Understanding the Assignment

Hi everyone! This is Amy from the Academic Success Center. For many people, September means returning to school. At Purdue University Global, two new terms begin in September. With this in mind, we thought a throwback to a previous blog post about understanding assignments by Kurtis Clements would be appropriate. This blogcast was previously published in January 2021. Enjoy!


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Before my first child was born (almost twenty-two years ago at this point!), I recall the major stress I felt trying to assemble the new-in-the-box crib. Admittedly, I am not a handy guy when it comes to just about anything that involves tools, but I figured I could follow some basic instructions and, taking my time, put the crib together. Well, I couldn’t, but the issue wasn’t so much my lack of ability but, rather, the actual instructions. All the so-called “easy steps” seemed lumped together in one big dump of what to do. The wording was sometimes too general and other times just plain confusing, making references to earlier “steps” that required me to look back and locate just to sort out what I was supposed to be doing. The easy-to-follow-step-by-step instructions were not so easy to follow. And judging by the constant busy signal I heard every time I called the “Help Line” for assistance, I was not alone. 

I will tell you that in my twenty-seven-plus years of teaching and working in higher education, I have seen my fair share of assignments that were very much like those “easy-to-follow” crib instructions. I’ve seen assignment directions twice as long in word count than what students were being asked to produce. I can also say that in my personal experience teaching writing, I know that in some cases the actual assignments that I created were the root cause of poor writing, not the students’ writing skills. Making sure the directions for an assignment are as clear, concise, and organized as possible is of paramount importance to students, so whatever the instructor can do to aid in the understanding of an assignment will only help. And of course some assignments by nature are complex, but that is all the more reason to make sure the directions are “easy to follow.” As Einstein once said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible.”

Students, of course, need to do their part to make sure they understand what they are being asked to do as sometimes an assignment is involved. To this end, let me share some tips for understanding an assignment. 

First, read the assignment once just to get the gist of what you are being asked to do. If the assignment has any complexity or length, take deep breaths along the way and remind yourself that you are just surveying the basic assignment to get the lay of the land so to speak and that you will be looking at the assignment more closely later. 

After reading through the assignment once, read it again more purposefully. Presuming the assignment is in electronic format, copy and paste it into a new word-processing document. As you read, break up the assignment into distinct parts if more division is needed. If not, break up the parts into smaller chunks as makes sense. 

You can also look for action words like “explain,” “analyze,” “summarize,” “compare,” and/or “describe” to name but a few. These action words are typically key instructions of what you need to do in an assignment. You might want to bold, highlight, change the font color, or insert more whitespace to separate these markers so that they stand out for easy reference. 

Some assignments are divided in parts–Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and so forth. Don’t get overwhelmed by all of the parts and, instead, focus on one part at a time and make sure you understand that part fully before beginning to work on it. You can break down each part as explained by identifying keywords and creating white space so that what you are being asked to do in a given part is divided visually and easy to comprehend. 

If there are directions that remain unclear, then you should contact your professor for clarification rather than barrelling ahead and hoping that you are doing what the assignment asks you to do. 

So how do you know if you have met the requirements of an assignment? Well, with your chunked-out assignment, read each requirement and then find that exact content in your paper so that you can literally point to it. If the directions ask you to describe a problem in your community, point to the content in your paper where you describe a problem in your community. If the directions ask you to recommend treatment options for a patient, point to the content in your paper where you recommend such treatment options. If the directions ask you to use five sources, three of which must be scholarly, look at your sources and make sure that you have five and three are scholarly. It’s a matter of checking what the assignment asks you to do against what you actually do in the paper. 

Assignments can be challenging, but understanding an assignment–that is, understanding what you are being asked to do–does not need to be part of the challenge let alone a source of uncertainty or even anxiety. With a little bit of work up front, even the most complicated assignments can be broken down into easy-to-understand instructions. 

Until next week–

Kurtis Clements

5 Responses

  1. Helen Dorsey says:

    Hi Kurtis–This reminds me of the old saying on how to eat an elephant–one piece at a time. Thanks for the guidance. Well stated!

  2. Tara Robison says:

    Thank you, this was very helpful!

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