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Essay and report writing skills
Essay and report writing skills

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5.2.2 Opening up ideas: analysing the question

What do you need to know about your assignment? Most importantly, what it's about (i.e. the topic). Once you have worked this out, you are in a better position to gauge how much you already know and how much you will need to find out.

Activity 9

Here are some assignment titles from a range of different courses. Although the subject matter may not be familiar, try to put into words how you would explain to someone else what each question is about.

  1. Outline the Marxist model of class divisions. How does the growth of the middle class affect the model?

  2. Compare and contrast the differences in state development of any two nineteenth century European countries or empires.

  3. In general, Victorian culture was activated by a dislike of industrialisation and urbanisation: the country was seen as a repository of enduring values. Do you agree?

  4. Based on knowledge of your organisation, or one you know well, and using concepts and methods from Unit 13:

    • (a) explain with the help of a diagram how you identify the critical issues within your organisation's environment

    • (b) how do managers in your organisation typically cope with environmental issues? Discuss relevant coping strategies as they are applied, or could be applied, to these issues.

  5. Describe and contrast two African poems and either one African story or piece of African music, which you have studied in the course so far. Relate this to the economics and politics of contemporary development.

  6. What are the similarities and differences between the mineralogical compositions of the basalt, S3, and the meteorite, EETA 79001?


It isn't easy, is it? Take, for example, question 3: is it just ‘about’ Victorian culture? What would your tutor say if you wrote all you know about Victorian culture? He or she would surely comment that you have not focused on the Victorians’ dislike of industrialisation and urbanisation and their preference for country life. So, what would your tutor say if you had covered these specific aspects of Victorian culture, but in a purely descriptive way? The feedback could well say that, although you showed a good understanding of these issues, you did not say whether or not you have agreed with this suggestion, as the essay title requires. If you had done that, you would get a good grade. However, you would have achieved an even higher grade if you had commented on the significance of the words ‘in general’ and defined some of the terms, which could need clarification, such as ‘culture’ and ‘enduring values’.

Activity 10

Take another look at the titles in Activity 9. For each of them, indicate which of the following tasks you are being asked to do:

  • (a) describe ‘x’
  • (b) present a case for ‘x’
  • (c) state whether you agree with ‘x’
  • (d) explain why ‘x’ happens
  • (e) put ‘x’ into its context
  • (f) compare and contrast ‘x’ and ‘y’
  • (g) explore ‘x’
  • (h) describe how far it is true to say that ‘x’ …


Do you agree with our choices?

  • 1) (a) and (h)
  • 2) (d) and (g)
  • 3) (b), (c) and (h)
  • 4) (d) and (g)
  • 5) (a), (e) and (f)
  • 6) (f)

Activity 11

Now look at the title of your next assignment. Ask yourself, ‘What is this question asking me to demonstrate?’ For example:

  • (a) specific subject knowledge – from your recent reading/tutorials/TV programmes/audio cassettes, are there particular aspects of the course that are being sought by this question?

  • (b) understanding and application of theories and concepts – is there a combination of these to draw on? (Even if you are being asked to comment on one particular set of ideas or concepts, it is usually expected that you have considered alternatives – and these may contribute to your analysis.)

  • (c) an ability to identify links to related sections of your course – are you expected to make new links for yourself or to notice and comment on links pointed out in course material?

  • (d) personal experience – are you expected to draw on this?

  • (e) skill development – what particular skill(s) in writing assignments do you feel you need to work on?


Do any of these questions apply to your assignment, or are you being asked to do something quite different? If so, what? If you are still not sure, contact your tutor for reassurance or clarification. Try the approach ‘I'm not quite clear whether this assignment is asking me to … or …’. Or perhaps you could check your reading of the question with another student, to see if your interpretation of it is similar to his or hers.

Remember, this is still your first – almost surface – reading of the question. It is important to keep your options open. Don't rule anything out at this stage.