Understanding your assignment

You have a written assignment due. You haven’t started it yet. What does it all mean? Where do you start?

Start early and have a plan

Know the word limits of the task and plan your time. About 45% - 60% of the time you spend on a writing task should be at the planning, research and structuring stages before you even start the first draft. That means that about 35% - 40% is for the writing, drafting, editing and proofreading stages. So it’s important to start early.

Before you even begin writing, it is a good idea to develop a plan of attack. There are steps to follow and ways to make sure you produce work which both answers the question and produces something you are happy with.

Understanding the question/task

Look for:

  • Direction Words: These tell you how to approach the writing task, for example, Discuss, Evaluate, Critically analyse, Compare and so on.
  • Subject Words or Topic Words: These tell you what the main subject is.
  • Limit Words: Narrow the focus of your subject.

Activity 1: Analysing the question

Determine the direction, subject/topic and focus/limit words of the following question:

"Discuss some cultural issues public health workers should be aware of when practising in an Aboriginal community."


  • Direction Word = "Discuss" - present a subject and give points of view about it, your own and those of other writers. Give a range of information, evidence and opinion. 
  • Topic Word = "some cultural issues" - Take your direction word and ask "what", ie. Discuss what?
  • Focus/Limit Words = Narrow the focus of the question by placing the topic in some sort of framework; so which specific aspects of the topic need to be researched and discussed? For example:
    • Who is involved? = "public health workers"
    • Where is the focus? = "when practising in an Aboriginal community"

Examples of direction words

Break subject into parts and show how they relate to each other and to other subjects.
Systematically support or reject a position by presenting evidence.
Express your view or interpretation of a statement contained in the question. Support your view with argument and/or experience.
Express similarities between two or more subjects, systems, ideas or arguments.
Demonstrate differences between two or more objects, systems, ideas or arguments.
Make judgements, favourable and/or unfavourable, using fair argument and balanced evidence.
Present a subject and give points of view about it, your own and those of other writers. Give a range of information, evidence and opinion. There may be argument and analysis but the main quality is the range of opinion canvassed.

Present material in list or outline form, usually without comment.

Make judgements using argument, opinion and evidence. Similar to 'criticise' but places more emphasis on established standards of quality and 'excellence'.
Similar to 'analyse', with a little more emphasis on judgement/appraisal.
Assign or interpret meanings clearly by analysing events or systems, giving reasons, describing how things develop. Your focus is on the 'how' and 'why' of an issue, not so much on evaluation or criticism.
Use figure, picture, diagram or concrete examples to explain / clarify a problem.
A systematic listing of information or argument giving main points and subordinate points in order, omitting details.
Examine a subject critically, dealing with a number of explanations or theories; listing and relating a series of events that are being used as evidence for a theory.
Give a brief statement or account that covers the main points in sequence; without critical comments.

Brainstorming the question/task

Once you’ve understood the question, and before you do any research and reading, brainstorm the question: Note down what you already know about the topic and where some of the gaps in your knowledge are. This helps you generate ideas to eventually structure an initial outline to guide your research and reading stages.

To brainstorm you can write the topic words, direction words, and limit words across a sheet of paper and begin to fill in the sections. Or you can use visual mapping software and then generate ideas and questions by writing them around these words.

Use the Wh-Questions of what, where, when, why, how, who, which, to what extent to help you generate ideas. Connect the ideas and questions that you’ve generated using arrows.

Activity: Brainstorming

Brainstorm the question: "Discuss some cultural issues public health workers should be aware of when practising in an Aboriginal community."

Some of your starting questions could include:

  • What are public health workers currently taught about this? By whom?
  • What are the main cultural issues relevant to Aboriginal communities?
  • How are they different from issues in non-Aboriginal communities?
  • Which are the most important? Why?
  • Which Aboriginal communities will I concentrate on?

These questions will give you ideas and keywords which will help you in the next steps to draw up an initial structure for your assignment.

Grouping and thematising

After you’ve brainstormed your question, look for common themes within the chaos! Ask yourself: what ideas seem to be related? Mark or colour-code them. Think of headings for these groups.

After you’ve grouped your ideas, thematise them under headings (or sub-topics) appropriate to the essay. This will help you then to structure your assignment.