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Academic Communication

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Understanding assignment questions

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Analysing the question

Before you begin your research, analyse the question or title of the assignment to work out exactly what your tutor wants.

Follow the instructions given in the wording of the title. The main components of a question are usually:

  • Subject matter(s) or topic(s)
  • Instructional words which tell you what to do
  • Specific aspects or restrictions of the subject matter

Some questions also contain additional directions. For example, source material you must include; that you should consider a particular teaching session; or observations from a fieldwork trip.

Break down your assignment question and work out its main components.

Example assignment question:

"Evaluate Shakespeare's use of metaphor in The Tempest"

This question is not asking for everything that can be said about 'The Tempest' or metaphor in Shakespeare. The task requires an evaluation of the use of metaphor, not just a description of where it is used.  The answer should only consider 'The Tempest', not any other Shakespeare plays.

This question may seem straightforward but it requires careful decoding. First, the writer must analyse how Shakespeare uses metaphor in this play, or in other words, the purpose served by metaphor. Having done that, the writer can place a value on these uses of metaphor: effective or not, profound, trite, repetitive etc.

Essay topics can seem obvious, but even the simplest question might need a detailed or complex response.

Put the question into a short clear statement

Analyse the subject area so that you can search for relevant information.

Define the topic(s) of your title, as well as any restrictions or limitations.

"Evaluate the earthquake resistance of building materials."

Put the subject (earthquakes and building materials) and the restrictions that define it (resistance of) into a short clear statement that will be a useful starting point when looking for information:

Resistance of building materials in earthquakes

Identify the concepts

Divide the subject up into separate concepts.

Then list synonyms (words that have the same or similar meaning) and other related words.

A thesaurus might help.

In our example "Evaluate the earthquake resistance of building materials", the concepts and synonyms could be:

Concept 1 Concept 2 Concept 3
Earthquake Building materials Resistance
Synonyms Synonyms Synonyms
Seismic activity Brickwork Resilience
Tremor Constructions Strength
Tectonic Stonework Withstanding

Analysing assignment questions activity (Adobe® Flash®)

Note: This page contains links to Flash content | What is Flash? (link to the BBC website)