Department of Lifelong Learning: Study Skills Series

How to ...

‘Answer assignment questions’

When you are first given an assignment topic, you may wonder where to begin.  The best place to start is by thoroughly examining the assignment question you have been given.  If you understand what is being asked of you, you will know where to begin researching and you will understand how the task is relevant to your other course work.  Your tutor will give you the exact wording of the assignment question.  If, after reading this guide, you still do not understand what is being asked of you, be sure to discuss the question with your tutor. 

Assignment questions at university will not ask you to only reproduce information you have read elsewhere.  You will also need to form your own opinions and will need to state the opinion articulately, supporting your ideas with expert opinion and facts.  When writing a university assignment, you may have to argue for one case or another, you might have to provide a detailed, critical analysis of a statement or opinion, you may have to make comparisons or solve case studies. 

But, how do you distinguish one task from another?  How can you be sure that you’re starting on the right track?  The answer is that you should take time out to make sure that you understand the question.  Take the question apart, rewrite it in your own words and compile a list of tasks based on the question.  Take the following question as an example:

Choose two artists whose work you enjoy.  Make specific reference to at least three pieces by each artist and compare what you regard to be the distinctive characteristics of their work.

What is the main task here?  If you look closely, you’re being asked to make a comparison between two artists’ work.  The rest of the information is simply there to provide you with some scope.  So, how do you get started?  Split the question into smaller tasks.  For example, the first task is to choose two artists.  You might already know of a couple of artists whose work you enjoy.  Otherwise, you might find yourself flipping through art books, looking for pieces that appeal to you.  After choosing the artists, you will need to research and find three pieces of each artist’s work that you wish to compare.  The next task might be a compilation of a list of distinctive characteristics of each artist’s work.  After completing all of these tasks, you would then begin to make a comparison of the artists’ work and to read the opinions of art experts in textbooks and other readings.

Here is a similar question, worded in a different way.

Manet’s depiction of the Paris urban scene is more realistic than Degas’s.  Evaluate this statement and illustrate with reference to at least 3 pieces by each artist.

Again, you’re being asked to compare the work, but this question is a little more complex in that it asks for your opinion about which artist is more realistic.  In the previous question you were asked to ‘compare’, in this question, there are two main tasks: to ‘evaluate’ and to ‘illustrate’.  Therefore in this case, you would also have to formulate an opinion and substantiate the opinion with that of experts, and with examples. You would also have to support your argument by using the artists’ work as concrete examples.  You might start by reading about what art critics and art historians have to say regarding the topic.  After reading the experts’ opinions, you might formulate your own opinion.  After this, you might begin looking for concrete pictorial evidence that supports your opinion.  The way in which you complete these tasks is completely up to you.  You will eventually find a way to prepare and work through your own task list.

In the last paragraph, we looked at the words ‘Compare’ and ‘evaluate’.  These are known as directive words.  When they make up part of an essay question, they instruct you as to the main purpose or task of the assignment.  Below is a list of directive words and their meanings.  This list was adapted from the work of Marshall and Rowland (1993) by Di Lewis (1999: 42) for her publication, The written assignment.

Analyse

Show the essence of something by breaking it down into its component parts and examining each part in detail.

Argue

Present the case for and against a particular proposition.

Compare

Look for similarities and differences between propositions.

Contrast

Place the two propositions in opposition in order to show the differences between them.

Criticise

Give your judgement about the merit of theories or opinions about the truth or facts, and back your judgement by a discussion of evidence.

Define

Set down the precise meaning of a word or phrase.  Show that the distinctions implied in the definition are necessary.

Describe

Give a detailed or graphic account of the characteristics of the subject.

Differentiate

Show the difference between two things by determining their distinctions.

Discuss

Investigate or examine by argument, sift and debate, giving reasons for and against.

Enumerate

Listen or specify and describe one by one.

Evaluate

Make an appraisal of the worth of something, in the light of its apparent truth or utility.  Include your personal opinion, supported by evidence.

Explain

Make clear, interpret, and account for in detail.

Explore

Thoroughly inquire into a topic by examining and analysing every aspect of it.

Illustrate

Explain and make clear by the use of concrete examples or by the use of figure diagrams.

Interpret

Bring out the meaning of, and make clear and explicit; usually also giving your own judgement.

Investigate

Search, study and carefully survey all areas of the subject.

Justify

Defend or show adequate grounds for decisions or conclusions.

Outline

Give the main points or general principles of a subject, omitting minor details, and emphasising structure and relationship.

Prove

Demonstrate truth or falsity by presenting evidence.

Relate

Narrate or show how things are connected to each other and to what extent they are alike or affect each other.

Review

Make a survey of, examining the subject critically.

State

Specify details fully and clearly.

Summarise

Give a concise account of the chief points or substance of a matter, omitting details and examples.

Trace

Identify and describe the development or course of history of a topic from some point or origin.

When given an assignment question, look for these directive words to help you decipher the main task required of you.

(Samantha Dhann, July 2001)