Understanding Assignment Expectations

Dawn Atkinson

Chapter Overview

To craft a well-written technical document, you must first understand expectations for the piece in terms of purpose, audience, genre, writing style, content, design, referencing style, and so forth. This same truth applies to an academic assignment: you will be able to proceed with your writing task in a more straightforward way if you dedicate some time to understanding what the assignment asks before you begin to plan and write it. This chapter aims to help you deconstruct writing assignment prompts—in other words, carefully consider them by looking closely at their component parts—and use specifications, feedback, and rubrics to meet assignment requirements. Using the definition provided by Carnegie Mellon University’s Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation (2019, para. 1), a rubric specifies how levels of skillfulness on an assignment relate to grading criteria and, thus, to performance standards.


What does the assignment ask you to do?

College professors oftentimes provide students with directions or prompts that outline requirements for assignments. Read these instructions thoroughly when you first receive them so that you have time to clear up any uncertainties before the assignment is due. While reading, look for words that will help you focus on the task at hand and define its scope; many assignment instructions use key words or phrases, such as those presented in the following list, which is adapted from Learn Higher (2015, “Key Words in the Title”), to establish expectations.

Account for Give reasons for
Analyze Break information into its essential parts, examine the relationship between the parts, and question the information.
Argue Make the case for or against something by supplying claims, evidence, and reasons; try to persuade the reader to accept your point of view.
Balance Look at two or more viewpoints or pieces of information while giving them equal attention; look at the positive and negative aspects of an issue.
Be critical Identify and give reasons for positive and negative aspects by probing, questioning, identifying inaccuracies or shortcomings, and estimating value.
Clarify Identify the components of an issue/topic/problem; make the meaning plain; remove misunderstandings.
Compare Look for similarities and differences in things, and perhaps conclude which thing is preferable based on an evaluation.
Conclude Arrive at a judgement by reasoning; what the results of an investigation indicate.
Contrast Identify differences.
Criticize Provide a judgement about theories, ideas, or viewpoints, and back this by discussing the evidence or reasoning involved.
Deduce Conclude; infer.
Define Supply a precise meaning; examine possible or commonly used definitions.
Demonstrate Show clearly by providing evidence.
Describe Provide a detailed, full account of the topic.
Determine Find out about something; calculate something.
Develop a viewpoint Decide what you think based on an argument or evidence.
Discuss Investigate or examine by argument; debate; give reasons for and against; examine the implications of a topic.
Elucidate Explain and make clear.
Estimate Calculate; judge; predict.
Evaluate Use criteria to appraise the worth of something; assess and explain.
Examine Look at carefully; consider carefully.
Explain Make plain and clear; give reasons for.
Give evidence Provide evidence from your own work or that of others to justify what you say.
Identify Point out and describe.
Identify trends Identify patterns/changes/movements in certain directions (e.g., over time or across topics/subjects).
Illustrate Explain, clarify, or make clear by using concrete examples.
Interpret Explain the meaning of something in clear and explicit terms, and make a judgement about it.
Justify Show adequate grounds for decisions, a particular view, or conclusions, and answer main objections likely to be made.
Outline Provide a short description of the main points; list the main features or general principles; emphasize the structure while omitting minor details.
Review Examine a subject carefully.
State Present in a brief, clear form.
Summarize Provide a concise account of the main points of something while removing details.
Synthesize Bring elements or sources together to create a complex, new whole; draw together or integrate issues.
Trace Follow the development of a topic from its origin.

The words and phrases listed indicate the purpose for an assignment and communicate what it should contain (its content). Use the list to clarify your task for the assignment; however, if you are still not sure what the assignment asks you to do after identifying its key words and phrases and defining their meanings, arrange an appointment with your instructor to discuss your questions. Think of your instructor as a vital resource who can help to clarify your uncertainties and support your academic success.


What are the assignment specifications?

In addition to looking for key words and phrases in your assignment directions, also pay attention to other specifics that communicate expectations. The following list, adapted from Learn Higher (2019, “Be Practical”), identifies such specifics.

