Understand the Topic of Your Assignment (Topic Analysis)

The issue

A common problem for students is misunderstanding what the question is asking. As a result, they end up writing an assignment that may be excellent, but that doesn’t actually answer the question properly, and this loses them marks. Or perhaps they’re really confused by the topic, but are reluctant to ask the tutor for clarification.
It’s really important to know what you’re being asked to do, so always take the time to reflect on the assignment title and work out what it’s about. This will allow you to approach the topic with clear understanding and be able to plan your assignment.

If in doubt, ask

If you’re really confused by the assignment title, don’t be afraid to ask your tutor to explain it to you. They’d much rather you asked them for clarification than have you be confused and hand them an assignment that completely misses the point. Tutors are there to help and guide you, and they understand that some students may have a little trouble understanding a particular assignment.

Don’t sweat over an assignment and wait until the very last minute to ask them for an explanation though, they won’t be impressed!

Make notes to clarify your understanding

It can be helpful when trying to understand an assignment topic to scribble down some ideas as to what the question is looking for. Perhaps it may appear to be asking one thing, but when you jot down some notes you realize that it isn’t quite right after all. If a question is ambiguous, write down the different possibilities, which may help you to see which is the correct one.

Identify the key terms

Another helpful approach is to look for key terms. This means identifying words such as analyse, compare and evaluate. Think about those words and their meaning. Each is asking you to do something different. Analysing a topic means situating it in context, looking for relationships, and examining the assumptions related to it. Comparing a topic requires you to look for similarities and differences. Evaluating a topic asks you to look at the results of your analysis and consider how effective, valid or useful those results are.

Also understand the difference between key terms. For example, you may be asked to ‘justify’ or ‘suggest’. One is asking you to give clear evidence for events or arguments, whereas the other is asking for your opinion on possible explanations. Each will require a different approach.

Once you understand the key terms, you will understand which approach you need to take.

Don’t leave an assignment to the last minute

One thing that is really important if you’re going to understand the topic is that you must begin looking at your assignment early on. Few people work well under pressure, and if you’re acutely aware of how little time you have to work on your assignment, you’ll soon panic. If you’re really struggling with a topic, stepping away from the computer and doing something else can help clear your brain. And again, don’t be afraid to email your tutor and ask them what exactly the question is asking.

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