It is essential for you to have a clear understanding of your assignment. Don't waste your time - make sure you know what is being asked of you such as the type of paper/speech/project, special requirements such as sources and formatting, and due dates, etc. Take notes and highlight as you read the assignment to make sure you don't miss anything important.
Read the assignment as soon as you receive it. Your instructor intends for you to have time to complete it based upon when it is assigned. If you wait, you may not be able to finish on time. Also, by reading right away, you will be able to determine if you understand what is being asked of you so that you can ask questions and get assistance if needed.
In our hurried worlds and busy lives, you may be tempted to just read the directions once and dive right in. However, with important assignments, the extra time you take to read carefully for understanding will be well worth it.
If you don't understand exactly what is expected for the assignment, ask questions. Ask in class, during office hours, or through whatever means of communication is acceptable for your class. "I didn't know," and "I didn't understand the assignment" are not acceptable excuses for poor performance.
It may be tempting to go to your friends, classmates, family, etc., with your questions instead of your instructor. But they did not make the assignment and are not going to be grading it. Your instructor is there for you, so make sure you ask him/her any questions you may have.
"Understanding Assignments" from the Writing Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill provides further tips.
The purpose of a research assignment is to explore what has already been written about a topic in order to form your own thoughts and opinions. For your exploration, you need to locate, and READ, appropriate and credible sources. You should find yourself learning something new, then writing your paper, project, or presentation to share your new knowledge, understanding, and ideas.