Academic Integrity


Step 1: What's the question about?

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Understanding your assignment question

Reading the assignment question

READ your assignment carefully as soon as you receive it. Misinterpreting the assignment question is one of the most common ways to lose marks and it can be easily avoided.

  • Look for words that focus and define the topic of your assignment. These words will be:
    • Instruction or question words: eg discuss, explain or analyse.
    • Download:  Guide to instruction words
    • Topic words: tell you what to write about
    • Any other words that might define or restrict the topic in some way 

    For example:
    "Discuss the attraction of TV comedy programmes and analyse the ways in which the genre is communicated through the medium”.

    Discuss” is an instruction word. It is asking you to present a point of view and argue both sides of an issue with supporting evidence.  In this case the attraction of TV comedy programmes.

    Analyse” is another instruction. It is asking you to focus on the “how” and “why” of an issue or topic-in this case how television comedy programmes are communicated.

    Topic words are the words that tell you “what” you have to write about.  In this case Comedy programmes (and explain this 'genre'), Television.  

    There are also obvious words that focus and define your topic - you are to concentrate on TV not radio, comedy programmes not thrillers etc.

  • Taken from: Lillis, T. (1997). 'Essay Writing' In Drew, S, Bingham, R, The Student Skills Guide pp. 53 - 76, Gower.

  • By now you should have a clearer idea of what you have to do but if you are unsure about any area of the question, ask your tutor.

Practical considerations

In addition to understanding what you have to do in your assignment, make sure that you also understand any extra requirements you must fulfil when submitting your work for example, how your assignment should be presented or specific assessment criteria that you must address.

  • When is the assignment due to be submitted?
  • Do you need to submit a printed or electronic copy or both?
  • Will the assignment be submitted to Turnitin? If so, look at the 'Using Turnitin' page on the Academic Integrity website to find information about Turnitin.
  • How will the assignment be graded? Are there specific requirements you should be aware of? Read any assessment criteria your tutor may have given you.
  • Check practical issues like: 
    • How many words are required? 
    • Does your finished assignment need to be double-spaced?  
    • How many sources are you required to cite?
    • What type of source material eg books, journals, websites etc. are you required to cite?
    • What referencing style should you use?
  • If you are unsure about any practical issues, consult your module handbook or your tutor.

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Have you got to think up your own research question?

Defining your own topic

Your tutor may want you to research a topic of your own choosing.  Use the following tips to develop a suitable question for your topic.

  • Finding a topic: Think about a topic that you have been covering in class. Are there any particular issues that have sparked your imagination? Is there anything that you would like to investigate further? 
    • Remind yourself of the issues by re-reading notes. 
    • If necessary do a little preliminary research.  Find a general source that can give you some context and background. This may raise some issues that are new for you.  Good questions don’t just come from out of the ether, but from reading around the topic.
  • Writing the question: Once you have done a bit of research you will be able to form some opinions.  For instance you are studying issues in Higher Education in class and you have just finished reading the latest government report on Higher Education.  You have been interested in the issues around student debt and student loans and indeed it is a theme that has cropped up before in your lectures.  You consider that far from widening participation, government policy is creating distinctions between who can benefit from Higher Education and those who are barred from i, so a question might be formulated that would look at the social and economic issues around higher education.  This is very broad so you might narrow it down to the following question:
    • “What impact has the introduction of student fees had on the Government’s policy to widen participation?”
  • Refining your question: As you do more reading the question may well change slightly.  This is all part of the research process and as you learn more, your opinions and arguments may well change in the face of the evidence. You may find that your topic is too broad and you may have to narrow it down. 

The main thing to remember is that the best research questions require thorough investigation and do not have simple answers. Your research question should interest you and enable you to expand your knowledge.

Material in this section has been adapted from the Staffordshire University Assignment Survival Kit available online at:

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Drafting your initial plan

Brief initial plan

Your initial plan draws together what you already know about your topic, what you need to research and where you can find the information you need.

  • Brainstorm ideas: First write down everything that you already know about the topic. Think about what has been discussed in your lectures, in class or in your reading.
  • Look at your assignment question and identify the gaps between what you need to know and what you already know. Write this down even if it seems vague, eg 'evidence for...'.
  • Next organise your ideas and notes into sub-headings or clusters of ideas. You may find it useful to draw a diagram, and the process of brainstorming and clustering ideas can also be called mind-mapping, using a spider diagram or pattern note-making.
    • Draw a circle on a blank page and write the topic of your assignment in the circle. This is the core of your assignment.
    • Next, write all the ideas you have about the core topic around the circle. Draw circles around each one.
    • Keep adding ideas, questions or associated topics in circles around the ideas on your page.
    • Use this diagram as a way to sort out connections between the ideas and areas that you need to research. Eventually, this diagram will form the basis of your essay writing plan.
    • Download: Guide to brainstorming and planning.
  • Creating a timeline: Now that you have worked out what research you need to do, work out a timeline for your reading and note-taking. Use the suggested timeline on the Assignment Survival Kit or the time suggested by your tutor to work out when your initial reading and note-taking should be finished.
    • Allocate your time so that you know which days you have for research or reading.
    • Stick to your plan.

Define your reading

It is very important to establish your reading priorities because you will not have the time to read in depth everything that you find on your topic. If you define your reading as part of your initital plan, you will be able to allocate your time appropriately to your reading priorities:

  • 40%-50% 'core reading' essential for understanding the topic.
  • 30% - 25% 'important reading' for exploring different aspects of the topic.
  • 30% - 25% 'relevant but specialised reading' for detailed exploration of highly specific aspects of the the topic.

Use the defining words in your assignment question (see 'reading the assignment question') to decide if the reading is 'core', 'important' or 'relevant'.

While you are taking notes, remember to write down exactly where you found the material. You will need this information when you acknowledge your sources and when writing your reference list. It is useful to know which referencing style you will be using but if you are not sure yet, make sure that you record the information that you will need later.

You can use the ASK note-making template or your own system but you must record:
  • The type of source: is it a book, journal, website etc.
  • For books: author, date of publication, publisher and place.
  • For journals: author, title of journal and article, date, any other volume or issue details.
  • For websites: author, date updated, date accessed, URL, publisher (some of this information is not readily available. For more information see a good referencing guide or the Academic Integrity website at
  • Page numbers of any exact words taken from the original source.

By Judy Cohen, UELT.

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Academic Integrity, UELT, University of Kent, Canterbury, Kent CT2 7NQ

Telephone: +44(0)1227 824016 or contact us

Last Updated: 19/02/2015