Decoding the Assignment Question

“What am I being asked to do?”

During my online tutoring and classroom teaching career, this has been and still is one of the most frequently asked questions – students often do not know what is expected of them. Comprehension skills are not only a challenge to ESOL students but also to native English speakers. This is a life skill that needs to be developed. Furthermore, students’ marks would greatly improve, if they knew how to break (decode) the test or assignment question into understandable chunks.

Decoding the question begins with a range of short, self-directed questions (i.e. ask yourself these questions). Most importantly, keep taking notes as you go along as note-taking forms part of the critical analysis process. (More on enhancing your note-taking skills in another blog).

The essay/assignment question is made of different parts:

1. What are you being asked to do?

Identify and underline the command words (also known as action words). These include discuss, analyse, compare/contrast. Various online sources list and define command words.

2. What is the topic (the big picture)?

Selecting 3 key words or ideas will assist. Another technique in determining the key idea is to ask yourself – Who (are the characters)? What (is the main idea)? Where? Why? How? These are also known as the 5Ws&H.

3. What will you need to clarify or identify?

Write these (key) words/ideas on a sheet of paper (or any writing device of your choice). I prefer to work on a huge surface such as a big table or floor, which allows an overview of all the notes, summaries, and reading material. However, keep these organized or stick loose pieces of paper to the wall in an orderly manner. Clutter might be counterproductive.

4. What is the focus? (In other words, the argument/thesis statement)

5. What will you have to define (or clarify)?

“The Kardashians are the epitome of popular culture” (Brown, 2011, p. 15). Discuss.

Identify key terms: Discuss, Kardashians, popular culture

What is the topic? The Kardashians

What are you being asked to do? To discuss: examine or consider a subject/topic

What is the focus? Whether the Kardashian are the perfect example of popular culture

Clarify? You might need to clarify who the Kardashians are.

Define? You’ll need to define popular culture.

Lastly, whether you are required to write persuasively or discursively, literature review or comment on a current issue in the news and provoke controversial debate and discussion, these short questions are the first building blocks in presenting a thought-provoking viewpoint.

Elma B.
TutorOcean Tutor | + posts

Hi, I'm Elma! I'm a professional teacher registered in New Zealand who specializes in English and Academic Writing.