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Academic Skills

Answering the Question

You might hand in an intelligent, beautifully-written, beautifully-presented assignment, by the due date; but if it doesn’t answer the question, it will fail. How can you ensure that you have answered the question? You do this by analysing the question, by noting special instructions, and by keeping to the word limit.

1. Analysing the question

Whether an assignment question is long and complex, or short and simple, it consists of three elements:

  • the Subject, which tells you what the general area is
  • the Limiting words, which tell you which part of the subject you must limit yourself to and focus on
  • the Direction words, which tell you what to do.

Analysing the question into these three elements is important for two reasons:

  • it will enable you to orientate yourself to the topic and present a relevant answer
  • it will help you to structure the Introduction of the assignment.

Here are some examples:

Example 1 (Business and Finance)

Essay question:
What is a Value Added Statement? Outline the assumptions underlying the Value Added Statement, and argue the case for and against the inclusion of this statement in company annual reports.

Subject: The Value Added Statement

Limiting words (1): What the Value Added Statement is.
Direction words (1): What is...?

Limiting words (2): The assumptions underlying the Value Added Statement.
Direction words (2): Outline...

Limitingwords (3): The inclusion of the Value Added Statement in annual reports.
Direction words (3): Argue the case for and against...

The essay questions is asking you to do three things:

  1. describe or define the Value Added Statement;
  2. focus on its underlying assumptions (giving the essential details);
  3. focus on its inclusion in annual reports (with arguments for and against).

Example 2 (Linguistics)

Essay question:
Determine the differences between human language and animal communication and discuss the following question: Can the properties of language be regarded as advantageous for the human creature?

Subject: the properties of different communication systems
Limiting words(1): differences between human language and animal communication.
Direction words (1) : Determine...

Limiting words (2): : can the properties of language be regarded as advantageous for the human creature?
Direction words (2) : discuss...

The essay questions is asking you to:

  1. describe in detail the properties of human language and animal communication in order to show how and where the two systems differ;
  2. argue the case for or against the view that language properties are advantageous for humans.

Example 3 (Technology in education)

Essay question:
You are required to select an aspect of information technology or electronic communication and discuss it in depth in relation to one level of schooling.

Subject: Information technology/electronic communication
Limiting words (1): an aspect (one aspect only) of the Subject
Direction words (1): select...

Limiting words (2):(your chosen aspect) in relation to one level of schooling.
Direction words (2): discuss in depth...

Note how you are being asked to choose one aspect only of the subject, and discuss it in relation to one level only of schooling.

In every case, you are expected to focus only on the limiting words. You are not being asked to write everything you know about the Value Added Statement, or language and communication, or educational technology, or whatever the subject might be. If you do this, you will lose marks for being irrelevant.

Note well these important points:

  • Make sure that you understand all the key words in the question.
  • Make sure that you understand what the direction words mean—then carry out those directions.
  • Focus on the limiting words.
  • When in any doubt, ask your tutor. Never start any written assignment until you know exactly what you are being asked to do

Once you have isolated the limiting words in your assignment question, you can direct your reading and note-taking to that topic only, thus saving yourself a lot of time.

2. Noting special instructions

Lecturers will sometimes ask you to include particular material in your assignment, or will ask for a specific approach or angle. Look out for these special instructions, and make sure you incorporate them into your assignment.

The following examples include special instructions (indicated in bold here) which must not be ignored. You'll lose marks if you ignore them.

Example 1
What is a Value Added Statement? Outline the assumptions underlying the Value Added Statement, and argue the case for and against the inclusion of this statement in company annual reports. Restrict your answer to the Australian context.

Example 2
Determine the differences between human language and animal communication and discuss the following question: Can the properties of language be regarded as advantageous for the human creature? Your essay should include references to the language theories discussed in the course so far, but you are encouraged to read more widely.

Example 3
You are required to select an aspect of information technology or electronic communication and discuss it in depth in relation to one level of schooling. Relevant literature and web sites must be included in the discussion.

3. Keeping to the word limit

Lecturers set word limits in order to restrict the breadth and depth of your research and writing for a particular assignment. It is unlikely that a lecturer will actually count the number of words in your submitted assignment. The given word limit is a just a general indication, and you would normally be allowed about 5%-10% over or under. So if the word limit is, for example, 2,000 words, don’t worry if your essay is 1,946 or 2,077 words long. Lecturers know roughly how many pages a 2,000-word essay, for instance, would cover, and that’s what they expect.

However, if the instruction specifically says something like ‘No more than 500 words’, then you are not allowed to go over that limit.