  • When is the assignment due?
  • Do you need to submit a draft before you submit the final copy for grading? If so, when is the draft due?
  • Are you required to submit a paper copy of the assignment, an electronic copy, or both?
  • What is the word limit?
  • Are you required to use sources? If so, what kind and how many?
  • What referencing style are you required to use?
  • Who is the audience for the assignment?
  • What design requirements do you need to follow?
  • Does the assignment specify that you should use a certain document type (a genre)?

Although the directions for your assignment may not provide specific directions about writing style, you can likely determine the level of formality expected in the document by identifying its genre. For example, essays, letters, and reports tend to use formal language to communicate confidently and respectfully with readers, whereas emails and social media posts may use less formal language since they offer quick modes of interaction.


What does past assignment feedback indicate about the instructor’s priorities?

If you have received feedback on past papers, look through the comments carefully to determine what the instructor considers important in terms of assignment preparation and grading. You may notice similar comments on multiple assignments, and these themes can point to things you have done well—and should thus aim to demonstrate in future assignments—and common areas for improvement. While reviewing the feedback, make a note of these themes so you can consult your notes when preparing upcoming assignments.

To avoid feeling overwhelmed by feedback, you might also prioritize the themes you intend to address in your next writing assignment by using a template, such as that provided in Figure 1, when making notes. If you have questions about past feedback comments when making notes, seek help before preparing your upcoming assignment.

What positive aspects of your past assignments do you want to demonstrate in your next assignment?

 Punctuation (area for improvement): Which three punctuation issues do you intend to address when writing your next assignment? Record your responses below. In addition, locate pages in your textbook that will help you address these issues, and record the pages below.

Issue 1:

Issue 2:

Issue 3:

Sentence construction (area for improvement): Which three sentence construction issues do you intend to address when writing your next assignment? Record your responses below. In addition, locate pages in your textbook that will help you address these issues, and record the pages below.

Issue 1:

Issue 2:

Issue 3:

Citations and references (area for improvement): Which three citation and referencing issues do you intend to address when writing your next assignment? Record your responses below. In addition, locate pages in your textbook that will help you address these issues, and record the pages below.

Issue 1:

Issue 2:

Issue 3:

Figure 1. Template for prioritizing feedback comments on past assignments

Most college writing instructors spend considerable time providing feedback on assignments and expect that students will use the feedback to improve future work. Show your instructor that you respect his or her effort, are invested in your course, and are taking responsibility for your own academic success by using past feedback to improve future assignment outcomes.


What assessment criteria apply to the assignment?

If your instructor uses a rubric to identify the grading criteria for an assignment and makes the rubric available to students, this resource can also help you understand assignment expectations. Although rubrics vary in format and content, in general they outline details about what an instructor is looking for in an assignment; thus, you can use a rubric as a checklist to ensure you have addressed assignment requirements.

Table 1 presents a sample rubric for a writing assignment. Notice that performance descriptions and ratings are identified in the horizontal cells of the table and grading criteria are listed in the vertical cells on the left side of the table.

Measurement Excellent 4 Above Average 3 Average 2 Needs Work 1 Unacceptable 0
Content: 30%

  • Accurate
  • Comprehensive
  • Relevant
  • Supported claims
Document is accurate and comprehensive.  Document contains relevant information.  Claims are supported with effective evidence, and research is from reliable sources.  Both in-text citations and end references are used as needed.  A standardized system of referencing (as assigned by the instructor) has been used correctly and consistently throughout the document. Document images noticeably in one area of accuracy, comprehensiveness, relevance, or supported claims. Document lapses noticeably in two areas of accuracy and comprehensiveness, relevance, or supported claims. Document lapses noticeably in three areas of accuracy, comprehensiveness, relevance, or supported claims. Document lapses noticeably in all areas of accuracy, comprehensiveness, relevance, and supported claims.
Writing 30%

