Understanding your assignment questions: A short guide

  • Introduction

Breaking down an assignment question

Ways to get started, how do you narrow down a broad or general essay question, parts of a question, specific vs general essay questions.

  • Further reading and references

Before you attempt to answer an assignment question, you need to make sure you understand what it is asking.

This includes the subject matter, but also the way in which you are required to write.

Different questions may ask you to discuss, outline, evaluate...and many more. The task words are a key part of the question.

how to answer an assignment question

Once you have broken down and understood your assignment question, you can start to jot down your ideas, organise your research, and figure out exactly what point you want to argue in your essay.

Here is something to try if you are struggling to get going with responding to the assignment question:

  • Try to come up with a one word answer to the question ('yes,' 'no',' maybe'- or perhaps two words: 'not quite'; ''only sometimes');
  • Then expand the one-word answer into a sentence summarising your reason for saying that;
  • Then expand that sentence into three sentences. This could be the beginning of your essay plan.
  • Choose one or two key aspects of the topic to focus your argument around.
  • Focus on a few examples rather than trying to cover everything that falls under that topic.
  • Decide on a standpoint you want to argue (this applies to specific essay questions too).
  • Make sure your introduction explains your chosen focus aim and argument. 

Directive or task words : Tell you exactly what to do e.g., discuss, argue etc.

Subject matter : Specifically what you should be writing about. 

Limiting words : Parts of the question that may narrow or alter the focus of your answer. 

Example : To what extent can the novel White Teeth by Zadie Smith be read differently in the light of the 9/11 Terrorist Attack?

  • To what extent: This indicates you will need to explore both sides of the topic in a critical way and reach a decision
  • Be read differently: This limiting phrase indicates that you will not be writing everything you know about White Teeth and 9/11. You will be focussing on whether or not the terrorist attack alters our reading of the novel. Every point you make should contribute to this.
  • White Teeth: You will need to focus on this novel
  • 9/11 Terrorist Attack: You will also need to write about this event in relation to the novel

Some essay questions may have a narrow focus e.g., 'To what extent can it be argued that Byron and Keats are second generation Romantic poets?'. 

While other may be quite broad e.g., ' Evaluate the effect of landscape on the expansion of the town'.

The first example indicates exactly which poets to focus on, and which aspect of their work to explore. The second example is much broader: it doesn't specify which features of landscape, or which towns should be analysed. 

Even if the essay question is broad, your answer should have a clear and specific focus. Therefore, you need to choose an area of the topic to concentrate on. If answering the second of the two questions above, you would not need to write about the impact if every type of landscape on every town in the world. It is normally better to write a lot about a little, rather than a little about a lot. 

It is also important to note that, although the specific essay question tells you which poets to focus on and which aspect of their work to discuss, it does not dictate which way you have to argue. You are still free to choose your own standpoint (based on evidence) as to whether or not Byron and Keats can be seen as second generation Romantic poets. 

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Answering Complex Assignment Questions

In order to decide how to answer an assignment question, you need to identify what it requires in terms of content and genre. This guide outlines some methods to help you analyse assignment questions.

Implied or complex questions

Some assignment questions are more complex than the example in the last section. They might have a number of parts or may not include a clear task word, which can seem confusing.

In order to understand how to answer, look at the entire question. Look for clues in the limiting and content words and in the relationships between words and phrases.

Elements of complex questions

  • Some questions consist of a statement or a proposition that requires a discussion . Such questions often provide a quotation or statement, followed by a task word such as 'discuss'.
  • Other questions include a direction such as 'explain the significance' of' a given statement.
  • Some questions include specific instructions . They might require you to include certain material, use specific sources or to take a particular approach. Make sure you follow these instructions.
  • Other questions include guidelines as to the scope of the essay. They will specify a time period or location or specify a framework for the discussion.
  • Sometimes an assignment task consists of a number of related questions . There may be several parts to the question, including a number of task words or specific questions. In this case, make sure you address each part of the task, and also recognise the relationship and links between the different parts of the assignment when forming your conclusions.

Sample questions

The sample assignment questions below are examples of implied tasks.

Questions which require a discussion or explanation:

'The ideal of human rights is not universal. Discuss.'

'Account for the economic success of the 'tiger' economies of Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea during the 1960s.'

Questions which imply a comparison and/or contrast:

'The development of ethics is as important to medicine as the development and use of antibiotics.'

Questions which ask for the cause and/or effect relationships to be exposed:

'Indigenous Australians experience lower levels of access to health services than the general population. Discuss the factors determining access.'

Questions which imply an opinion needs to be given:

'Why did the ideas of Martin Luther cause such an upheaval in 16th century Europe? Would there have been a Reformation without him? How would you measure the success of the Lutheran Reformation? Give reasons for your view.'

Questions which imply evaluation:

'To what extent did the subcultural research project demonstrate that youth cultures were "counter-hegemonic"?'

'What traits distinguish Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism from each another? Has society influenced these religions or have these religions influenced society?'

What if I don't have a question?

Some assignments let you choose a topic to explore within a particular framework or context. For example:

'Write a report on the significance of your chosen topic for the Engineering program.'

If you are given a general topic to research for an assignment, you need to form your own focus.

  • First consider the current trends, issues or debates on the topic (this may require some preliminary research).
  • Then form a focus question that indicates how you will approach the topic.
  • You should also discuss your question with your tutor. 

