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Library DIY: Starting your Research: Understanding assignments


Q: I don’t understand my assignment. Help!

First, let’s go through and underline or highlight the following key parts of a research assignment:

  • Due date: We all know this is important to know, and will help you structure your research and create a timeline for your work.

  • Length of the assignment: This will help you determine the scope of your topic. A shorter paper=a more focused topic

  • Purpose of the assignment: Are you supposed to critique a source? Annotate a bibliography? Synthesize research on a topic? These all mean different things, and will help you understand what is expected of you.

  • Topic guidance: Sometimes professors provide a list of suggested topics, or guidance about what a good topic or research question looks like. This varies by discipline, but here are some general rules.

  • Types of sources: Are you supposed to use recent news articles? Does your professor use vocabulary like “Academic Sources” or “Primary, Peer-Reviewed Articles”? If it’s up to you, think about what types of information fit best with your topic- you might find some sources through library databases and some through the open web. We’re happy to help you with both!

  • Grading Criteria: Some professors will explain what parts of the assignment are most important for a high quality paper, and some may include a rubric. Keep an eye out for those things to make sure you’re not missing any points.

  • Style and formatting: Good to know to set up your paper at the beginning and revise/tweak at the end. Need help with citation style?


Hopefully that helped. If you still have questions, write them down while looking at the assignment to ask later. The sooner you get answers to these questions, the better.


Examples of questions Librarians can help with:

Examples of questions your Professor can help with:

Examples of questions tutors can help with:

  • Can you help me adjust my topic/question?

  • Can you help me find sources on X?

  • I’m having trouble finding x.

  • What are the reasons to use/not use this source?

  • How can I find sources that I can read/ that work together?

  • Where can I learn about this citation style?

  • Do you have a book/article recommendation that will help me kickstart this project?

  • I've read the syllabus and assignment, but I'm still curious about x. 

  • What do you mean when you say x

  • Is this topic/source appropriate for the assignment?

  • What’s the most important thing to understand /demonstrate for this assignment?

  • How will this be graded?

  • Can you proofread my paper?

  • Can you check my citations?


If you don’t know much about your topic yet, that’s okay. Consult good reference sources to get background information, then look for a current literature review to find peer-reviewed sources and existing analysis.


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