© Walden University Writing Center 2014
TEASER: NIK: So the bottom line is these instructions are your friend. They're actually your best friend.
NIK: Welcome to WriteCast, a casual conversation for serious writers. I'm Nikolas Nadeau.
BRITTANY: And I'm Brittany Kallman Arneson.
In today's episode, we're going to break down some common assignment terms and give you some strategies for understanding and following your writing assignment instructions.
So, you may have had this experience--I know I did, when I was an undergrad and even in grad school--where you feel really, really strong about something that you turn in in your course. You've spent a lot of time on this assignment, you've put a lot of effort into it, and you're probably feeling really proud of it. And then you get it back with your instructor's comments on it, and you find that you've lost points because your instructor says that the paper doesn't meet the requirements or follow the assignment instructions. Now, if you've ever had an experience like that, I think you'll find this episode really helpful. We want to address some common assignment terms and talk a little bit about how we can interpret those terms and how to employ them in our assignment, and then also we're going to talk about some tips for navigating those sometimes long, complicated, and difficult-to-understand assignment sheets that you get in your courses.
NIK: Yeah, and I think this is really important, Brittany, because we really want to emphasize that as a student at an online university--or at a brick and mortar university for that matter--it's really overwhelming to have so many different writing assignments, to make sure that you're keeping track of what each professor wants, what each particular assignment requires, and we understand that--we understand that it takes a lot of mental energy just to focus on the task at hand. So, we're here to make your life easier, we're here to make you a bit less stressed out, but we do think it's worth the time to read these instructions carefully.
BRITTANY: Exactly, Nik. And one of the things that can seem especially overwhelming, I think, when we're reading these long assignments is that they use a lot of terms, maybe action words that the instructor is asking you to do in the paper. And sometimes these are terms that we hear a lot, they get thrown around in academic circles, but we maybe don't know exactly what they mean or really how to actually do them, how to actually employ them. And so we want to start by talking a little bit about some of those terms and giving some concrete definitions for them, which hopefully will help you interpret some of your assignments. So, Nik, do you want to start out with the first one?
NIK: Yeah, the first term that we want to kind of unpack is "summarize." Summary involves explaining the general ideas or information that you're reading in a way that uses your own words. Make sure that when you're summarizing, you're doing so with proper citations.
BRITTANY: So another term that you might see in course assignments is "paraphrase." This is actually related to summary, but it's a little bit different. So, you're still going to be restating source information in your own words and you're still going to be including those citations, so crediting whatever source you're taking from, but you're also going to be including more detail than you would in just a summary. So, if you're writing a summary, you might summarize the entire work. But when you're paraphrasing, you're going to pull a specific fact or idea out of that work, and you're probably going to be incorporating it more fully into your own argument, whatever it is that you're saying in your paper.
NIK: Next, you might see the word "synthesize." This means to combine the information and evidence that you've gathered from multiple sources, including your own summaries and paraphrases, and relating them to your topic or argument. In other words, you're going to take stuff that exists already--stuff that you've read and summarized--and make something new out of it.
BRITTANY: Next, you might see the word "analyze." This means to explain a text or idea by breaking it down. So it really moves beyond that summary component where you're just sort of restating information to a point where you can provide a judgment or an explanation for that information--so digging even deeper and engaging more deeply with the text.
NIK: So you might also see the word "assess" or "evaluate." Basically, they just mean to examine something closely and make a judgement about it, come up with some sort of position about it.
BRITTANY: The term "apply" is also used often in assignment instructions, and this means to explain how an idea or theory works in a particular situation, like for instance, an educational or work situation.
NIK: The words "compare" and "contrast"--that's pretty simple, that means you're examining two or more items, like a text, a theory, or an idea, and explaining the similarities and differences. Now, this often involves analysis and evaluation, which we've already discussed, and usually when you're comparing and contrasting, you're doing so for an actual, specific reason. For example, to determine which text you want to use in your research.
BRITTANY: You might be asked to "reflect" in an assignment, and this is a little bit different from some of the terms we've talked about so far. It means to think about an idea deeply and consider its impact. So, assignments that ask you to reflect are often personal in nature. They may ask you to include your own experiences, and they may ask to, for instance, reflect on your educational background or your strengths and weaknesses in academic.
NIK: Lastly, you might see something like "support your work" or "support your ideas." The word "support" really just means to use evidence, so to take evidence from the scholarly sources you're reading and back up the points you're making. So, if your assignment asks you to support your ideas, you really need to use sources that are relevant to your topic but to the specific argument you're making. If you're talking about healthcare and particularly about the need for reimbursement strategies to make reimbursement more efficient, your evidence better be about reimbursement rather than just about healthcare in general. So make sure also to use citations, as we've talked about, and just note that your paper shouldn't be just made up of your own opinions and experiences. Most papers you write here at Walden are going to ask you to support your ideas with outside evidence.
