Understanding the question

The first stage in the assignment writing process is to read the question carefully and ensure that you understand it fully. If you do not do this, you may misinterpret the question or ignore important instructions, and lose marks as a result.

To analyse an assignment question or title, follow these simple steps:

  • Start the analysis by asking two broad questions:
    - What is the question or title about? In other words, what is the subject matter of this assignment?
    - What does the question or title require me to do?

Take this assignment question as an example:

'What is meant by the selfish gene? How has this concept helped us to understand cooperative behaviour?'

Preliminary answers to the two 'start the analysis' questions could be:

- The assignment question is about the concept of the 'selfish gene'.
- I have to answer two questions, not just one. The first question seems more straightforward. The second question is about 'cooperative behaviour' - more specifically, how the notion of the 'selfish gene' has contributed to our understanding of 'cooperative behaviour'.

  • Then focus on the instructions or question words. The example we are using has two question words, 'what' and 'how'. Think carefully about the questions they introduce and try to convert the questions to instructions.

Take the first question: 'What is meant by the selfish gene?' A preliminary answer might be: This question asks me to define the term ‘selfish gene’; more than this, really: I need to explain the concept of ‘selfish gene’. The second question, 'How has this concept helped us to understand cooperative behaviour?', asks me to examine the relationship between the two concepts.

  • Next, focus on other important words in the question or title. What aspect(s) of the subject matter do you need to consider? Is the subject matter restricted in any way?

Here is a possible answer: I have already identified the two key concepts in this assignment question and I know that I have to explain them. Other important words are ‘helped us to understand’. I need to explain what 'cooperative behaviour' is, but I also have to make sense of the relationship between the two concepts: What role has the concept of the 'selfish gene' played in our understanding of 'cooperative behaviour'? How important has the concept of the 'selfish gene' been in this respect? I need to assess this. This seems to be the most important part of the question. So, what do I know about this? What do I need to find out? What sources can I read to find this information?