Posted by: matmancuso | April 13, 2011

Task Understanding: Putting the Pieces Together

  Task Understanding: Putting the Pieces Together


    As students, we are faced with a variety of academic tasks on a regular basis.  In many cases, these tasks are difficult to understand and often require the coordination of one or more interconnected but separable  tasks (1) .  A comprehensive task understanding plays a critical role in successful academic performance as it is the foundation upon which we set goals, select appropriate strategies, and monitor our progress.

     In order to be successful, we must adopt a consistent approach to completing academic work which includes a careful interpretation of the demands of assigned tasks.  The first step in developing a successful approach to academic tasks is to implement a  reflective, active, and habitual interpretation of the assigned task (1).



Reflect… and Become a More Efficient and Effective Learner

     Over time and through experiences in school, we develop knowledge regarding academic contexts which influence the approach we take to academic tasks.  Our past experiences can provide significant insight regarding the purpose, structure, and components involved in a particular task or assignment.

     In order to put what we have learned from our experiences to productive use, we must take the time to reflect upon our academic experiences.  During this process, we must look back and make judgements and observations about our past experiences and consider what worked, what could be improved, and what would be the best approach to take for the present task.


Understanding Academic Tasks

     Gaining a thorough understanding of an academic task is the first step to academic success.  The presentation below will describe why task understanding is important, what is involved in developing a thorough task understanding, as well as provide tips to ensure successful and complete task understanding.

Why is Task Understanding Important?

Models of Self-Regulated learning suggest that task understanding is central to the SRL process and provides the foundation for effective and appropriate task engagement (2).  In order to engage in an academic task efficiently and effectively, you must have a thorough understanding of what needs to be done.  Having a complete understanding of the task is critical in that will drive your planning, goal setting, strategy selection, and monitoring activities.

What is involved in Understanding Academic Tasks?

The Hadwin (2006) model of task understanding theorizes that explicit, implicit and socio-contextual information inform constructions of task understanding (2).   In other words, we must understand the rules, reasons, and connections surrounding the task.


The explicit features or the rules, are those which are described in the actual description of the task and are generally given the most attention by students.  These features may include:

  • key task criteria,
  • steps or instructions to be followed,
  • style and form of presentation, and
  • grading standards (2).

The implicit features or the reasons, are the features which may not be explicitly stated, but are expected for students to extrapolate beyond the assignment description.  These features may include:

  • the purpose of the assignment,
  • connections to learning concepts,
  • potential resources available to complete the task, and
  • the key types of knowledge and thinking that the task is targeting (2).

The socio-contextual features or the connections, must also be considered when developing a complete understanding of an assigned task.  These features include:

  • information about the broader course, program, and discipline context for the task
  • what is valued in the course or discipline such as,
  • beliefs about expertise and knowledge,
  • beliefs about ability, and
  • discipline-specific expectations (2).

  Now it’s time to put your knowledge of the components of task understanding to use!  Click on “Student Scenarios” and see how each of the components relate to the students in the scenarios.

Student Scenarios


How to Gain a Thorough Understanding of an Academic Task?

     In order to develop a thorough understanding of an academic task we must move beyond the assignment description to consider the larger context that surrounds the task.  It is important to take the time to develop competency in the explicit, implicit, and socio-contextual features of the task.  This process requires you to be both reflective and strategic in searching for clues regarding task demands, gaining an understanding of expectations based on the provided instructions, evaluating approaches used in the past, considering the teachers past expectations, and integrating such information into planning, directing, and evaluating performance (1).

Now it’s you turn to put what you have just learned to use.  Have a look at the description for your next assignment and follow the Guide to Task Understanding.  You could also download a copy for use at your convenience.

Guide to Task Understanding 

Remember that the time you invest now will be well worth your effort in the future.  With practice, this process will become automatic and more efficient.



This post was created by Mat Mancuso.


(1) Butler, D. L. & Cartier, S. C. (2004). Promoting Effective Task Interpretation as an Important Work Habit: A Key to Successful Teaching and Learning. Teachers College Record, 106(9), 1729-1758.

Butler, D. L., & Winnie, P. H. (1995). Feedback and Self-Regulated Learning: A Theoretical Synthesis. Review of Edcational Research, 65(3), 245-281.

(2)Hadwin, A. F., Oshige, M., Miller, M., & Wild, P. (2009, July). Examining student and instructor task perceptions in a complex engineering design task. Paper proceedings resented for the Sixth International Conference on Innovation and Practices in Engineering Design and Engineering Education (CDEN/C2E2), McMaster University, Hamilton, ON, Canada.

Hadwin, A. F., & Winne, P. H. (2011, in press). Promoting learning skills in undergraduate students. In M. J. Lawson & J. R. Kirby (Eds.),The quality of learning: Dispositions, instruction, and mental structures. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Hadwin, A. F. (2008). Self-regulated learning. In T. L. Good (Ed.), 21st century education: A reference handbook. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Ku, K., Ho, I. (2010). Metacognitive Strategies that Enhance Critical Thinking. Metacognition Learning, 5, 251-267.

Pintrich, P. R. (2003). A motivational science perspective on the role of motivation in learning and teaching contexts. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95, 667-686.

Puustinen. M., & Pulkkinen, L. (2001). Models of self-regulated Learning: A review. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 45, 269-286.

Zimmerman, B. J., (1989). A social cognitive view of self-regulated academic learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 81, 329-339.

Zimmerman, B. J. (2008). Goal setting: A key proactive source of academic self-regulation. In D. H. Schunk & B. J. Zimmerman (Eds), Motivation and self-regulated learning: Theory, research, and applications (pp. 267-295). New York, NY: Erlbaum

Zimmerman, B. J. and Paulsen, A. S. (1995), Self-monitoring during collegiate studying: An invaluable tool for academic self-regulation. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 1995: 13–27. doi: 10.1002/tl.37219956305

Winne, P. H., & Hadwin, A. F. (1998). Studying as self-regulated engagement in learning. In D. Hacker, J. Dunlosky, & A. Graesser (Eds.), Metacognition in Educational Theory and Practice (pp. 277-304). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.



  1. […] Task recognition – figuring out what you’ve really been asked to do. […]

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