Understanding Your Assignment

The first step in completing any assignment is to understand the assignment. Assignments are typically provided using assignment sheets, a syllabus, or online course content, but they may also be given verbally by the professor. There are three main steps in understanding an assignment: 1) Understanding the basics of the assignment, 2) understanding the purpose of the assignment, and 3) understanding the audience.


Begin by reading over the assignment sheet or any notes you took while the professor was describing the assignment verbally. Highlight or underline keywords that describe when the assignment is due, page length requirements, topic(s), method(s), and phrases that detail the professor’s expectations. Keep in mind that assignments may take the form of a paper, project, presentation, or piece of art. 

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • When is the assignment due? How long do you have to complete it?
  • Is there a page length or time requirement? Are there minimum/maximum page or word counts you need to know about?
  • Have you been provided a topic or do you get to choose?
  • Is there a certain method or technique you need to use to complete the assignment?
  • What is the professor looking for? Do they want a paper, project, or presentation?


Now that you have an understanding of the assignment basics, let’s move on to understanding the purpose of the assignment. Read through the assignment sheet again and circle keywords or phrases that describe the purpose of the assignment (e.g. analyze, describe, compare, evaluate, explain).

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you need to analyze, describe, compare, evaluate, or explain?
  • Is the paper an annotated bibliography, literature review, lab report, or essay?
  • Does the paper require sources? If so, do they need to be reliable, academic, scholarly, or peer-reviewed?
  • Does the project require you to gather sources, conduct an interview, create a piece of art, compose a poem or piece of music?
  • If the assignment is a speech, is the theme cause-and-effect, problem-solution, argumentative, demonstrative, or persuasive?


The final step in understanding your assignment is understanding the audience. When giving a presentation, the audience is clearly visible; they are listening to your speech in front of you. When writing a paper or completing a project, the audience may be harder to visualize. The audience comprises the person or people that will read or encounter your work (e.g. your professor, peers, community, etc.).

This information was adapted from the Portland State University Writing Center and MIT Writing Center.

Meet with a Consultant

Have other questions? Research consultants can help! We specialize in brainstorming topics, finding sources, reading scholarly materials, and evaluating research. 

Stop by the Knowledge Market during open hours or make an appointment to talk with a research consultant.

Make an Appointment


Page last modified October 21, 2022