3.2 THE BIG PICTURE: What Does the Instructor Want? Understanding the Assignment

Who are you writing for? Why are you writing?

The first rule of good communication is to know your audience. This is where writing papers for a college class gets kind of weird. Who is your audience? Usually your teacher is the only one who will read it. But writing to the teacher is not the goal of a college research paper. The goal is to be able to share information effectively and efficiently with colleagues.

To do that, imagine yourself writing for a group of peers who have some basic knowledge of the field but are unfamiliar with the specific topic you’re discussing. Imagine them being interested in your topic but also busy; try to write something that is well worth your readers’ time.

Before you start, you should also clarify the purpose of your writing and let that purpose shape your decisions. Each assignment is about your learning. One first-year student said: “I think that every course, every assignment, is a different little puzzle I have to solve. What do I need to do here? When do I need to do it, and how long will it take? What does this teacher expect of me?” The answers to those questions will help you stay focused and succeed.

The writing prompt: What does “analyze” mean anyway?

Often, the handout explaining the assignment — what professors call the writing prompt — will explain the purpose of the assignment, the requirements (length, number of sources, etc.), and the criteria for evaluation. Sometimes, though, you will encounter the surprising situation in which you understand every single sentence in the prompt, but you still have absolutely no idea how to start. No one is doing anything wrong in a situation like that. It just means that further discussion of the assignment is in order. Here are some tips:

  1. Focus on the verbs. Look for verbs like compare, explain, justify, reflect or the all-purpose analyze. These are keywords that will help you understand what you are expected to do with the information.
  2. Put the assignment in context. Many professors think in terms of assignment sequences (the order of things). For example, a social science professor may ask you to write about a controversial issue three times: first, arguing for one side of the debate; second, arguing for another; and finally, from a more comprehensive and nuanced perspective, using text produced in the first two assignments. A sequence like that is designed to help you think through a complex issue. You will also work through multiple drafts. These assignments help ensure that you’re on the right track, beginning the research process long before the final due date, and taking the time to revise your thesis, find additional sources, or reorganize your information.
  3. Ask for clarification. Post a question to your class Q&A discussion forum, and you’ll probably get a quick answer from a classmate. If something is still unclear, you can send an email to your instructor, or ask your question at the next class. If you have a question, then it’s likely others do, too!

Rubrics as road maps

A rubric is a set of grading criteria. For example, grammar is worth a part of your grade, and here are the things the instructor is looking for. If a professor provides a grading rubric with an assignment prompt, you can be sure that he or she will use it to grade your paper. Look in Appendix A of this textbook for examples of rubrics that your instructor might use to evaluate your writing in this course. Read them over carefully before you begin — and then check it again as you work.

Think of rubrics as road maps, displaying your destination, rather than a GPS system directing every move you make. But even the best rubrics aren’t completely clear. They simply can’t be. A big part of what you’re learning, through feedback from your professors, is to judge the quality of your writing for yourself. Therefore, what your professor wants, in short, is critical thinking.

What’s critical about “critical thinking”?

Critical thinking is when you analyze the facts before accepting or forming an opinion or conclusion. According to the Association of American Colleges and Universities, your must …

  1. “clearly state and comprehensively describe the issue or problem”
  2. “independently interpret and evaluate sources”
  3. “thoroughly analyze assumptions behind and context of your own or others’ ideas”
  4. “argue a complex position and one that takes counter-arguments into account”
  5. “arrive at logical and well informed conclusions”

In your previous writing classes, you may have been asked to provide some evidence—information about your thesis from outside sources. Writing in this course — and beyond — will take that further. Instructors want you to explain your claims in a clear, complete, and compelling way. And professional jobs, too, demand critical thinking. So it’s pretty easy to imagine how critical thinking helps one make much better decisions in all aspects of life. Embrace it. Learn from it.



Let’s talk more about critical thinking.  First, watch this video. Then answer these questions: What is critical thinking? Why is it important to academic writing?



Text adapted from: Guptill, Amy. Writing in College: From Competence to Excellence. 2022. Open SUNY Textbooks, 2016, milneopentextbooks.org/writing-in-college-from-competence-to-excellence/. Accessed 16 Jan. 2022. CC BY-NC-SA

Video from: BBC Learning English. “Study Skills – How to Think Critically.” www.youtube.com, 22 Nov. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=FMt_RIR_JHo&feature=emb_logo. Accessed 30 Dec. 2021.



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