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Writing 2 (Terhaar): Research Projects

The Research Assignment

This guide will be used by many different writing classes, so we cannot explain individual assignments for any one class. But we can offer some general tips on how to approach a research assignment that apply to almost all classes.

Here’s how some students approach a research assignment, and why we suggest you avoid these methods:

1) They assume college is simply a slightly more advanced version of high school and class assignments will be similar so they fail to read assignments carefully and ask questions when they do not understand. Think of this method as the “auto-pilot” approach.

2) They assume all teachers have similar expectations (and assignments) and rarely spend time trying to understand what they need to do, why the teacher wants them to do it, and how long it will take. This method is closely related to the “auto-pilot” approach.

Both approaches share common problems: operating on flawed assumptions and/or expectations and not spending enough time understanding and completing an assignment. Both problems are easy to fix.

Tip #1: Think of each assignment as a puzzle. Read the assignment and then ask yourself these questions: What do I need to do and why do I need to do it? Teachers usually give writing assignments because they want you to do a particular type of thinking about something, so look for key words such as analyze, interpret, evaluate, or synthesize that describe the type of thinking. If you’re unsure, then ask for clarification. Solve the puzzle before you start the assignment!

Tip #2: Figure out how to structure your response. You’ll need to go back and read the assignment carefully because the teacher will most likely give you instructions or clues on how to organize your ideas for your response. If teachers don’t clearly describe a structure (or they pose an open-ended question with lots of sub-questions designed to get you thinking), ask them about their expectations. If they do not specify any structure, spend time thinking about how to organize your ideas. (You are rarely expected to answer all of those sub-questions!)

Tip #3: It takes time to understand an assignment and a teacher’s expectations. It takes time to think about and understand your own thoughts and ideas. It takes time to envision how to respond. And it takes time to write, revise, and edit your response. Allow lots of time and if you don’t understand something, get clarification sooner rather than later.