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Research Smarter: Information Literacy Skills: Understanding Assignments

Build essential research skills for college success and lifelong learning.

So You Have an Assignment: First Steps

Getting Started with an Assignment

  1. Get or print out the assignment sheet provided by your instructor. Printed is best because it will allow you to read it actively.
    • If you are reviewing it electronically, save a copy you can edit to emphasize important points by enlarging font, underlining, changing colors, etc.
  2. Read through the entire assignment carefully, with a pen and highlighter in hand.
  3. Highlight or circle important details, for example:
    • Due date
    • Assignment objectives - what are you being asked to do?
    • Parts that may have different due dates - do you have to turn in a rough draft, or create an annotated bibliography before the final assignment is due?
    • Research requirements - how many sources do you need, and what kind of sources?
    • Page or presentation length
    • Paper format and citation style
  4. Underline key verbs (such as analyze, argue, compare, contrast, debate, describe, discuss, evaluate, explain, summarize, etc.)  that indicate what your instructor is asking you to do. Make sure you understand their meanings, and be sure to look up any unfamiliar assignment terms.
  5. Put question marks next to any unclear requirements. Ask your instructor for help understanding them.

I Read the Assignment: Now What?

Determining Assignment Requirements

  1. What is the assignment's primary purpose? What are you being asked to do? Some examples:
    • Are you developing an argument based on research?
    • Are you analyzing a painting or story?
    • Are you informing your audience about a topic without making an argument?
  2. Who is your audience? Consider your audience's expertise and expectations before you begin.
    • Is it your instructor?
    • Your classmates?
    • An online community? 
  3. What are your information needs? Do you need to:
    • conduct an interview?
    • explore a variety of viewpoints?
    • find scholarly sources?
  4. How will your work be graded? If your instructor provides a grading rubric, refer to it often to ensure you are on track. If not, ask for tips on what would make a difference between an "A," "B," or "C" assignment. If your instructor provides a sample, use it to guide your own work.

I Understand the Assignment: Now What?

Getting Ready to Research

  1. Who is available to assist you and how?
    • Your instructor: Ask for clarification about requirements and expectations and help for steps that are giving you trouble. If your instructor doesn't require approval of your topic, seeking guidance may help you, especially if you're having trouble coming up with one.
    • The Library: Librarians are available to guide your research. They can help find, evaluate, and cite sources.
    • The Writing Center: Composition instructors are available to support your writing. They can give feedback on rough drafts and help with citation.
  2. What's your plan? What steps do you need to take and by when?
    • Create a timeline to guide your process.
    • Breaking the assignment into manageable steps will help you avoid procrastination and stress.
    • Effective research using credible sources takes time.
    • Good writing is a process that involves multiple drafts.
  3. Are you ready to research?
    • Brainstorm ideas for subject areas of interest.
    • Consider ways you might refine a broader subject into a focused research question or topic.
    • Conduct background research on possible questions or topics before you make a decision on your topic. Preliminary research can help you rethink, refine, and even reject topics of interest before you are fully committed.