54 Understanding the Assignment

Robin Jeffrey; Jenn Kepka; and Melissa Elston

Learning Objectives

  • Understand expectations for writing essays in an academic setting.
  • Identify the unique requirements for assignments depending on discipline and instructor.


Assignment analysis and drafting

We need to complete one more step in the analysis before we get down to writing the paper itself. However, before we move to this, it’s important to consider whether a paper is what’s being required.

Some faculty may ask for composition that happens not only in writing. Look for prompts that allow for different types of response, like a video, or a slideshow, a collage, or a podcast. This is sometimes referred to as multimodal composition, and you can find more information about how to analyze and respond to these assignments in Chapter 4.

Analyzing the requirements of the assignment

One of the first questions instructors usually get about an assignment is, “How long does it have to be?”, followed swiftly by, “When is it due?” These are important considerations in any assignment, but they shouldn’t define what you write about — until you’ve fully analyzed your assignment.

Once we understand the topic, have a question to answer, and know who we’re writing to and why, it’s time to figure out how much we can say. This is defined both by length requirements and time constraints.

These can take a little unpacking, too.

Considering required length

Some papers will require a set length, say three to five pages or 1,000 words. Almost all word processors will count words, lines, and pages for you. Watch the language of these requirements carefully. Here are some questions to ask about an instructor’s required length:

  • For page limits, are the pages single- or double-spaced? (If not, check; most college papers will be double-spaced, but some writing classes, such as business classes, will require different formats).
  • Is there a required font size? (If not, assume 12-point font will be used).
  • Does the page limit include reference pages? For instance, if I write a three-page paper but have a one-page list of sources, does the instructor consider this a four-page paper or a three-page paper? (Usually, source pages do NOT count into page limits or word counts).
  • Does the assignment require any tables, charts, or illustrations, and will they count into the overall length? (Don’t assume that they do!)
  • If a paper has only one limit, is it a minimum, maximum, or strict limit? For example, if you’re asked to write a four-page paper, does that mean you have to write AT LEAST four pages, AT MOST four pages, or EXACTLY four pages? It will make a big difference!

Once you’ve figured out how many pages you need, look at the other requirements for the paper. Some papers will ask you to use a specific model for formatting. Sometimes, these will be provided by the instructor. At other times, you’ll be expected to understand how to use a formatting style like MLA (Modern Language Association), APA (American Psychological Association), or Chicago Style.

  • You can find resources about each of these three major writing “styles” in online: One very good resource is About Writing, another open (free) text that describes basic research and citation styles. the sidebar. Each type has slightly different formatting requirements, and each type requires a writer to use citations of outside work in a different way.
  • If you’re not provided with a certain style to work with, either check with your instructor or default to MLA Style, as it is what’s taught in most writing/English classes.

These styles will tell you where to place page numbers, titles, and headings, and they’ll also tell you what the required margin spacing will be on each page.

Further requirements

The next requirement to consider is whether outside research is required, encouraged, or prohibited. Outside research is any work you need to do beyond your class textbooks and lecture. Considering how much research you’ll need to do is something we’ll discuss later, but it’s important to keep in mind that finding good, college-level sources will require time, as well as a more complex process than you may expect. It’s far more than just a Google search! You’ll also have to leave time to create a works cited page for all of the sources you use.

Using the deadline

Finally, we have to consider our timeline.

Most of us immediately consider the timeline in terms of our own schedule. How soon is the paper due? What do I need to accomplish before then? What else is going on that might slow my work down?

Knowing how long a paper needs to be and how much time we have to work on it can also help us narrow our question. That way, we don’t end up trying to answer a question that’s too big — meaning, a question that could only be answered by writing a book. We may also need to broaden our question sometimes, when the question we’re asking is so short it could be answered in only a few sentences.

Finally, remember to leave yourself not just time to write, but time to research, as well. Planning to complete a paper the night before its due assumes that everything else in your work (and life) will be going perfectly, allowing you uninterrupted time and space to finish the paper. If that’s not how your life usually goes, think about getting started early, and working on a first draft that you make “due” several days in advance, so that there’s always time to correct (and a cushion in case of emergency).

Determining the purpose

The wording of an assignment should suggest its purpose. Any of the following might be expected of you in a college writing assignment:

  • Summarizing information
  • Analyzing ideas and concepts
  • Taking a position and defending it
  • Combining ideas from several sources and creating your own original argument.

Understanding how to answer the assignment

College writing assignments will ask you to answer a how or why question – questions that can’t be answered with just facts. For example, the question “What are the names of the presidents of the US in the last twenty years?” needs only a list of facts to be answered. The question “Who was the best president of the last twenty years and why?” requires you to take a position and support that position with evidence.

Sometimes, a list of prompts may appear with an assignment. Remember, your instructor will not expect you to answer all of the questions listed. They are simply offering you some ideas so that you can think of your own questions to ask.

Recognizing implied questions

A prompt may not include a clear ‘how’ or ‘why’ question, though one is always implied by the language of the prompt. For example:

“Discuss the effects of the No Child Left Behind Act on special education programs” is asking you to write how the act has affected special education programs.

“Consider the recent rise of autism diagnoses” is asking you to write why the diagnoses of autism are on the rise.

Recognizing disciplinary expectations

Depending on the discipline in which you are writing, different features and formats of your writing may be expected. In writing studies, we call these features conventions.  Always look closely at key terms and vocabulary in the writing assignment, and be sure to note what type of evidence and citations style your instructor expects.

Adapted from About Writing: A Guide by Robin Jeffrey, CC BY 4.0

Adapted from Better Writing from the Beginning by Jenn Kepka, CC BY 4.0 


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Understanding the Assignment Copyright © by Robin Jeffrey; Jenn Kepka; and Melissa Elston is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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