  • Efficiently and appropriately worded
  • Readable
  • Understandable
  • Contains no distracting composition errors
Document is efficiently and appropriately worded; it is easy to read and understand.  Document contains few to no distracting composition errors (grammar, mechanics, capitalization, punctuation, style, usage, or spelling). Document lapses noticeably in one of the following areas: efficiently worded, readable, understandable, contains no distracting composition errors (grammar, mechanics, capitalization, punctuation, style, usage, or spelling). Document lapses noticeably in two of the following areas: efficiently worded, readable, understandable, contains no distracting composition errors (grammar, mechanics, capitalization, punctuation, style, usage, or spelling). Document lapses noticeably in three of the following areas: efficiently worded, readable, understandable, contains no distracting composition errors (grammar, mechanics, capitalization, punctuation, style, usage, or spelling). Document lapses noticeably in all of the following areas: efficiently worded, readable, understandable, contains no distracting composition errors (grammar, mechanics, capitalization, punctuation, style, usage, or spelling).

Table 1. A sample writing assignment rubric

Although the rubrics you encounter may not look exactly like Table 1, the language used in a rubric can provide insight into what an instructor considers important in an assignment. In particular, pay attention to any grading criteria identified in the rubric, and consult these criteria when planning, editing, and revising your assignment so that your work aligns with the instructor’s priorities.


What can you determine about assignment expectations by reading an assignment sheet?

Spend a few minutes reviewing the example assignment sheet that follows, or review an assignment sheet that your instructor has distributed. Use the bullet list under the heading “What are the assignment specifications?to identify the specifics for the assignment.

Book Selection Email

Later this semester, you will be asked to produce a book review. To complete the assignment, you must select and read a non-fiction book about a science topic written for the general public. The current assignment requires you to communicate your book selection in an email message that follows standard workplace conventions.

Content Requirements

Address the following content points in your email message.

  • Identify the book you intend to read and review.
  • Tell the reader why you are interested in the book. For example, does it relate to your major? If so, how? Does it address an area that has not been widely discussed in other literature or in the news? Does it offer a new viewpoint on research that has already been widely publicized?
  • Conclude by offering to supply additional information or answer the reader’s questions.

You will need to conduct some initial research to address the above points.

Formatting Requirements

Follow these guidelines when composing your email message.

  • Provide an informative subject line that indicates the purpose for the communication.
  • Choose an appropriate greeting, and end with a complimentary closing.
  • Create a readable message by using standard capitalization and punctuation, skipping lines between paragraphs, and avoiding fancy typefaces and awkward font shifts.
  • Use APA style when citing and referencing outside sources in your message.


Your instructor will read your email message. Please use formal language and a respectful tone when communicating with a professional.

Grading Category

This assignment is worth 10 points and will figure into your daily work/participation grade.

 Submission Specifications and Due Date

Send your email to your instructor by noon on  _______.


How will you respond to a case study about understanding assignment expectations?

We will now explore a case study that focuses on the importance of understanding assignment expectations. In pairs or small groups, examine the case and complete the following tasks:

  1. Identify what the student argues in his email and the reasoning and evidence he uses to support his argument.
  2. Discuss whether you agree with the student’s argument, and supply explanations for your answers.
  3. Identify possible solutions or strategies that would have prevented the problems discussed in the case study and the benefits that would have been derived from implementing the solutions.
  4. Present your group’s findings in a brief, informal presentation to the class.

Casey: The Promising Student Who Deflected Responsibility

Casey, a student with an impressive high school transcript, enrolled in an introduction to technical writing course his first semester in college. On the first day of class, the instructor discussed course specifics stated on the syllabus, and Casey noticed that she emphasized the following breakdown of how assignments, daily work/participation, and quiz grades would contribute to the students’ overall grades.

Instructions Assignment                    10%

Report Assignment                             15%

Critical Review Assignment                15%

Researched Argument Assignment    20%

Performance Evaluation Assignment 15%

Daily Work/Participation                   10%

Quizzes                                               15%

Casey also noticed that the instructor had an attendance policy on the syllabus, so he decided that he should attend class regularly to abide by this policy.

 During the semester, the instructor distributed directions for completing the five major course assignments listed above; these sheets provided details about the purpose, audience, genre, writing style, content, design, and referencing format for the assignments. Casey dutifully read through each assignment sheet when he received it and then filed it in his notebook. Although he completed all his course assignments on time, he did not earn grades that he considered acceptable in comparison to the high marks he received on his papers in high school.


