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Preparing for Academic Writing

What is meant by understanding the question? 

Understanding the question is the first and most important step when starting your assignments, as it means you can start your research and writing focused and on the right track. 

It is vital that you answer the question and fulfil the learning outcomes to pass your assessments and gain good marks. You could write an excellent essay, but if it does not answer the question asked or satisfy the learning outcomes it will not get the grade it deserves. 

Information for an assignment can be found in the assignment brief and the learning outcomes/objectives. The assignment brief will tell you what you need to produce e.g., an essay about the First World War; and learning outcomes describe what you need to demonstrate to achieve different marks e.g., critical analysis. You will find your assignment brief and learning outcomes in the handbook for each of your modules. 

How can I understand the question? 

The first step in understanding the question is to find and analyse the information given to you in your assignment brief and learning outcomes. If anything is unclear in these, you can ask your lecturer for clarification.  

When analysing the assignment question there are two things to look out for: ‘Instruction Words’ and ‘Subject Words’.  

Instruction Words are words that tell you what you need to do within your essay. Here are some examples:  

Compare 

Critically analyse 

Assess 

Instruction Words have specific meanings and affect what you are expected to write on a given topic. An assignment evaluating the causes of World War 1 would be very different to one describing the causes of World War 1. Evaluation requires analysis of the facts, where description requires the facts to be set out. As Instruction Words having distinct meanings, it is crucial that you define any instruction words in the question, assignment brief or learning outcomes to ensure you understand what is expected of your essay.  

Subject Words are words that inform you of the topics and specific areas that you should cover within your answer. These are often subject specific. Subject Words set the scope of the question and inform your research questions.   

For example: 

Analyse the impact of the Tea Act (1773) on UK Public Health, with a focus on middle and lower classes. Justify your findings with evidence and identify any limitations in your argument. 

The Instruction Words are ‘analyse’, ‘justify’, ‘evidence’ and ‘identify’.  

The Subject Words are ‘impact’, 'Tea Act (1773)’, ‘UK Public Health’ ‘focus on middle and lower classes’. 

As well as looking at the question, look at the assignment brief and any outcomes or objectives that you are asked to achieve. These will include factors such as more detailed key words, word limits and time scales. This information should inform your assignment timeline and planning.  

Throughout the process of researching and writing the assignment your knowledge and understanding of the question will grow and develop. To avoid going outside the scope of the assignment during your research, it is advised that you reflect and re-examine your assignment information before you write your assignment.  

For more information about how you can understand your question, check out 'The Assignment Journey Podcast' episode 'The First Steps', located in the resources section of this page. 

Furthermore, 'Understanding the Question' is covered in our Academic Writing Workshop: 'Preparing for Academic Writing'. You can find it on the Develop@Derby workshops calendar here.

In this episode of the Assignment Journey Podcast Alex and Naomi (Senior Skills Officer), go through what the first steps are that you could take when you are given an assignment. They discuss using the assignment brief and what questions you can ask to understand the question. Their advice is backed up by voices of current University of Derby Students.

Understanding the question

 

In this video recorded live during the Introduction to the Key Skills Workshop on the 22nd September 2020, Alex from the Skills team outlines tips and advice for ensuring that you understand the assignment question so that you can ensure that your answer in relevant and hits the marking criteria.

How can I check I am answering the question

 

In this 8 minute video from the Understanding the Question livestream, Naomi and Alex from the Skills Team discuss ways that you can check that you are answering the question throughout your assignment.

The First Steps: Understanding the Question

 

In this episode of the Assignment Journey Podcast Alex and Naomi (Senior Skills Officer), go through what the first steps are that you could take when you are given an assignment. They discuss using the assignment brief and what questions you can ask to understand the question. Their advice is backed up by voices of current University of Derby Students.