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Assignment problem tool kit: Home


Step 1 - What is the question?

What is the assignment looking for?

Usually you will have a title or task, and very often this will include:

  • The subject
  • A keyword (telling you how to write your assignment)
  • The aspect of the subject matter (often a phrase ending in ‘of’)
  • Possibly restrictions (eg., a context for the topic).

Look at your own title and dissect it, (underline/cut out/separate the words) to identify what is included. In the title above, the key word is ‘discuss’, however this could be different, such as: ‘describe’ or ‘evaluate’. For further definitions of key words see: ‘Glossary of academic key words used in titles’ on page 5

Investigate the assignment brief further

You may be provided with further information from your lecturers, such as the assessment criteria or additional information you should refer to. Key questions to find out:

  • What is the format that is expected of your assignment, a report or essay?
  • What is the word limit?
  • What criteria are being used to assess your work?
  • Are you being referred to specific sources of information?
  • What is the deadline?

Make the assignment your own

Take time to understand what you are being asked to do, and don’t rush into writing straight away. Record the information you have so far, a mind map with individual words is enough at this stage. Try re-phrasing the title into your own words, this will help you to understand it and prompt ideas for your response. 

Step 2 - Where do I find my research material?

Where can I find information?

Planning your search

Planning your searches will help you to find and assess suitable information for your assignments. Below is an example of a simple model which can be used to search for and assess information:  

This model is circular – you are thinking about your topic, identifying keywords, considering which sources to use and evaluating your results, before revising your search strategy and beginning again. This process is an important part of academic research.

It will help you to organise your thoughts and arguments, to record what you have found and to critically analyse the evidence used in your assignments.

How do I start searching?

Start by thinking about what you are being asked to do. Breaking down the title of your assignment and thoroughly reading your project brief will help you to identify keywords and topics for searching.

Once you have decided on your keywords, you must think about which sources you need to search. You may need to search several different types of sources in order to find the broadest possible range of information on your topic.

Revising your search strategy

You will need to narrow down your search results to find the most relevant information – evaluating your results will help you to filter out irrelevant, false or misleading information.

Revising your search strategy by changing keywords, the type of sources used and the time period searched will ensure that you use the best available evidence for your assignments. 

Where should I search?

  • Many university, college and Local Government websites will feature links to library services and online catalogues, enabling you to check book stock and journal holdings in advance.
  • Online databases feature articles from many different journals. Talk to your Librarian for about using and accessing databases for your subject. • Information Gateways gather web sources for study and research on one site. A good example is Intute (, a multi-discipline gateway featuring evaluated resources for study and research.
  • Google Scholar ( features books, abstracts, theses, articles and academic papers from academic publishers, professional societies, universities and other scholarly organisations.

Step 3 - How do I plan my assignment?

How to make an Assignment Plan

  • You might already have used free writing when you started thinking about the assignment – but it can be useful at this stage too, because your ideas may have changed after your reading and they will certainly have developed.
  • Use bullet points and lists to capture the information and ideas you want to include.
  • Try using a mind map, a spider gram, a flow chart or use sticky notes to get your thinking started. 

Top Tip: There’s no right way to do this so find what works best for you. Time to experiment!

Choose a clear focus for your assignment

  • Have a go at explaining the main point of your assignment in just one sentence, e.g. ‘This essay will show that students who plan their assignments before they start writing, achieve higher marks than students who do not’
  • Try to identify three or four key topics that you consider to be essential to support or explain your main point.
  • These key topics will really help you to focus your writing. You could use the ‘Table to make an initial Assignment Plan’ or the mind map example to help you to do this

Top Tip: Why not give each of your topics a colour – and then colour-code your notes with highlighter pens – so you can find all the relevant information easily

Now put your ideas in order
(This will form the main body of your report or essay)

  • What order would be most helpful to your reader? Imagine helping a fellow student to learn about the topic.
  • Try using one of these ideas
  • A simple bullet point list
  • A flow chart
  • Sticky notes that mean you can move your topics around until you’re satisfied with the order
  • Look at the ‘Essay Structure’ and ‘Report Structure’ Handouts to get your thinking started.

Top Tip: It’s easy to sort out the structure of your assignment at this stage – but it’s harder when you’re in the middle of writing the assignment. Planning reduces stress

Step 4 - How do I write my assignment?

