Understanding your assignment question is a crucial step to developing an assignment that demonstrates your knowledge on a topic within the specific boundaries communicated by your lecturer. Success at this stage significantly enhances the potential of your performance in the unit (i.e. getting good grades!).

In brief, understanding the question is a three step process:

  1. Identifying the key concepts (the subject material you will focus on)
  2. Identifying and interpreting the directive verbs (the instruction of what you will need to do)
  3. Understanding the limitations and parameters.

We recommend using the assignment planner [DOCX, 34kB] to breakdown the different task elements.

Key concepts

The key concepts in your question are the main ideas or topics you will explore in your assignment. They become the keywords or search terms that you use in the research phase to locate information relevant to your task.

If you have a specific research question, you should be able to identify key concepts directly from the question. If you have a broad question or you are developing your own, you may need to develop your ideas further.

Broader questions provide an opportunity for you to explore areas that particularly interest you in relation to the topic. Specific questions decide the direction for you, specifying areas of focus for your assignment.

Let’s look at some examples:

If you’re conducting research on a question that has a lot of different themes like this one, you may need to perform multiple searches on the different aspects. Find out more in our Finding information guide.

  • Will artificial intelligence ultimately benefit or harm humankind?
  • Write a 1500-word essay on artificial intelligence.

If you have a broad question, you may not have enough information to move forward with research and may need to do some work developing your ideas. If you conduct a search for the keywords ‘artificial intelligence’, it would return all texts that include that term – not useful at all. Your goal in developing your ideas is to come up with a topic that is specific enough for your research purposes but not too limiting that no research is available. This process allows you to map out how you might approach your assignment, identifying the key areas you would like to cover.

Brainstorming and free writing are useful approaches when developing your ideas. If you feel a little lost or aren’t sure where to start, you should refer to the content, theories or concepts you have covered so far in the unit, as well as the learning outcomes stated in your unit outline. There’s a good chance that your lecturer will expect to see a deeper exploration of those themes. The marking rubric may contain some additional information.

Directive verbs

Directive verbs are the words that indicate how to answer your assignment question and how the assignment should be presented.

Here is a list of the most used directive verbs and what they might mean in an assessment context:

Directive verb Meaning
Analyse Explore your topic methodically and in-detail, explaining and interpreting the main ideas and component parts, then showing how they are related and why it is important.
Comment on Discuss, critique or explain the meaning of a situation or statement.
Compare Show the similarities and differences.
Contrast Show the differences.
Define Give the exact meaning.
Discuss Include the different aspects, perspectives, points of view and/or arguments related to your topic.
Evaluate Show both advantages and disadvantages, then provide your judgement.
Explain Make plain, interpret and account for in detail.
Illustrate Explain or make something clear using examples. In some cases, this may involve including figures or diagrams.
Interpret Give meaning to something. Use your own experiences, culture, education and/or point-of-view, backed up by evidence, to illustrate your understanding of the topic.
Justify Show why you think a position is correct. Provide reasons and examples to support your statements or conclusion.
Outline Provide a general summary of the main ideas.
Prove Show by argument or logic that a position on a topic is correct. Provide adequate evidence to support your position.
Review Provide an overview of the literature, identifying and evaluating any important themes.
State Specify the main points in precise terms. Omit minor details.
Summarise Give a concise overview of the main ideas. Omit unnecessary details and examples.
Trace Follow the progress or history of a topic.

Limitations and parameters

Limitations are the instructions that will focus your research and outline the parameters you need to work within. Examples include:

  • the type of assignment you are required to produce
  • the number, type and currency of sources you should use
  • the word count
  • words or concepts that require a definition
  • potential sections and elements you are required to use.

Assignment types

An important aspect of unpacking your question is to note what kind of assignment you will be required to produce. All university assignments have tasks in common – the requirement to undertake research, integrate sources and clearly communicate information you feel the audience should know. However, they are all presented in different ways, which could impact the assignment planning process.

For an in-depth breakdown of each written assignment type (essays, reports, short answers and more), visit the Assignment Types section in the Writing guide. If your assignment is a presentation, see the Presentations guide.


Your assignment question will usually detail the types of evidence that you should include. In most cases you will be expected to find scholarly/peer reviewed journal articles using the Library’s catalogue and databases. The Finding information guide provides more information on the research process.

Your assignment question may set a minimum number of sources to include. Check for more information in your assignment’s rubric.

Word count

The word count will have an impact on the number of topics that you can reasonably address in your assignment. Each paragraph within an essay or section within a report should only discuss one topic, so this should be considered as you undertake research and plan your assignment.

The word count calculator can help you identify the number of paragraphs/sections you should plan for.