply a comparison and /or contrast:
'Banking procedures in each country are not universal. Discuss.'
'Examine an Australian model of immersion language teaching as an example of international trends in bilingual education.'
Questions which ask for the cause and/or effect relationships to be exposed:
'The inequity of health status of people between developed and developing countries is politically, socially and economically determined. Discuss with reference to one developing country in the Asia Pacific region.'
Questions which imply an opinion needs to be given:
'Examine the causes of land degradation in Australia. Who should bear the cost of repair? Give reasons for your view.'
Questions which imply evaluation:
'Australia is not highly regarded by other nations for its contribution to the greenhouse effect. Why is Australia seen as a major contributor to the perceived problem?'