Understanding Your Assignment

By Rebecca Petersen

Understanding your assignment is the key to successful research process and well researched paper. Starting off with an in depth understanding of what is expected in your paper will allow you to avoid missteps along the way. Some assignments are clarified on the first day in the syllabus, some are given later in the semester. Reading through the assignment as soon as you receive it will allow you to discover questions, possible problems, and time management strategies. Do not put off reading your assignment, it may cause confusion and headaches later.

Make sure you begin a dialog with your professor. Asking questions to clarify what is expected of your research paper benefits both you and the instructor. It is easier to start off on the right foot by asking questions in the beginning than to fix problems by asking questions too late. In some cases, professors provide examples of past papers that were successful. Believe it or not, your professors want you to do your best, provide feedback, and otherwise succeed in their class. They also want you to learn successful research strategies and become an expert on a topic. All of this starts by discussing expectations with the person who has created the assignment.

Interpreting the “rules” of the assignment will help you succeed in fulfilling all of the expectations that your professor has for the assignment. Your professor might require certain types of sources, might have asked a specific question for you to answer, or set out technical details such as font style and size. It is important to recognize and follow the rules set forth in the assignment. This is not attention to detail, this is just doing what is asked of you.

Developing a Research Topic

The first step of the research process is developing a research topic. A good topic is the basis for a good paper and in turn a good grade. The goals of developing a topic are to match the topic to the expectations of the assignment. Make sure that the topic is manageable in the time you have available, and to develop a question that is good so that you can organize your thoughts and sources. All of these goals sound basic enough, but this chapter will guide you through the process and make the research process a less intimidating and more rewarding experience.

There are many factors to consider when picking a topic that matches the assignment: length of paper, type of assignment, resource required or expected, and time available. The length of the paper is important to the breadth of the topic covered. The shorter the paper, the narrower the topic must be. Similarly, if you are expected to write a paper of considerable length, it is important to pick a topic that has broad enough research base to supply you with a lot of information on the topic. The type of resources, or even a need for them, is dependent of the type of paper you are assigned. An opinion paper will require you to pick a topic that has two sides (i.e. gun control or abortion). In contrast, a research paper will involve a topic with enough resources to sustain a lengthy and in-depth look at a broader topic (i.e. history of the national park system). Creative writing assignments allow freedom in style and flexibility in writing and do not require resources.

You must determine the scope you are planning on covering to focus your research ideas. A very broad scope will provide entirely too much information for you to look through. On the other hand, narrowing your scope too much may leave you with not enough resources and support to write on your topic. Limiting broad topics, like the Civil War, by time period, geographic location, ethnic or gender groups, etc. will allow you to find a more focused topic relating to your general interest in researching the Civil War.

Investing some time and energy into researching your possible topic is well worth it. Before you decide on an unsupported topic and send an email off to your professor, spend a little time on making sure your idea has supporting resources to write your paper. Developing a research question is a great way to help you explore and refine your paper topic and thesis statement. It is in the process of researching your question that you will avoid a paper that narrates a broad topic and will hone in on a specific, arguable thesis. It is this concise research question that will be the focus of your preliminary and superficial research. Choose a topic that has some interest to you, something you actually want to learn more about. Follow this up by scanning some journals and current periodicals to see what is being written on this topic. What questions does this research bring up? As you raise questions, consider the audience who will be reading this paper. Is this something that applies to the readers? Continue asking questions focusing on” “who” and “why” types of inquiries to focus your ideas. Evaluate your question, ask yourself if there is enough to support your question, and make sure that the thesis you will use to answer this question is complex enough to support the length and requirements of the assignment.

Once you have determined the question you want to answer, you must develop a thesis statement. Your thesis should be concise and specifically related to what you proving or arguing in your paper. Appearing at the end of your introductory paragraph, your thesis should be supported by the research or supporting evidence that follows in the paper. Including a thesis statement helps both you and your reader understand your paper. It allows you to better organize and develop your argument along with providing the reader with an understanding of what you will be discussing in your paper. Your thesis statement, like your research in general, will change as you write. Your supporting evidence may change the focus and direction of your paper. Be sure to change your thesis statement to match your finished paper.

