When You Don’t Understand Your Assignment

A colleague of mine directs a writing center offering tutorial help to students of a large university. One year, he surveyed his clientele to find out how soon before a paper was due they had sought the center’s help. Did students most frequently come in two weeks before a paper was due? One week? Four days? In fact, the most frequent answer was none of the above. The most frequent answer students gave for when they sought help was two days before the paper was due. The second most frequent answer was—wait for it—the day before the paper was due. My colleague was disconsolate. He knew that 24 hours was not enough time to help students who were writing the wrong paper because they had misunderstood their assignment.

When is the best time to begin your writing assignment? Is it somewhere between three days and a week and a half before it’s due? Actually, the best time to start on your assignment is the moment your instructor hands it to you.  Before you even leave the classroom you should set to work on that assignment by scrutinizing it carefully. If there’s anything on that assignment sheet you don’t understand, you can’t afford to wait to find out what it is.

Consider your writing assignment an emergency that needs your immediate attention. They say that the decisions emergency responders make in their first five minutes at the scene are the most critical. It is in those first five minutes that firefighters and paramedics find out what they don’t know: the size of the blaze, what injuries are life-threatening, how close the nearest hospital or back up fire station is. When you are handed an assignment, it’s not burning up or bleeding from the jugular; nevertheless, what you find out in the first five minutes of getting the assignment can save your paper from developing more serious problems later on.

No instructor, no matter how good, puts everything they’re thinking onto the assignment sheet. And no student, no matter who well prepared, feels completely confident when facing a new writing challenge. Every assignment, from the thoroughly detailed to the open and sketchy, presents puzzles. What you need to complete your assignment is not more brains—you have enough—but clarity. And there are a few simple steps you can take to get it:

First, read the assignment. Read every line—not just the due date. Then read it three more times.

As you read the assignment, take notes on it, just as you would on a textbook chapter. Write questions in the margins. Underline words you don’t understand.

Listen to what the instructor says as the assignment is handed out.  Often instructors verbally explain the “big picture” of how the assignment fits into the course.  Understanding what you’re supposed to learn from writing the paper will help you complete it successfully.

Also in their verbal comments, instructors often give examples of what they “don’t” want to see in papers.  If you don’t easily see the difference between what they “don’t” want to see and what they “do” want to see, ask for more explanation.

The due date gives you a clue as to how much work you should be putting into a paper. Is the paper due in two weeks?  Then it probably shouldn’t be started the night before it is due. Believe me if your instructor thought that you could do the assignment overnight, they would have made the due date the next day.

Make a list of resources you will need to write the paper. Does it call for you to consult course readings? Go to the library? Interview someone? Make an estimate of how much time it will take you to gather whatever resources you need to write the paper.

Are citations required? Has your instructor given other specific formatting guidelines?  Do you have all the information you need to meet such requirements readily available?

Is your assignment really a sequence of mini-assignments? Has your instructor specified draft due dates, peer review dates, or given other signs that your paper will be constructed in pieces over time?

Consider what you bring to this assignment.  How can your perspective give a fresh take to the question being asked?  What ideas strike you as promising leads? Make notes of them.

Finally—and this is most important—force yourself to ask your instructor at least one question about the assignment.  It is always the case that when one student has a question, five other quieter students in the class have that same question. You’ll be helping yourself and helping your classmates. And your instructor will notice that you read the assignment.

Why do all this in the first five minutes, and not later? Because instructors do not love it when they get emails from students asking questions about the assignment the night before it is due. If an instructor ever suspected that their students write their papers at the last instant, once you have emailed them within hours of the due date, they know for sure. You’ll have plenty of time to ask follow-up questions if you ask your first on day one. Then, you can spend the night before a paper is due as God intended: proofreading.

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7 thoughts on “When You Don’t Understand Your Assignment”

  1. This was incredibly helpful. I am so glad that my teacher shared this with me. When I feel like slacking off, I will remind myself of this post. Amazing post!!! :D

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