  Next: Glossary of task words

Essay and assignment writing guide.

  • Essay writing basics
  • Essay and assignment planning
  • Complex assignment questions
  • Glossary of task words
  • Editing checklist
  • Writing a critical review
  • Annotated bibliography
  • Reflective writing
  • ^ More support

News and notices

UNSW's Education Festival 2023 Published:  6 Nov 2023


Academic Writing - Education & CCSC students: Assignment Question

  • Publication Style
  • Assignment Question
  • Assignment Genre
  • Literature Searches
  • Referencing
  • Anthropomorphism

The Assignment Question

Understanding the assignment question is a key skill in academic writing

It is important to invest time in analysing the assignment question. Do not start to write, or even draft a plan, until you are confident that you know what the question is asking, how you should respond, and that you have all the information you need. Students who consistently do well in their written assignments apply a version of the steps below.

See also  Assignment Writing and Editing Checklist

The Assignment Question (1)

Approaching a new assignment

Ensure you are up to date with the tutorial material and readings before starting the assignment: many assignments relate to the tutorial material covered in the course up to the time the assignment is due. If you have not covered all the material, you have no way of knowing the concepts, skills and application-to-context you are missing. Many people start by printing out the assignment question and assessment criteria, then make notes. 

  • Read the assignment question carefully a number of times, along with any marking criteria or supplementary information from your lecturer. 
  • Highlight the key points and any words or phrases whose meaning you are unsure of. 
  • Before proceeding, ascertain the definitions and meaning of those words and phrases.
  • Determine the genre of the assignment or the type of response the assignment calls for (See Assignment Genre ).
  • Sketch out a rough plan as a mindmap or series of dot points.
  • Gather the resources (sources, references, readings, etc.) that you will rely upon.
  • Compile the reference list (Yes! Do this at the start, not the end).

The Assignment Question (2)

While working on these 7 steps, ask yourself the following questions

  • What knowledge is the assignment question asking me to demonstrate? This will usually be from the set readings and learning activities in the online tutorials. Check the Learning Outcomes for the unit as these are an important clue to what is to be assessed.
  • What academic skills is the assignment question providing the opportunity for me to demonstrate? : skills such as critical understanding, application of theoretical content to your own context, and so on. The Learning Outcomes for the unit can also provide valuable information.
  • What argument, theme(s), or angle will I adopt in my response to the assignment question?

Now, check your interpretation of the question one more time before you draft a plan and commit yourself to writing the assignment.

The investment of time before beginning to write pays a big dividend in the efficient use of the time taken to write the assignment itself, and in the quality of your output.

Checklist for writing and editing assignments

For further help in analysing assignment questions, see the following checklist.

UTS:HELPS Higher Education Language and Presentation Support. (2017).  Checklist for writing and editing assignments.  Retrieved 13 September, 2018, from

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Help Centre

Preparing assignments, understanding the question.

The first and most important thing to do is pay close attention to what the module assignment guide says you have to do. It gives you the assignment question and extra things that might help such as notes on the writing style and the format you should adopt.

Make sure you know what type of assignment is needed. Is an essay required? Do you have to write a report or a series of short answers to questions?

Check the word limit and keep to it.

Eulina's advice on starting an assignment

how to answer an assignment question

Eulina: I really do try and stress to analyse the essay title or the assignment title. Just for 15 minutes, don't even start working, just have the title in front of you and maybe pick out the words that are telling you what to do. If it's to compare and contrast? Is it to outline? Is it to explain a theme? What are they asking of me? What are they looking for? If you get that right, you're halfway through into writing your assignment. And then from that you can write your essay plan. Now people write essay plans in all different ways, in like a box, flow diagram, or in linear. And your essay plan should just be key words, or key themes that will then trigger off other, issues or other notes. So when you begin to write your essay you've got a plan in front of you, know exactly where to go for the information, you know exactly what information you're going for and I think if you work within that structure it becomes less confusing.

All assignment questions have key words or phrases that indicate how and what you should write. There are two types of key words to be aware of.

Content words

  • Process words

You'll be able to focus your ideas much more clearly if you identify the content and process words in the question or title of your assignment.

These tell you what topics the question requires you to focus on. For example, look at this assignment question.

Compare your own education to date with that of one of your parents, one of your children (if you have any) or a friend from a different generation . Which points of comparison seem important to you and why ?

The content words are in bold and tend to be nouns. There are plenty of content words there. The question asks you to choose between three groups of people against whom you should compare your education. The key word 'important' indicates that you must pick out a number of main points of comparison (not everything you can think of).

Content word activity

Identify the content words in the assignment question in the following activity: Content words activity . There is also a  Word version (DOC, 158KB)  available.

Process words and phrases

Process words and phrases tell you what to do with your material and are often expressed as imperatives: ' Assess  the impact of ...' or ' Explain  the importance of ...' So, in the example question above, the key words 'Compare' and 'why' are process words (rather than content words). The word 'why' indicates that you must give reasons for selecting particular points of similarity and difference.

In the assignment question below, the process words are in bold.

With particular reference to Reading A of Chapter 9, English: history, diversity and change, discuss and evaluate the grounds on which judgements are made about ‘correctness’ in English.

Process word activity

Identify the meanings of these process words in the following activity: Process words activity . There is also a  Word version (DOC, 195KB)  available. Once you feel confident that you've identified what you are being asked to do for your assignment, you can turn to finding the relevant books, etc.

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