Understanding the assignment

Different professors write their assignments in very different ways and some are more detailed and specific in their demands than others. In order to write a good essay it is obviously very important that you understand the assignment and the question. The best way, as always, is to ask the instructor about anything confusing. Do not wait until the last minute to read and understand the assignment. Read it as soon as possible so you can let ideas simmer for some time and have enough time to find sources, make revisions, proof read and so forth. These are a few steps you can take to work productively with the assignment.

  • Read the complete assignment before you do anything else. This will give you an idea of the overall purpose of the assignment and how it fits with the class.
  • Indicate (by underlining, circling, or highlighting) the portions that you absolutely must know and address in your paper. This information may include due date, research (source) requirements, page length, and format (CMS, APA, MLA).
  • Underline or circle important phrases in the assignment. Often a specific class will use specific words or language because of the subject of the class - this can pedagogical, theoretical, historical, or methodological terms. If these words are also used in the assignment you are probably expected to work actively with this language.
  • Think about how you will answer the assignment. An assignment often contains clues on how to write the assignment; your specific assignment will often contain a number of questions or tasks. Think about each of these and number them so that you can write a paragraph or section of your essay on that portion if necessary.
  • Rank your initial ideas as a help for structuring your argument, your answer to the question. Making these choices are absolutely necessary in making an argument and will inform the nature of your argument.
  • Ask your instructor questions if you have any. Again, the sooner you read the assignment the sooner you can clarify with your professor what she/he expects from your paper.

After you are finished with these steps, ask yourself the following:

  • What is the purpose of this assignment? Is my purpose to provide information without forming an argument, report on a book, report on a teaching experience, to construct an argument based on research, or analyze a piece of music and discuss it in music specific terminology?
  • Who is my audience? Is my instructor my only audience? Who else might read this? Will it be posted online? What are my readers' needs and expectations?
  • What resources do I need to begin work? Do I need to focus solely on a specific piece of music? Do I need to conduct literature research? Do I need to review important literature on the topic and then conduct empirical research, such as a survey or an observation? How many sources are required?
  • Who – beyond my instructor – can I contact to help me if I have questions? Will I need to contact the writing center to set up a tutoring session? Will I need to meet with my professor? Should I meet with fellow students in a writing group? Could I meet with the writing fellow who visited my class and gave that workshop on outlining?

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