Unpacking the Assignment Topic

It is important to take time to clarify what is expected of you in an assessment item before you start researching and writing. The following provides an overview of the process involved in careful analysis of the assignment question or topic. This is the first step towards researching and writing an assignment that effectively addresses the question/topic and assessment criteria.

Understand the main focus of the assignment
Why are you being asked to do this assignment? Think about your topic in relation to the learning outcomes, aims or objectives of the course. Read the course outline and ask yourself:

- Why has this topic been set?
- What course aims or objectives is this topic testing?
- What lectures, workshops or weekly readings relate to this topic?

Think about your topic in relation to the marking criteria. Ask yourself:

- Which parts are allocated the most marks?
- What additional clues, does the marking criteria provide in regards to the assignment task?
Understand what you are being asked to do
Key Words

Key words in the topic help you to decide on the approach you should take. Key words include:
- Topic Words highlight the major concepts in the assessment.
- Directive words give directions to the approach you should take, and the kind of response required in the assignment (e.g. ‘examine’, ‘analyse’, ‘compare’).
- Limiting words limit the scope of your research and writing; set boundaries.

Turn the topic into questions
Turning an assessment item into questions that you will answer in your essay helps to:
- Guide your reading and therefore research more effectively;
- Organise your material more efficiently; and
- Plan an overall argument in response to the topic.
- Working in groups to develop these questions can be especially productive, allowing for different perspective on the same assignment.

Primary Question
First turn your topic into a main (primary) question. Your answer to this question will be your overall argument.

Secondary Questions
In order to answer the primary question, you will also need to consider other questions. It is important that you think about analytical as well as descriptive questions.
- Descriptive questions (where? when? who? what?) provide background or contextual information.
- Analytical questions (how? why? to what extent?) help to show a deeper understanding of the topic, and generally assist you in developing an analytical response to the assignment.
Brainstorming: mapping the research territory
Brainstorming is a way of producing ideas by letting the mind think freely about an issue. It can be done individually or as a group process.

- Think about any answers you already have to your questions.
- As you reflect on the topic, you might even find some more questions that need to be asked.
- It may help to use a concept map or another form of graphic organiser to organise your thoughts.
- These questions can now be used as a basis for your research.
Turn your topic into questions
Take a look at this example to see how you can turn an essay topic into a question.

Essay Topic: Discuss the bystander effect.

Primary Question: What is the "bystander effect" and why is it important?

Secondary Descriptive: What happened?

- Who first discovered the bystander effect and when?
- What happens in the "bystander effect"?

Secondary Analytical: What does the bystander effect mean for understanding human behaviour?
- What are the explanations for the bystander effect?
- What conditions are needed to observe the bystander effect? How can it be avoided?
- What are the implications for our social behaviour?