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Nonetheless, being aware of this standard pattern can help you understand what your instructor wants you to do. Ask yourself a few basic questions as you read and jot down the answers on the assignment sheet:. Try to look at the question from the point of view of the instructor. Recognize that your instructor has a reason for giving you this assignment and for giving it to you at a particular point in the semester.
In every assignment, the instructor has a challenge for you. This challenge could be anything from demonstrating an ability to think clearly to demonstrating an ability to use the library. See the assignment not as a vague suggestion of what to do but as an opportunity to show that you can handle the course material as directed. Paper assignments give you more than a topic to discuss—they ask you to do something with the topic.
Keep reminding yourself of that. Be careful to avoid the other extreme as well: do not read more into the assignment than what is there. Of course, your instructor has given you an assignment so that he or she will be able to assess your understanding of the course material and give you an appropriate grade. But there is more to it than that. Your instructor has tried to design a learning experience of some kind.
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Your instructor wants you to think about something in a particular way for a particular reason. If you read the course description at the beginning of your syllabus, review the assigned readings, and consider the assignment itself, you may begin to see the plan, purpose, or approach to the subject matter that your instructor has created for you.
For help with this, see our handout on getting feedback. Is it to gather research from a variety of outside sources and present a coherent picture?
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Is it to take material I have been learning in class and apply it to a new situation? Is it to prove a point one way or another? Key words from the assignment can help you figure this out. Look for key terms in the form of active verbs that tell you what to do. Information words Ask you to demonstrate what you know about the subject, such as who, what, when, where, how, and why. Interpretation words Ask you to defend ideas of your own about the subject.
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Do not see these words as requesting opinion alone unless the assignment specifically says so , but as requiring opinion that is supported by concrete evidence. Remember examples, principles, definitions, or concepts from class or research and use them in your interpretation. More Clues to Your Purpose As you read the assignment, think about what the teacher does in class:. Now, what about your reader? Most undergraduates think of their audience as the instructor.
True, your instructor is a good person to keep in mind as you write. But for the purposes of a good paper, think of your audience as someone like your roommate: smart enough to understand a clear, logical argument, but not someone who already knows exactly what is going on in your particular paper. Remember, even if the instructor knows everything there is to know about your paper topic, he or she still has to read your paper and assess your understanding.
In other words, teach the material to your reader. Aiming a paper at your audience happens in two ways: you make decisions about the tone and the level of information you want to convey. With a few exceptions including some lab and ethnography reports , you are probably being asked to make an argument. You must convince your audience. It is easy to forget this aim when you are researching and writing; as you become involved in your subject matter, you may become enmeshed in the details and focus on learning or simply telling the information you have found.
You need to do more than just repeat what you have read. Your writing should have a point, and you should be able to say it in a sentence. Then, you floss with unwaxed, bologna-flavored string. Finally, gargle with bourbon. Therefore it should be recommended by the American Dental Association. However, their joys are short-lived. Convincing the reader of your argument is the goal of academic writing. Look at the assignment and think about what kind of argument you could make about it instead of just seeing it as a checklist of information you have to present.
For help with understanding the role of argument in academic writing, see our handout on argument. Should you use statistics?
Historical examples? Here are some possible reasons:. However, except for rare egregious situations, you would do well to assume the best of your instructor and to appreciate the diversity of learning opportunities you have access to in college. What do I need to do here?
When do I need to do it, and how long will it take? What does this teacher expect of me? Often, the handout or other written text explaining the assignment—what professors call the assignment prompt —will explain the purpose of the assignment, the required parameters length, number and type of sources, referencing style, etc. Sometimes, though—especially when you are new to a field—you will encounter the baffling situation in which you comprehend every single sentence in the prompt but still have absolutely no idea how to approach the assignment.
No one is doing anything wrong in a situation like that. It just means that further discussion of the assignment is in order. Here are some tips:. If a professor provides a grading rubric with an assignment prompt, thank your lucky stars and your professor. If the professor took the trouble to prepare and distribute it, you can be sure that he or she will use it to grade your paper. But you really should read it over carefully before you begin and again as your work progresses. A lot of rubrics do have some useful specifics. It has been drafted and repeatedly revised by a multidisciplinary expert panel and tested multiple times on sample student work to ensure reliability.
But it is still seems kind of vague. It depends on the specific context. Your future bosses are counting on that. At this point, it is better to think of rubrics as roadmaps, displaying your destination, rather than a GPS system directing every move you make. Behind any rubric is the essential goal of higher education: helping you take charge of your own learning, which means writing like an independently motivated scholar.
Are you tasked with proposing a research paper topic? Is it a reflection paper? Are you writing a thesis-driven analytical paper? Write as if your scholarly peers around the country are eagerly awaiting your unique insights. What your professor wants, in short, is critical thinking.
Critical thinking is one of those terms that has been used so often and in so many different ways that if often seems meaningless. It also makes one wonder, is there such a thing as uncritical thinking? Despite the prevalent ambiguities, critical thinking actually does mean something.
That definition aligns with the best description of critical thinking I ever heard; it came from my junior high art teacher, Joe Bolger. To think critically, one must …. While you are probably used to providing some evidence for your claims, you can see that college-level expectations go quite a bit further. They want you to dig into the evidence, think hard about unspoken assumptions and the influence of context, and then explain what you really think and why. And there are at least two reasons to see critical thinking as a craft or art to pursue rather than a task to check off.
First, the more you think critically, the better you get at it. Artists of all kinds find satisfaction in continually seeking greater challenges. Continual reflection and improvement is part of the craft. I never expect an answer to a question to be in the text; by now I realize that my professors want to know what I have to say about something or what I have learned.
In a paper or essay, the three-step thesis process explained in Chapter 3 is a tool that will help you get this information across. This is my rule of thumb, and I would not want to start a thesis-driven paper any other way! Critical thinking is hard work.
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Even those who actively choose to do it experience it as tedious, difficult, and sometimes surprisingly emotional. That built-in tendency can lead us astray. Kahneman and his colleagues often used problems like this one in experiments to gauge how people used fast and slow thinking in different contexts: Critical thinking can also be emotionally challenging, researchers have found.
Recent research has highlighted that both children and adults need to be able to regulate their own emotions in order to cope with the challenges of building competence in a new area. Your best bet is to find ways to make those processes as efficient, pleasant, and effective as you can.
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Have no fear though; they do get easier with time. The first step? Think about what you want to focus on in the paper aka your thesis and go with it. As Chapter 1 explains, the demands students face are not at all unique to their academic pursuits. Embrace it. And just as athletes, artists, and writers sustain their energy and inspiration for hard work by interacting with others who share these passions, look to others in the scholarly community—your professors and fellow students—to keep yourself engaged in these ongoing intellectual challenges. What your professors want, overall, is for you to join them in asking and pursuing important questions about the natural, social, and creative worlds.
They pay me to grade. Glennie, Ben W.