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Succeeding in postgraduate study
Succeeding in postgraduate study

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8 Understanding the assignment brief

When faced with an assignment, ask yourself the following: Do you know what the assignment is asking you to do? Are you certain that you know how to interpret the question that has been set (i.e. what approach you are expected to take)? Understanding the assignment brief and interpreting the question correctly are essential requirements.

Assignment keywords can inform you about topics, resources or a particular area that you should focus on. These ‘content’ words tend to be nouns. Other keywords and phrases instruct you on the approach that you should take in answering the assignment, often expressed as imperatives such as ‘Assess the impact of…’ or ‘Explain the importance of …’. These are ‘process words’ or ‘command verbs’.

Table 1 Keywords (‘process words’) and phrases frequently used in assignment questions [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]   highlights some important process words and phrases that are frequently used in assignment questions. The table also indicates the style or approach expected for the piece of writing. While the explanations provided here are generally accepted, you should consider process words in the context of the question as a whole. If you are in doubt about the wording of a question, you should consult your tutor. Box 2 in the previous section has further useful tips on writing assignments.

Activity 3 An effective assignment

Timing: Allow approximately 10 minutes

In your view, and based on what has been discussed so far in this session, what do you think an effective assignment (piece of academic writing such as an essay or dissertation) should demonstrate at postgraduate level?

Write down your thoughts. You may wish to use a mind map for this activity.

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We don’t expect you to have noted everything down! You may have picked up on a few of these points however, and we will be exploring these further a little later on, but do take the time to reflect on the following at this point.

An effective assignment (piece of academic writing at postgraduate level) would:

  • show that you understand the subject and have addressed the learning outcomes
  • show you have answered the question being asked and interpreted this correctly
  • meet the requirements of the assignment (the assignment brief) fully
  • be focused and well-structured and written in a coherent manner, with sentences and paragraphs that link logically
  • use different theories, examples, arguments and perspectives to create a discussion of the topic
  • show that you have read more widely and engaged with the subject at a deeper level
  • be referenced correctly in the style of your discipline
  • use formal language with correct use of grammar, punctuation and spelling
  • express your arguments clearly and concisely
  • adopt a style and ‘academic voice’ (tone) that is suited to the task and target audience.