Beyond Following Directions: Getting the Most Out of Your Assignment Prompts

Liz Soule, Writing Consultant

Have you ever read the instructions for an assignment and felt totally stumpedLiz Soule

You’re not alone. Last semester, dozens of students came to the University Writing Center to talk with me about their assignment prompt. Given how common this issue is, I thought it might be helpful if I share some of my tricks of the trade. In this blog post, I’ll be sharing methods any writer can use to decipher prompts and demystify assignments. We’ll begin by looking at the different features of a writing assignment prompt. To do this, we’ll review an assignment prompt I received in my English 102 class.

For your analysis of fiction essay, you want to choose a story and provide an analysis of some aspect of the story (a character, a theme, a metaphor, foreshadowing, or catharsis, for example). Your thesis should state specifically what aspect of the story you are analyzing and then HOW you will analyze it. The body of your essay should break down into 4-6 supporting sections. The conclusion of your essay should place your thesis in a social context.

The first step to understanding any assignment is to understand the task at hand. To do this, we look at the assignment prompt for certain understandings. We should find out what actions we are being asked to take, how we should go about it, and what the requirements of our assignment are.

What am I being asked to do?

Looking at the first sentence of my assignment, it becomes clear what kind of paper I am writing: an essay about fiction. The question is, what am I to do in this essay? By looking for keywords in my assignment, I come to understand what action I’ll need to take. As you can tell by the words I’ve formatted in bold, there is a trend regarding the word analyze (and related words, analysis and analyzed). This tells me that the focus of my essay is to analyze fiction.

How do I do it?

How am I to go about doing this? My professor laid out some breadcrumbs for me to follow in the form of essay parts: thesis, body and conclusion. In the thesis, I should lay out what aspect I am analyzing (e.g., a theme), and how I will do it (e.g., evaluating key plot points). The body needs to include 4-6 supports, which means that there will be 4-6 body paragraphs, each including their own unique story-related evidence that supports my thesis. Finally, the conclusion has to tie my overall point into a social issue.

But what if you’ve gone through this process and you’re still not sure? What if the assignment instructions are vague or unclear? What then? Sometimes, you need to think a little deeper, beyond the instructions, and look to the outcomes. Although they might not feel like it in the moment, writing assignments aren’t meant to torture you. Professors assign them so that you can practice skills, and show what you know.

What are you supposed to learn by writing this? (What is the course supposed to teach you?)

One of the ways a professor might teach you about discipline-related information (e.g., concepts in sociology) in your course is through the process of writing. This is known as “writing to learn”. Essentially, it’s thought that writing helps us engage with ideas more actively than reading might. You might be putting concepts together through writing, or coming to understand a text or topic better through the process of writing about it.

In other cases, writing assignments are utilized to help students hone their writing skills so that they can tackle more complex tasks. Many assignments in English 101 and 102 both connect together and build upon one another. For instance, in English 101, you might be asked to write an argument, then summarize another’s argument, and finally write an argumentative essay. In English 102, you may analyze an artifact, which leads to an annotated bibliography, which culminates in a research project.

In both of these cases, you can show what you know by engaging as best as you can with the skills or content areas you are supposed to be learning. This not only help you complete your assignment, but will help develop your knowledge and abilities overall.

 What knowledge can you show through your writing? (What is your professor hoping to assess?)

This leads us to the other goal of writing assignments: student assessment. This might seem like an obvious statement, but in the midst of writing the assignment, we can lose track of what exactly this means. As we write, we often focus heavily on how clear or eloquent our writing is, or how close we are to meeting requirements. In times like this, it’s important to step back and think: what have I learned in the course? How can I use this assignment to show what I know? This often leads to a more authentic assignment.

Finally: Talk to your professor.

If you’ve completed all these tasks, and you still aren’t sure, then it’s time to approach your professor. Try and think of specific questions you have about the assignment. For instance, if the format of the assignment wasn’t clear, you could ask about that. Likewise, if you’re not sure how it connects to what you’ve learned, you can always ask.

As always, University Writing Center consultants are here to help you in breaking down assignment prompts and getting started. We’re happy to help you read through your assignment prompt and answer these questions.

For more help, check out the following resources:

How can I better understand my assignment?

Common keywords in assignment prompts

Five tips for interpreting writing prompts

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