When Casey did not receive the final grade he thought he deserved in his introduction to technical writing class, he sent his instructor an email that included the following text.

 I am writing to you about why I deserve an A for my writing class. In my opinion, the requirements for an A should be attendance, on-time submission of assignments, and active participation in class activities.

 Attendance is the most important factor in obtaining an A. Being in class helps with understanding course content—students can ask for clarification during class when they           have doubts about topics covered in class. I think I deserve an A because I attended 27 out of 28 total class meetings during the semester.

On-time submission of assignments is another aspect that I feel I should be graded on.  During the semester, I turned in all my assignments well before deadlines.

The third aspect that I think should be used in determination of my grade is active participation for all in-class activities. My consistent attendance in class indicates that I actively participated in all activities during class time.

After reviewing all the aspects I think are the prerequisites for an A, I feel that I deserve an A for my writing class.

After his instructor replied to the email by suggesting that Casey review the syllabus for further information about how his final grade was calculated, he complained bitterly to his friends about the instructor.

 The university that Casey attended required students to complete end-of-course evaluations at the end of each semester. Upon receiving his final course grade in introduction to technical writing, he gave the instructor a poor review on the evaluation. In the review, he indicated that he oftentimes did not understand assignment requirements and was not sure who to turn to for help.

How will you demonstrate adherence to APA conventions?

To understand how to construct APA in-text citations and references in accordance with established conventions, review the following online modules.

How will you relate the case study to points made in the rest of the chapter and in an essay?

Read an essay entitled “So You’ve Got a Writing Assignment. Now What?” (Hinton, 2010) at https://wac.colostate.edu/docs/books/writingspaces1/hinton–so-youve-got-a-writing-assignment.pdf; this essay expands upon a number of ideas raised in the current textbook chapter. Afterwards, write a response memo for homework. Address the items listed below in your memo, and cite and reference any outside sources of information that you use.

  • Explain how the case study presented in this chapter relates to points made elsewhere in the chapter and in the essay in terms of understanding assignment expectations.
  • Explain how this chapter, the case study, and the essay are relevant and useful to your own work in college. Do the texts offer new ways to approach writing assignments? Do they call into question unhelpful beliefs you hold about your own success in writing courses or in college? Do they offer solutions to problems you have encountered in college classes? How might you combine the points made in the texts with helpful practices you already demonstrate?

Consult the “Writing Print Correspondence” chapter of this textbook for guidance when writing and formatting your memo.

Remember to edit, revise, and proofread your document before submitting it to your instructor. The following multipage handout, produced by the Writing and Communication Centre, University of Waterloo (n.d.), may help with these efforts.


Active / Passive Voice

Strong, precise verbs are fundamental to clear and engaging academic writing. However, there is a rhetorical choice to be made about whether you are going to highlight the subject that performs the action or the action itself. In active voice, the subject of the sentence performs the action. In passive voice, the subject of the sentence receives the action. Recognizing the differences between active and passive voice, including when each is generally used, is a part of ensuring that your writing meets disciplinary conventions and audience expectations.

Helpful Tip: traditionally, writers in STEM fields have used passive voice because the performer of an action in a scientific document is usually less important than the action itself. In contrast, arts and humanities programs have stressed the importance of active voice. However, these guidelines are fluid, and STEM writers are increasingly using active voice in their writing. When in doubt, consult academic publications in your field and talk to your instructor – doing these things should give you a good sense of what’s expected.

Active voice explained

Active voice emphasizes the performer of the action, and the performer holds the subject position in the sentence. Generally, you should choose active voice unless you have a specific reason to choose passive voice (see below for those instances).

e.g., Participants completed the survey and returned it to the reader.

In the above sentence, the performer of the action (participants) comes before the action itself (completed).

Passive voice explained

Passive voice emphasized the receiver of the action, and the subject of the sentence receives the action. When using passive voice, the performer of the action may or may not be identified later in the sentence.