Matching resources to your assignment

Matching your assignment to appropriate resources is also dependent of what expectations and requirements your professor has for the paper. If the professor wants only books as resources, make sure that your topic is not too recent for published items to be produced. Current events will not have scholarly resources available on them for a while. In contrast, historical events may not have any current or popular information on them. To accommodate a requirement of articles from a scholarly journal, make sure that you pick a topic that has a scholarly perspective. If your instructor requires primary sources, choosing a person or historical event that was in the news will make these sources easier to find. Web sites can sometimes be unreliable. If websites are a mandatory type of source for your research topic, web topics such as business, technology, and current events have more reliably good web information than some others.

An Assignment Calculator can be a useful tool: using the deadline and type of project, it can generate soft deadlines in order to help you make progress at a good rate.

Time Management

Time management, procrastination, and looming deadlines are not foreign concepts to student researchers. These matters are to be taken into consideration when choosing a topic. Knowing how long you have to research may exclude a broad or complicated research topic. Longer papers take more time to research but so do more complicated subjects. If you are limited on time, have a lot going on, or tend to procrastinate, focus your work on a topic that will have resources readily available. Some libraries do not have in-depth collections on certain areas of research, so knowing what resources you have on hand will help if you are limited on time. Inter-library loan, or ILL, is a wonderful tool available for the time savvy researcher, but if you don’t have the time for books to come from another institution, this is not the option for you.

When planning out your assignment, a calendar is an important tool. Schedule goals, deadlines, rewards, and even downtime. Plan ahead, allow for flexibility, be realistic with your time, and make sure you take time to relax. If you know you have a paper due at the end of the month, count backwards from the due date, planning out time to review, time to write, time to research, and time to discover an appropriate topic. Having this pathway clearly set in your calendar will help you avoid procrastination and allow for you to modify your timeline in case something else comes up. With so many responsibilities taking up your time, scheduling your research into your daily activities will payoff in the long run.

Starting Your Research

A “starter topic” is an excellent way to gather information about your topic and help you narrow the focus of a broad theme. Take the time to do a bit of reading on your starter topic to learn about themes, outlines, and background. General reference tools such as Encyclopedia Britannica Online or Wikipedia are starting places to hone your research topic. Note: although Wikipedia is a valid instrument for using when establishing a topic, it is not appropriate to use as a scholarly resource in your paper. Use headings, outlines, and keywords in these sources to give insight and ideas for narrowing and refining your topic.

The “big picture” you can get from reference sources will allow you to focus a topic to get a more concise research topic. This is an important step in forming your thesis question because it gives you a basic understanding of a very general topic and allows you to explore if there is enough information out there on the more specific topic you might be interested in. Moving from reference sources to books will help you contextualize your area of research on a narrower topic. To hone in on even more niche ideas, checking journal articles for specific areas of research, ideas, and theses will allow you to land on a focused topic you are interested in. If the “starter topic” leads to a dead end, or not enough information to support your research question, you can work back to find a more appropriate and research supported topic. If you do run into roadblocks, or any of these steps are hard to follow, talk to a librarian! Librarians are available for research sessions and are thrilled to help you find the resources that are waiting to be discovered in the library.

Making an Outline

Outlining is a great way to organize abstract ideas, specific points, and areas to further develop. Mirroring the layout of the final paper, an outline helps map out the main arguments that support your thesis statement. An outline is also a great way to see sub-points and supporting arguments, and areas that don’t have as much information or need more research.