BRITTANY: So we also just wanted to re-emphasize some of the important things you should be looking for when you're reading your assignment instructions. So first, make sure you're looking for the key terms we just discussed. So you might go through your assignment sheet and use a highlighter to highlight those terms when they show up so that you know the actions that you're being asked to do in that assignment.
NIK: So Brittany, I have a question: What if the entire assignment prompt has all these important key words? I mean, should I just highlight the whole thing?
BRITTANY: You may find, I guess, as you're highlighting that all the terms seem important. And I think one of the things that can be helpful is to, like I said, look for those action words. So, not just the describing words but the words that are really asking you to do something in the assignment. And, we want to emphasize, too, you are always more than welcome to contact your course instructor with any questions. Your course instructor is the one who put the assignment together, so if you do find that you highlighted the entire sheet and you aren't sure where to start, ask your course instructor where you should begin and kind of what the main thing you should be focusing on is, and I'm sure that they'll be willing to help you.
NIK: And while you're at it, you may want to make sure you're clear on your required page length, on any sources or resources to use, and also if there are any particular sections or headings.
So, Brittany, I think all of us have been in this kind of situation where we get a paragraph or more of an assignment instruction criteria and all of it is just--you know, it looks like gibberish. So, in this situation, is that okay to really just ask your classmates?
BRITTANY: I think that's such a good question, and I know we've all been there. There's a certain level of stress and level of pressure to kind of know everything or be at the same level as our peers, and I just would recommend to anybody listening to let that go. You're going to learn a lot more and you're going to feel a lot more comfortable in your classroom if you're willing to admit when you don't know things. And typically, you aren't alone. You can kind of generally assume that if you have a question, at least one other person in your course is going to have that same question. And so, you might be helping out that other person, or five other people, in your course--or everyone in your course--if you're willing to ask for that help. And I think it's also really important to make sure that you're understanding all of the instructions and you're asking those questions of your instructor. So, of course, a classmate is a really helpful resource and can be really supportive, but I think in general if you have questions about the assignment, it's always best to defer to the instructor, who's really the ultimate resource for your assignment.
Another thing you want to consider when you're asking your course instructor for clarification on an assignment is to be really specific in your questions. So, it's not really helpful to your instructor if you just say "I don't understand the assignment." The instructor may get a little bit frustrated because they don't really know how to help you; they don't know what you need help with. So instead, if you can tell your instructor exactly what part of the assignment is unclear to you or exactly what you're struggling with, your instructor will be able to provide you with more targeted feedback and help.
NIK: So one thing to consider also is that these instructions are a window into helping you organize your paper. So, if you have an assignment that requires you to talk about three educational theories, well, then maybe you can put as your heading Three Educational Theories and then level 2 headings below that describe each educational theory. So, assignment instructions may not always give you an obvious organization. Sometimes your instructor will say, "Okay, I want this paper to be organized exactly like this: A, B, C, D, E." If that happens, that's great. If not, then one tip for doing this is simply to look at the instructions as a guide, again scanning for those key words and trying to figure out visually how the big chunks of your paper will be organized. And just remember that, you know, you shouldn't use your assignment instructions just word-for-word, but it's definitely like a cheat sheet--it gives you the ability to get ahead before you even start. Wouldn't you agree, Brittany?
BRITTANY: Absolutely. I think it's really helpful to try and pull out some structure from the assignment sheet if you can, because that helps you with that kind of initial outline that you might make of your paper before you really begin to write in earnest. And, yes, I just wanted to also stress what Nik just mentioned, that even though you should be using your assignment instructions as a guide for how to format your paper, you don't want to, for instance, take guiding questions from the assignment sheet and use those as your headings. Always make sure that you're reformatting your headings so that they're descriptive--so that they tell the reader what's going to happen in that section, rather than asking a question or reading like an assignment prompt.
NIK: One last point I think that's important is to really remember that these instructions come in handy even after you write your paper. So then if you have a first draft or you have a final draft, you can check that you're using the number of sources that your instructor wants, and that your paper falls within the page range, and that you're addressing all of the questions and prompts adequately. You know, that's just a very useful way to compare what you've written to what you actually intended to write. 'Cause you know, sometimes, what we intended to write is definitely not what we end up with, and that's part of the academic process. That's good scholarly thinking, in my view.
BRITTANY: Yes, for sure. I think it's important to go back and check and then, you know, you may find that there was one question or prompt at the very end of the assignment that you missed the first time around.
NIK: So the bottom line is these instructions are your friend. They're actually your best friend. So thanks so much for listening, everyone.
BRITTANY: Yes, thanks so much, everyone, and don't forget to join us for our next episode next month.
NIK: This podcast is a production of the Walden University Writing Center.
BRITTANY: This episode was produced by me, Brittany Kallman Arneson, my co-host, Nikolas Nadeau, and Anne Shiell.