UMass Boston

Understanding an Assignment

There are a few strategies that can help you read an assignment prompt to understand the instructions, guidelines, and expectations for the text you are going to write. Fully understanding the prompt will help you develop strategies to compose your text.  

Commonly Used Terms 

Some terms used in assignments will be specific to genres in different disciplines. It is important to pay attention to terms used in the prompt. If there is confusion in understanding these terms in the assignment, it may be best to speak to the professor before, after class or during office hours. Asking for clarification not only helps you, but also might help the professor realize where clarification may be helpful for all students. 

There will be genre specific terms that explain the requirements of the assignment, such as “explain” or “analyze.” These action words will inform the way that you chose to structure your paper.  

  • Explain – To give information about a topic, including what it is and how and why it occurs. An example of this may be explaining the migration patterns of monarch butterflies for an assignment. Many assignment prompts will include explanation even if that is not the main goal of the assignment. 

    • This word is similar to: summarize, describe, and identify. 

  • Analyze – To give new interpretation to a topic. Break down the topic into parts and give information about how the parts relate to each other and to the whole. An analysis provides new insight to a topic, not just an overview of information.   

    • This word is similar to: discuss, examine, and interpret. 

  • Argue – To give reasons or support for a topic or stance. When you are composing an argumentative piece of writing, you will need to take a position on a topic and make a case for your viewpoint. Your position should be convincing, but also leave room for agreement and disagreement. 

  • Compare and contrast – To address similarities and differences about a topic. 

Strategies for Reading Assignment Prompts 

  • Read the assignment through once or twice. Try to take note of repeating words and questions you have, and expectations for the assignment.  

  • Read through again, marking key action words and looking for the tasks that the prompt is asking you to complete. Writing out your tasks can help you begin to organize your thoughts and ideas about the assignment. 

  • Use what you find to determine what the goal of your assignment is and start to plan how you might be able to achieve it. This will help you formulate and focus your argument. There may be multiple goals for you to work on in your assignment. 

    • If your assignment includes a rubric or details on how you will be assessed, you can use this information to help you prioritize what you’ll focus on and to make sure you’re meeting the assignment guidelines.

  • Use this information to start outlining your writing. Continue to plan how your argument is connected to your assignment goals, and use the assignment tasks as a checklist to make sure your assignment is complete when you hand it in.  

You can also ask your professor when you have questions or need clarification. Sometimes, professors can also provide you with a model from a student. Plus, you can visit the Writing Center and we can help you understand and plan for your assignment. 


This content was adapted by Marissa Burke from the University of Michigan Sweetland Center for Writing ‘s online writing guide “How do I Make Sure I Understand an Assignment?” as well as the University of Arizona Global Campus Writing Center’s page on “Action Words in Academic Writing.” 

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