Understanding the Assignment
The first step in writing a successful paper is to understand the assignment instructions. These usually fall into two categories: Product (the written material you hand in) and Process (the critical thinking you need to do). Using the sample assignment on the topic of the American Dream, we can "unpack" or deconstruct the prompt into parts or steps, giving us a clear idea of what is expected.
Product has to do with the physical characteristics of the paper, including the number of pages and the academic style or conventions used to set up the paper. It also has to do with the genre or type of writing required.
- Length -- A page range is suggested ("approximately 4-6 pages").
- Format -- The instructions ask for a particular academic style ("an MLA style essay"). This has to do with the way the paper is laid out on the page (double-spaced, consistent font style, no folder or cover sheet, etc.) and the way sources are documented (in-text citations and a Works Cited page).
- Sources -- This assignment requires "3-5 sources," to be chosen from class materials. This is a guided, rather than independent, research assignment.
- Genre -- The instructions specifically ask you to "present an argument" in response to the question "do you think the American Dream is a myth or a reality in our culture?" In an argument essay, you are expected to take a stance on an issue, and clearly state and support your position.
Process has to do with the kind of critical thinking the prompt asks you to engage in. It includes the thinking you do about ideas, as well as the ways you construct and develop your writing.
- Focus -- Look for key questions or statements in the prompt. In the sample assignment, the question "do you think the American Dream is a myth or a reality in our culture?" gives you:
- the parameters or boundaries for the paper. Every part of the paper should relate directly to the focus.
- the basis for your thesis. Your claim should be a response to the focus, but remember, you do not have to take an "either/or" position. Your reading and thinking may suggest a stance that combines the two choices.
- a specific idea of what to look for in the readings. Look closely at the ideas in your sources to see how they relate to the focus.
- a foundation for your discussion. One of the things you will include early in the paper is a definition or explanation of the American Dream. This definition will help you construct a thesis.
- Action Verbs -- "Charge" or action verbs in the prompt ask you to do something with ideas. The following words appear in the sample assignment:
These three words direct you to your sources. They ask you to find, explain, and relate source ideas to the focusing idea of the paper.
- Discuss -
- Analyze -
- Compare -
- Synthesize - This word asks you to interpret meaning from the ideas you have found, to put them together in a critically thought-out, logical way in order to respond to the assignment question. These charge verbs ask you to do specific kinds of thinking. While you may include summaries or descriptions, the assignment requires that you go beyond those basics.
- Source Evidence -- It is crucial in creating an effective academic dialogue that you fully understand each source‘s ideas and viewpoints. One way to analyze a source is to determine how that writer would answer the assignment question. Sources may contradict each other. Including the contradictions in your discussion helps you understand and convey the various perspectives and complexities of the issue.
- Thesis Development -- You may have started with some idea of what your stance would be, forming a hypothesis or working thesis as your anchor for keeping your process focused. But once you have done the work outlined by the charge verbs, you may find that the evidence shifts your thesis. Allow yourself to revise your thesis to match what you conclude from your research. When you wait to construct your thesis until "all the evidence is in," you have a better chance to:
- create an academic dialogue
- acknowledge various perspectives on the issue
- acknowledge that the issue is complex
- make a claim or take a stand that conveys an informed perspective
- use solid evidence, based on critical thinking and logic, to back up your opinion