Where to Begin
Regardless of the subject, lecturer or assignment style, you cannot go wrong by adopting the following two habits when approaching an assignment brief:
- Read the assignment brief carefully as soon as you receive it. The sooner you become familiar with the assignment brief, the more time you will have to analyse and understand what is expected of you. The simplest, most straightforward assignment briefs can turn out to be the most complicated, time consuming of assignments to produce.
- Ask your lecturer about anything you are not sure of or do not understand. Do not be afraid to ask if you need help with understanding an assignment brief. A lecturer would much rather spend time helping you come to grips with an assignment brief than assessing an assignment that has totally missed the mark.
Assignment Brief Format
Most written assignment briefs follow a basic format:
- An Overview
- Task Words
- Content Words
- Limiting Words
- Technical Information
The lecturer may (or may not) set the stage by providing you with a quote or general introductory statement on the topic of the assignment, or a cue which reminds you of something pertinent that was discussed in lectures.
Task words tell you what you have to do; the action you need to perform when crafting your response. You can identify task words by looking for the action words / verbs in the assignment question / statement. Words such as: identify, analyse, discuss, or illustrate; these action verbs provide you with instructions on how to approach the topic of the assignment. Also look for words such as how, who, when, what, why, and where; these words further specify the task of the assignment.
These words tell you what the topic area is and thus what it is you should write about. Content words set and define the assignment topic scope; they assist in focusing your research and reading on a particular area.
Limit and focus the topic; they define the focus of the topic even further, highlighting aspects of the topic you need to concentrate on.
Throughout time, journalists have played a key role in politics and transformation.
Analyse the effect left-wing journalism had on the fall of the Apartheid government between 1984 and 1994.
Overview: Throughout time, journalists have played a key role in politics and transformation.
Task Word: Analyse
Content Word/s: left-wing journalism, fall of Apartheid government
Limiting Words: between 1984 and 1994
This includes instructions such as:
- formatting rules – font, font size, spacing
- structural guidelines – length, referencing system
- mark allocation and / or marking rubric
- penalties – late submission, plagiarism
- submission date
An assignment brief may not follow this exact format, in this exact order. However, being familiar with the standard format will help you in figuring out what your lecturer is asking of you.
Unpacking the Assignment Question
The following questions are often helpful when unpacking an assignment question:
- Why did my lecturer set this specific assignment?
- Who is my audience?
- Am I making a point?
- What kind of evidence do I need to support my argument / idea / theory?
- What are the non-negotiable rules of this assignment?
Why did my lecturer set this specific assignment?
Assignments are not given for the mere sake of collecting marks and making student’s miserable. Assignments are scheduled at a particular point in the semester, for a particular reason. The purpose of assignments is to get students to demonstrate their ability to make use of the information they have learned in a particular way, for a particular purpose.
Subjects are designed with a specific learning experience in mind. By reviewing the subject outline, assigned readings, and the assignment brief, you may be able to identify the overall plan, purpose or approach the lecturer has for the subject. Once you’ve identified this bigger picture, the next question to ask yourself is: “What is the purpose of completing this assignment?” Is it to gather research and present a coherent argument? Is it to take material learnt in class and apply it to a new situation? The active verbs used in the assignment brief can help you to answer this question.
Below are common verbs and their definitions often used in assignment briefs?
Information words ask you to demonstrate what you know about a subject, such as: who, what, when, why, and how.
- Define: give a clear, to-the-point, systematic explanation or description of a concept/s; to reflect the precise meaning thereof.
- Explain: clarify the term, concept or topic by presenting it in your own words and according to your own understanding. If required you may include examples in order to illustrate how something happened.
- Illustrate: give descriptive examples of the subject and show how each is connected with the subject.
- Summarise: prove the key or most important aspects of a topic.
- Trace: outline how something has changed or developed from an earlier time to its current form.
- Research: gather material from outside sources about the topic, often with the implication or requirement that you will analyse what you have found.
Relational words ask you to demonstrate how things are connected.
- Compare: identify the characteristics or qualities two or more things have in common – possibly pointing out their differences as well.
- Contrast: pointing out the differences between two or more things – possibly pointing out their similarities as well.
- Apply: use details that you’ve been given to demonstrate how an idea, theory, or concept works in a particular situation.
- Relate: show or describe the connections between things.
Interpretation words ask you to defend your ideas about a topic. Unless the assignment topic specifically says so, do not provide your opinion alone, always support this with relevant evidence.
- Assess: consider the value or importance of something, paying due attention to positive, negative and disputable aspects, and include the opinion of known authorities, as well as your own.
- Justify: express valid reasons for accepting a particular interpretation or conclusion.
- Prove: demonstrate the truth of something by offering irrefutable evidence and / or logical sequence of statements leading from evidence to conclusion.
