Starting your very first university assignment: Do you really know what you are being asked to do?

You are a few weeks in to the start of university life, and already the assignments and midterms are piling up.  Multiple choice exams, book reviews, article summaries, constant homework questions and lab prep and evaluations!  Have you stopped to ask yourself why you are being assigned all of this work?

Understanding your assignments/tests

When presented with a test or an assignment most students begin by asking “How many pages?” or “How many questions?”, followed by many other content centered questions, such as topics to be covered, structure required, etc.  This type of task information is known as explicit understanding.
Having a strong understanding of the explicit goals of the task is important because it will help you focus on the correct topic, structure your work properly, and hit all of the key requirements.  Often this information is easily gained because it is written clearly in the syllabus, or discussed in class.

Be warned… an explicit knowledge of the assignment is not enough…

The following scenario will be used to gain further insight into the other elements of task understanding:

Jane is in a first year stats course.  She is finding it easy to keep up with course material, because she is memorising each concept as it comes up.  She makes a cue card for each concept, and keeps reviewing theh cards until she can define each concept in her own words.  She was very confident she would do well in the upcoming test.   When it came to the test day she found that while she could recognise many of the terms on the test, the prof didn’t just want the definitions and forumlas, but wanted to see how the concepts were related, and why you would use one method rather than another.  The test was very similar to the type of questions asked in the assignments. Because Jane only knew the definitions she didn’t know which situations would be best suited for each test, and as a result did poorly.

Your professors have reasons for assigning you a test or essay, it isn’t just to be certain you are working hard.  The professor may not always discuss their reasons for the task, however this information is very important for you to gain an understanding of. This information you will need to infer, and is known as the implicit task information.  The implicit task information usually involves information such as why you are being asked to do the assignment (purpose), the connections to the rest of the course, the way you need to think about the assignment, and the skill set required to develop in order to complete the assignment.

If we look to Jane, we can see that she had a clear understanding of the concepts that needed to be studied, but not really why she needed to know them.  She saw each concept as a separate piece of information, rather than seeing how everything in the course is related, and how some tests are better suited to one situation than another.  Jane also didn’t see that the professor wanted her to be able to apply and justify her solution to the problems presented.  Because Jane didn’t have a good implict understanding of the test, she was not able to develop a good study strategy for the test.  Had she taken the time to think about the purpose of the test, she may have been able to revise her cue card strategy to include an element that explores relationships and similarities between concepts, and generate situations where one concept could be applied more effectively than another.

That’s not all…

Another element essential in understanding your task, is understanding the socio-contextual features of the task.  This involves understanding how this course fits into the overall program, the field of study, and even the skill sets required to participate in that field of study.

Jane’s professor wanted to see that the students could apply the course material just like one would as a statistician.  For the professor, a knowledge of what the terms mean is not enough, the prof wanted to see that the students could apply the concepts and justify why it was the best solution to the problem at hand.  Also, because this is a first year stats course, it would also serve as a foundation to future statistics courses therefore a strong understanding of how to apply the course materials is essential.

Why is this important?

Truly understanding all aspects of your assignment is the first step in coming up with a plan for completing the task (Hadwin & Winne, 2011).  The better more complete an understanding of the task you have the more likely it is that you will perform better.  (Hadwin, 2008; Hadwin, Oshige, Miller & Wild, 2009).

Where Can I find the information I need?

  • course syllabus
  • other students
  • grading criteria for the assignment
  • feedback from other assignments in the course
  • professors

Click here for an example checklist you can use to help you gain a better understanding of the text. 

Questions to ask yourself to ensure you have complete task understanding:

Why do we need to know these concepts?
How does this exam (and these concepts) relate to what we have been doing in class?
How have these concepts been applied and discussed in lecture and tutorial sessions?
What might the course syllabus (and learning objectives) tell me about the kinds of questions the professor might ask about these concepts?
What knowledge and understandings from this course will be important for the third and fourth year courses in this discipline?
(Taken directly from Hadwin & Winne, 2011)

How does this task fit in with other course readings, lectures, and activities?
What does your teacher value in student work?
What kind of thinking are you being asked to do?
What are the criteria for this task?
How will you be graded for this task?

(Taken directly from Hadwin, 2008)


Hadwin, A. F. (2008, March). Do your students really understand your assignments? Tomorrow’s Professor Blog. Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University.

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.

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