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Where Do I Start?

Understanding Your Assignment

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 Immediately

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.

Read Carefully

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.

  • What are you actually being asked to do? 
    • Are you supposed to write about a specific topic or choose your own? 
    • What is the purpose of the assignment?  Are you supposed to inform, persuade, analyze, entertain, etc.?
    • Look for verbs that tell you what action you are supposed to take and/or questions that you are supposed to answer. 
  • Are there due dates for different parts of the assignment or will you just be turning in one finished product at the end?  Your instructor may require you to turn in an outline, thesis statement, list of sources, and/or a rough draft before the final product is due. 
  • Do you have requirements for your outside sources?  You may have to have a certain number and/or type, they may need to come from library resources, and may need to be approved in advance.
  • Do you have to use a specific format for your citations, such as MLA or APA?
  • How long should your finished paper or project be? 

Don't make assumptions - Ask Questions

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.


Additional Information

"Understanding Assignments" from the Writing Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill provides further tips.




What comes first, the research or the paper?

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.  

  • You should never find yourself in the position of saying, "I have written my paper, now I just need to find my sources."  Don't put the cart before the horse!  If your assignment calls for outside sources, you are supposed to use them in developing your thoughts and ideas, not just find sources after the fact that agree with what you have said.
  • You may find that you need additional sources after you have begun writing your paper, and that is perfectly reasonable.  As you are developing your thoughts, you may end up going in a different direction than you originally intended, or you may find that you need more support for a particular point. 


Additional Sources for Research and Writing

  • The Assignment Calculator: Enter the due date of your paper and the Assignment Calculator will give you a list of steps for completing the assignment, resources to help you with each step, and a target date for completing each step.  Take a look now to get an idea about how to complete a research paper.
  • Research and Writing Basics Guide: This guide provides tips and links to resources to help you throughout the research and writing process.  Take a look now to see the types of resources available.
  • How to Choose a Topic