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Learning Portal - Writing : Understanding the Assignment

Understanding the Assignment

Understanding what is being asked in an assignment is the first step in planning your academic essay. If Google Maps says turn left and you turn right, you may not arrive at your destination no matter how well you drive. Following directions carefully is very important in academic essay writing and the consequences for going in the wrong direction can be serious.


Top Tips 

✓ Read the assignment carefully. Pay special attention to key or "command" words like "Compare," "Contrast," or "Discuss."

✓ Understand the instructions. Make sure you know what the command words mean before you start writing.

✓ Highlight key terms. Refer to these terms often to ensure that you are doing what the assignment asks.

✓ Access help when in doubt. Discuss the assignment with your instructor if you have doubts about the instructions. Peer tutors can also be good resources.

Study Tools

Assignment Terms

Understanding Key Terms

There are many key terms in essay assignment questions that can be confusing. Having a good understanding of the differences between each term can help you determine how you should approach your paper. The tabs to the right explain several different common key terms.

Key term: Discuss

Definition - Write an essay or provide an answer about a particular topic.

Tip - Give a brief summary of the character(s) or idea(s) that you will be mentioning in your paper. You can do this by defining key terms or by using quick anecdotes from the piece.

Key term: Analyze

Definition - Describe any similarities, differences, or associations between two or more subjects.

Tip - Do not simply summarize the story or article in your paper. You must go beyond surface ideas and dig deep for further meaning.

Key term: Support

Definition - Provide concrete evidence as to why something is true or false.

Tip - This term directs you to show - not tell - readers why something is true or false. The important thing here is how well you can support your position on a topic, not what the actual position is.

Key term: Describe

Definition - Provide an explanation on a specific subject or object.

Tip - Imagine that your readers have no background information on your topic. Consider the point of view of the reader when you write so that your description can be clear and concise.

Key term: Evaluate

Definition - This term asks for your opinion on a particular subject.

Tip - Remember, your opinion is valid only when you are able to justify and support it with solid evidence. Be sure to look at both sides of an argument, and counter the opposing arguments.

Key term: Criticize (or critique)

Definition - This term asks for your position on a particular subject.

Tip - Do not simply critique something independent of its relationship to other parts. Instead, you should relate this idea or object to other parts of the text and explain how it helps you understand the overall meaning of the text.

Planning a Written Assignment

Mind Maps 

To make a mind map, start by placing the main idea in the middle of the page. Then, work in all directions writing down keywords and/or images that represent the supporting ideas. The result is an organized structure composed of keywords, lines, arrows, circles, squares, etc. that show the relationships among ideas.


  • Forces you to recognize key ideas and think about their relationships.

  • Reduces the amount of notes you need to take.

  • Organizes the material you are learning and improves your recall of key components.

  • Words and ideas that are closely associated are recalled together.

  • Images/things that stand out visually can be easier to recall than words. For instance, try enhancing the visual appeal of your mind map by using colour, different printing styles, shading and shapes.

Essay Organization Graphic by Claire Pienaar, 2021.

Patterns of Organization

At the point where you are reading your assignment and making sure you understand what you are being asked to do, it is also important to start to think about how you are going to organize your writing. Thinking about the different patterns of organization helps you not only to understand the expectations of the assignment, but to generate ideas as well.

Using organization patterns allows writers to clearly outline their ideas and for readers to understand those ideas, because the patterns are recognizable and logical.

Patterns of organization include:

  • Description
  • Cause and effect
  • Sequence
  • Compare and contrast
  • Problem and solution


Unless otherwise stated, the material in this guide is from the Learning Portal created by College Libraries Ontario. Content has been adapted for the GPRC Learning Commons in June 2021. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY NC SA 4.0 International License.

All icons on these pages are from The Noun Project. See individual icons for creator attribution. 

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