- Evaluate: state your opinion of the subject as good, bad, or some combination of the two, with examples and reasons.
- Analyse: break an issue down into its component parts, discuss them and show how they interrelate.
- Argue: make a case, based on appropriate evidence for and / or against some given point of view.
Who is my audience?
The obvious answer to this question would be: the lecturer; and you would be right. However, in addition to your lecturer, when crafting a response to an assignment question include in your audience someone like a classmate (not doing the same assignment): a peer who is smart enough to understand a clear and logical response but is not familiar enough with the subject to know exactly what is required in your response. In other words, after reading your assignment response the reader must have learnt something new or have a better understanding of the topic than before. Your lecturer may know everything there is to know about the particular assignment topic, but they are assessing your understanding and ability to clearly and logically convey that understanding.
Knowing who your audience is will also guide you in deciding on how much information to provide and at what level. If you decide that the only audience member is your lecturer and because they know everything about the topic you may decide leave out key information (for example an explanation for a technical term or procedure) that is actually required in your response in order to make it convincing and logical.
Am I making a point?
It is easy to become overwhelmed by all the research you’ve done for a particular assignment and fall into the trap of merely regurgitating what you have read or learnt; instead of using the information to make a point and construct an argument which relates back to or answers the assignment question.
Convincing your audience of your argument (response) is the point of an assignment. The assignment brief does not have to include the actual word “argument” in it; but when looking at the assignment question, think about the argument (response) you can create and present to the audience rather than just generating a checklist of points or facts or information you know should be included.
What kind of evidence do I need to support my argument / idea / theory?
There are many different forms of evidence: statistics, historical facts, research outcomes etc. The type of evidence you need for your particular assignment will depend on various factors: the parameters of the assignment, the subject, the specific topic of the assignment. You wouldn’t necessarily include a statistical graph in response to an Animation assignment question.
It is important to include the correct kinds of evidence in your assignment as they are often key to helping you convey your understanding and add substance to your argument.
What are the non-negotiable rules of this assignment?
This question refers to the “technical information” given as part of your assignment brief i.e. formatting rules, structural guidelines, mark allocation etc. This may not seem relevant to your planning and drafting of an assignment response, but it is where marks are most often lost because students have not read and have not followed these non-negotiable rules.
The information provided in this section of the assignment brief also provides you with hints as to how to go about responding to the assignment question. For example, if the lecturer gives you a maximum word count or number of pages for the assignment, they are telling you how many pages / words it should take you to adequately cover the topic. If an assignment is meant to be a maximum of 3 pages, you know that you need to be concise by making your point early and supporting it with clear and definite evidence. Whereas, if an assignment is meant to be a maximum of 10 pages, you have the “space” to be more complex and detailed in your response. If, however, you are only able to squeeze out 4 pages for a 10 page assignment, you need to go speak to your lecturer and ask for guidance.
Final Words of Wisdom
- Do use “spell checker” – but make sure that it is set to either UK or South African English.
- Do get a friend to read through your assignment for you – a new set of eyes can pick up spelling, grammar and other mistakes, as well as give you feedback on whether or not your response makes sense.
- Do ensure that you have referenced correctly throughout your assignment – BMH makes use of the Harvard Referencing Method. Don’t know what that means? Start attending your Academic Literacy classes ASAP!
- Do give yourself enough time to research and complete your assignment – having problems with time management? Refer to the BMH Student Wellness Blog for help with: time management, concentration, studying skills etc. (https://bmhstudentwellness.wordpress.com )
- Do not spend more time on the cover page than on the actual assignment – pictures, coloured pages and expensive binders are no replacement for a well thought out and written assignment. This obviously excludes an assignment brief which requires some form of creative presentation.
- Do not use huge fonts, wide margins, or extra spacing as a way to pad the page length – these “tricks” can be easily spotted and merely highlight the fact that you are purposefully trying pad your assignment.
- Do not use text speak, abbreviations or slang in your written assignments e.g b4, U, wld, cray-cray – unless the inclusion of such serves an actual purpose and forms part of your response to the assignment question.
- Do not answer an assignment question using bullet points – unless otherwise stated always write in full sentences; one idea or main point per paragraph; punctuation, spelling and grammar are important.
- Do not plagiarise – refer to Section 5.8: Assessment – Point viii – page 25 of your Student Rulebook for more information.
The following works were consulted and / or adapted from in order to create this guideline. Please click on the links below in order to be directed to the original works.
The Learning Centre, The University of New South Wales. (2012). Answering Assignment Questions. Retrieved from: http://www.lc.unsw.edu.au/onlib/pdf/assignquestions.pdf Accessed: 25 February 2015].
The Writing Centre, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (2012). Understanding Assignments. Retrieved from: http://writingcenter.unc.edu/handouts/understanding-assignments/ . [Accessed: 25 February 2015].