Understanding Assignments & Prompts

Before you start any major writing project, make sure you fully understand what you’re being asked to do and what is expected of you. To do this properly, you should read and reread your assignment sheet or prompt.

In About Writing: A GuideRobin Jeffrey writes about the importance of fully understanding assignments in college. He points out two important steps in successfully tackling writing assignments:

  1. be sure that you understand the assignment and what you’re being asked to do
  2. be sure to assess the writing situation by considering your audience, their expectations, your purpose, and more


There are four kinds of analysis you need to do in order to fully understand an assignment: determining the purpose of the assignment, understanding how to answer an assignment’s questions, recognizing implied questions in the assignment, and recognizing the disciplinary expectations of the assignment.

Always make sure you fully understand an assignment before you start writing!


The wording of an assignment should suggest its purpose. Any of the following might be expected of you in a college writing assignment:

  • Summarizing information
  • Analyzing ideas and concepts
  • Taking a position and defending it
  • Combining ideas from several sources and creating your own original argument.


College writing assignments will ask you to answer a how or why question – questions that can’t be answered with just facts. For example, the question “What are the names of the presidents of the US in the last twenty years?” needs only a list of facts to be answered. The question “Who was the best president of the last twenty years and why?” requires you to take a position and support that position with evidence.

Sometimes, a list of prompts may appear with an assignment. Remember, your instructor will not expect you to answer all of the questions listed. They are simply offering you some ideas so that you can think of your own questions to ask.


A prompt may not include a clear ‘how’ or ‘why’ question, though one is always implied by the language of the prompt. For example:

“Discuss the effects of the No Child Left Behind Act on special education programs” is asking you to write how the act has affected special education programs.

“Consider the recent rise of autism diagnoses” is asking you to write why the diagnoses of autism are on the rise.


Depending on the discipline in which you are writing, different features and formats of your writing may be expected. Always look closely at key terms and vocabulary in the writing assignment, and be sure to note what type of evidence and citations style your instructor expects.



Before beginning the writing process, always establish the following:

  • Is there an assigned topic or are you free to choose your own?
  • What about your subject interests you?
  • Why is your subject worth reading about?
  • Double check that your subject is not too broad – narrow it down if necessary.
  • Determine the purpose of the work.
  • Determine the readers of the work and their level of knowledge about the topic.
  • Determine where your evidence will come from.
  • Decide what kind of evidence would best serve your argument.
  • Identify the required style (MLA, APA, etc.) of the paper.
  • Be aware of length specifications.
  • Consider if visuals might be helpful in your paper.
  • Will someone be reviewing drafts of your paper? Who?
  • Note your deadline and how much time you have for each stage of the writing process