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SPARK: Understanding the Assignment

A resource for students wanting to improve their academic and research skills.

Understanding the Assignment

Use the options in the drop down menu under the "Understanding the Assignment" tab to select a page to view, or use the "previous" and "next" buttons at the bottom of each page to work through the modules in order.

Assignment Requirements

Starting your work with a clear understanding of the assignment requirements will help you:

  • organize your time more effectively
  • clarify the type and scope of research needed
  • ensure that you meet the instructor’s expectations

In the long run, taking some time to understand the assignment requirements will save you time and stress.

The sections below help you review the requirements of an assignment. If any of the requirements for your assignment remain unclear, consult your instructor as soon as you realize that you do not understand. 


Are there any criteria provided about how it will be graded? What percentage of the course grade does this assignment represent?

If grading criteria for the assignment are provided, note what your instructor is emphasizing and concentrate your efforts accordingly. What are the characteristics that your instructor has highlighted? They may be:

  • a clear argument
  • the appropriateness of the sources (e.g., books and journals)
  • drawing connections between your research and course concepts

For the purposes of time management, it is also important to consider how much the assignment is worth compared to other assignments. See the Time Management module for more tips on setting priorities.

Assignment Details

The assignment details may be outlined in your syllabus, on your course website, in a handout covering assignment requirements, or explained during your lecture or tutorial. It is important to note the following:

When is the assignment due?
Is it due in several stages? For example, are you expected to provide an annotated bibliography of possible sources or a first draft before the final due date?

What is the expected length?
Assignment instructions will generally specify minimum and maximum lengths.

Are there specific formatting expectations such as font type/size or margins?
In the absence of clear instructions, using Times New Roman 12 point font, double- spaced, and 2.5 to 3 cm margins is considered a standard.

What citation style are you expected to use?
Academic work requires that you use proper citation practices. Some subject areas use specific citation styles, such as APA or MLA, and you will be expected to familiarize yourself with them. For more information on citing sources, see the
Creating Bibliographies module.


How many sources should you consider?

Normally, the longer the paper the more in-depth the treatment of the topic will be. Depth and thoroughness typically require more resources; and the more resources you require, the more time you will need to devote to finding them.

The number of resources suitable for research papers varies among disciplines. In the absence of specific directions, a common guideline is to have 5-8 resources for a shorter paper and 8-10 resources for a longer paper.