Outlines can be used at any point during the writing process. A “pre-research” outline helps you organize the preliminary research you might conduct to establish if you have a viable topic for the assignment. A “pre-writing” outline might help you organize the notes and research you have conducted to establish the flow and present your findings in an organized fashion. Finally, a “post-writing” outline helps you assess the words and arguments you have put on paper. Does it make sense? Is your thesis supported? Do you jump around too much?
Carefully planning your thoughts by outlining is time well spent. In any or all of the points that you can apply outlining to your paper writing, the work will pay off in the final product.

Talking to Your Instructor

Once you have sharpened your topic, opening a dialog with your instructor is a fine idea. Talking early and often will allow you to know that your topic is suitable and he or she might point you towards resources you otherwise might not find. The cyclical nature of research will constantly have you refining your research question, your strategy, and your sources. It is always advisable to keep your professor aware of any changes in topic and problems that you might have with your research along the way.

Citing Your Sources

Copyright and intellectual property are an integral part of the research process. You must consider where you get your information and how you will attribute credit to the author or creator. Citation management tools, such as Zotero, RefWorks, and EndNote are available online and many have tutorials or workshops available for you to learn how to use them. There are many other types of citation management software available and it will greatly help you with ease of research and ensure that you have the tools to give credit where credit is due. It is very important that you understand that citations are an essential part of research and without them you are breaking the law and you college or university’s honor code.
Librarians are available to help you with making sure that you are citing your sources correctly. Depending on what style guide your professor is requiring, MLA, APA, Chicago Manual, etc., there are resources both in the library and online to ensure your citations are correct. There is an online guide available at the library specifically tailored to the MLA style guide. Keeping track of your sources is your responsibility and there is no excuse for missed or wrong citations.

Writing and Reviewing

Once you have found your sources, created your outline, and developed your thesis statement, it is time to start writing your first draft. Be sure to remember that you are writing for an academic audience. So many times, students first (and sometimes final) draft is written in a conversational manner. Paragraph and sentence structure should be considered when forming the body of your paper. A research paper states your thesis in the beginning, spends the majority of the body of the paper supporting the argument with flawlessly cited research, and ends with a conclusion.

Depending on the discipline you are writing your paper for, writing styles will change. Science based writing includes a literature review, is based in fact and research, and tends to be more technical and may include charts and graphs to display research. Business writing is concise and to the point, displaying facts and statistics in charts and graphs as well. Social science research is more argumentative and may include some graphically supported materials. History and English writing tends to be more descriptive and uses different types of visual materials like maps and images. There is much overlap in writing styles, but knowing your audience and understanding your assignment are vital to presenting your research in an appropriate manner.

If you have access to a Writing Center, this type of service can be a tremendous resource at your disposal. The staff at Writing Centers are available to help you at any stage of the writing process. Having another person read through your work allows perspective and distance in the editing process. Grammar, punctuation, visual rhetoric, and mechanics all contribute to a successful writing assignment. The Writing Center can assist you with all of this and more, you just need to take advantage.

Revising your first draft may require you to do additional research to support your thesis statement or find more sources. Understanding that the first draft is just that, a draft. Revision and the evolution of a paper takes many steps to have a great final product. Allowing yourself time to write, revise, edit, and proofread will significantly enhance the grade you get on your research paper. Read your paper, check for spelling and grammar mistakes (spellcheck does not get everything!). Read your paper out loud. Does it make sense? Do your paragraphs and supporting topics make sense and are they supported? Does your paper have an introduction, supporting research, and a conclusion? Consider the reader, the topic, and the final outcome.

The Final Paper

The cyclical nature of the research process allows you to ask many of the same questions at the beginning and the end of the writing journey. Ensuring that your paper fits within the criteria and rubric set out by your professor including length, format, and number or type of sources are basic and required for success. Your professor wants you to do well as much as you do. Turning in a final paper that they enjoy reading and fulfills the requirements is imperative. Following the steps in this chapter, and finding what works best for you, will set you on a path to successful writing. Take advantage of the resources available at your University including the library, the writing center, professor’s office hours, a variety of resources, and personal research sessions, and you will not be disappointed.


No comments yet.

Leave a Reply