  • e.g. The survey was completed.In the above sentence, the people who performed the action (those who completed the survey) are not mentioned.
  • e.g., The survey was completed by participants and returned to the researcher.In the above sentence, the use of passive voice creates a sentence where the performers of the action (the participants) are not highlighted; instead, the action of completing the survey is emphasized.

    Also, the prepositional phrase by participants identifies the performers of the action, but it does so only after the action itself has been identified.

Helpful Tip: One popular trick for detecting whether or not your sentence is in passive voice is to add the phrase by zombies after the verb in your sentence; if it makes grammatical sense, your sentence is passive. If not, your sentence is active. Passive: The trip was taken [by zombies]. Active: Mandy taught the class [by zombies].

When to choose passive voice

Deciding whether or not you should use passive voice depends on a number of factors, including disciplinary conventions, the preferences of your instructor or supervisor, and whether the performer of the action or the action itself is more important. Here are some general guidelines to help you determine when passive voice is appropriate:

  • The performer is unknown or irrelevante.g., The first edition of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams was published in 1900.
  • The performer is less important than the actione.g., The honey bees were kept in a humidified chamber at room temperature overnight.
  • The recipient of the action is the main topice.g., “We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (D.N.A.). A structure for D.N.A. has already been proposed by Pauling and Corey” (Watson and Crick, 1953).

    The first sentence in the above quotation is active voice (where the performers want to be highlighted).

    The second sentence in the above quotation is passive voice (where the performers are identified, but are noted secondarily to the action itself).

Helpful Tip: rhetorical choices often have an ethical dimension. For instance, passive voice may be used by people, organizations, or governments to obscure information or avoid taking direct responsibility. If someone says “the money was not invested soundly,” the decision to not identify the performer of the action (“the accountant did not invest the money soundly”) may be a deliberate one. For this reason, it is crucial that we question the choices we make in writing to ensure that our choices results in correct, clear, and appropriate messaging.

Converting passive voice to active voice

If you are proofreading in order to convert passive voice to active voice in your writing, it is helpful to remember that

  • Active = performer of action + action
  • Passive = action itself (may or may not identify the performer afterwards)

Here are some sample revisions:

  • Passive: It is argued that…
    Active: Smith argues that…
  • Passive: A number of results were shown…
    Active: These results show…
  • Passive: Heart disease is considered the leading cause of death in North America.
    Active: Research points to heart disease as the leading cause of death in North America.



Eberly Center, Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation, Carnegie Mellon University. (2019). Grading and performance rubrics. https://www.cmu.edu/teaching/designteach/teach/rubrics.html

Excelsior Online Writing Lab. (2020a). APA Refresher: In-Text Citations 7th Edition [PowerPoint slides]. License: CC-BY 4.0https://owl.excelsior.edu/writing-refresher/apa-refresher/in-text-citations/

Excelsior Online Writing Lab. (2020b). APA Refresher: References 7th Edition [PowerPoint slides]. License: CC-BY 4.0https://owl.excelsior.edu/writing-refresher/apa-refresher/references/

Hinton, C.E. (2010). So you’ve got a writing assignment. Now what? In C. Lowe, & P. Zemliansky (Eds.), Writing spaces: Readings on writing (Vol. 1, pp. 18-32). Parlor Press. License: License: CC-BY-NC-SA-3.0. https://wac.colostate.edu/docs/books/writingspaces1/hinton–so-youve-got-a-writing-assignment.pdf

Learn Higher. (2015). Instruction words in essay questions. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0. http://www.learnhigher.ac.uk/learning-at-university/assessment/instruction-words-in-essay-questions/

Learn Higher. (2019). Assessment: Step-by-step. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0. http://www.learnhigher.ac.uk/learning-at-university/assessment/assessment-step-by-step/

Writing and Communication Centre, University of Waterloo. (n.d.). Active and passive voice. License: CC-BY-SA 4.0. https://uwaterloo.ca/writing-and-communication-centre/sites/ca.writing-and-communication-centre/files/uploads/files/active_and_passive_voice_0.pdf


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Mindful Technical Writing Copyright © 2020 by Dawn Atkinson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book