Structuring an introduction

An introduction is like a guidebook to your whole assignment. It gives background information into your topic area and outlines all the ideas you are going to present. Remember that most introductions will be about 10% of the final essay and will include some or all of the following:

  • An introduction to the context or background of the topic (you could include interesting facts or quotations)
  • The reason for writing about this topic
  • Definitions of any complex terminology that will be referred to throughout the assignment (note that definitions are not always necessary)
  •  Introduce the main ideas that stem from your topic/title and the order in which you will discuss them?

You may want to use the grid below to help you structure your introduction; you can use the right-hand column to jot down your own ideas.

Introduce the context or background to the topic: Perhaps you could explain the title in your own words or use a quotation from an author who offers a supporting or contradictory statement about your topic area.   
What is the purpose of writing about this topic? Is there a problem or controversy with the topic?   
Definitions: Are you using any complex terminology or acronyms that need defining? Try to use a working definition from an expert in your subject area rather than referring  
Introduce the main ideas that stem from your topic: You cannot write about everything; for a 2,000 word assignment, select between 3-5 key ideas and introduce them in the precise order in which they will be discussed.   

Structuring a paragraph in the main body of your assignment

What is a paragraph?

Paragraphs in the main body of your assignment usually contain a number of sentences which develop new ideas or expand upon existing ones. You may also need to construct paragraphs which offer contrasting views on the ideas you have already developed. A succession of well-structured paragraphs can help to create a coherent and logical argument. You need to consider the purpose of each paragraph:

  • Is it developing a new idea?
  • Is it expanding on an idea already mentioned?
  • Is it offering a contrasting view on an idea already mentioned?

You may wish to use the grid below to record your ideas for each of your paragraphs.

An introductory sentence (this is sometimes called a topic sentence): This tells the reader the purpose of your paragraph and introduces the main idea you are developing, expanding upon or contrasting with another.  
Examples/evidence/quotations: You will usually need to include evidence that develops/contrasts an idea. This informs and strengthens your argument. Try and introduce your evidence clearly and remember to reference the source (either as a citation in the body of your text or as a footnote/endnote).  
Evaluative sentence/s: You may need to offer some explanation on the relevance of your examples/ evidence/quotations. Why is this evidence useful? What does the author say that supports the idea you are developing? Does this evidence have any limitations?  
Concluding sentence: This draws together the main idea being made in your paragraph  

Structuring a conclusion

Your conclusion is the final paragraph in an assignment. It must summarise (very briefly) every important idea you have discussed in your work as well as draw conclusions based upon the evidence you have presented. You need to make sure that you have directly answered the question. It is always useful to link your conclusions back to the essay title.

Tips to remember:

  • Your conclusion will be about 10% of the whole assignment
  • You should not include any new information in your conclusion.

You can use the grid below to help you structure your conclusion. The right-hand column can be used for you to make a note of your own ideas.

Summarise each of your points in the order in which you have presented them.

State your main conclusions based upon the evidence you have presented.  
Link your conclusions back to the title – make sure you have directly answered the question and that you have clearly presented your viewpoint on the topic (you must do this without saying ‘I’).   

Bitesize video - Finding your critical voice:

Step 5 - How do I improve and finalise my assignment?

What’s the difference between editing and proof reading?

Editing and proof reading are not the same! Editing happens as you write your assignment while proof reading is the last part of the writing process. Aim for 3 drafts of your writing:

  • First draft: Focus on getting your main ideas and information down.
  • Second draft: Take a cold hard look at your first draft and edit it for content, structure, style, evidence and referencing
  • Third draft: This is the proof reading stage when you check carefully for errors in grammar, punctuation and spelling. This is the final refinement of your writing.

Editing your first draft

Now’s the time to take a good hard look at your first draft

  • What’s your main point? Is it clear to someone reading the assignment? Could you write it in one sentence?
  • Have you provided convincing evidence to support your main point? Have you acknowledged opposing views?
  • Will your structure make sense to a reader? Does it follow the conventions for academic essays or reports?
  • Check that all your information and ideas relate clearly to the assignment title and your main point.

Proofreading your second draft

Now check for misspellings, mistakes in grammar and punctuation

  • Read for only one error at a time, separating the text into individual sentences eg. check for spelling first, then grammar, then punctuation. Find out the sort of errors you make and learn how to correct them.
  • Read every word slowly and out loud. This lets you hear how the words sound together.
  • Read the paper backwards, working from the end to the beginning. The focus then is entirely on spelling.

Note: You might need to do more than two drafts