Reading and researching for assignments: before you begin

The reading and research involved in writing an assignment can be an overwhelming task. You may put off starting it because you are not sure where to start. Or you may feel the need to dive in as soon as possible to get it done and over with. Here are several things you can do to get you on the right track before you even begin hunting for sources:  

  • Get your bearings. Go over the guidelines you were given for the assignment and check that you understand what is expected of youCheck that you understand the marking criteria as well. They should outline and demonstrate the features of a good piece of workIf any questions come up while doing this, it is always better to ask, and to ask early (for example your lecturer, tutor, or course organiser). 
  • Know what your subject wants. Different disciplines, even different branches within the same discipline, may put emphasis on different characteristics. Some focus on measurable data, while others give more weight to subjective interpretations, or theory-based argumentationIt is helpful to familiarise yourself with the character of your subject area, and its examples of the type of written work you have to produce (essay, report, case study, etc.). 
  • Be realistic. Note the deadline, as well as the word or page limit. The type of assignment, how big it needs to be, and how much time you have before the deadline, will hint at the amount of research you will need to carry out. For example, 1,500 word first year essay will not need as much research as a 12,000 word dissertation. A science literature review needs more extensive reading than a lab report. 
  • Understand your assignment. No matter if you were given a topic, title, question(s), or if you had to develop your own: make sure you understand your prompt. A good way to do this is to find and focus on the key words. These will help you know what you need to research, what is considered relevant (or not), and can also be used for effective keyword searches on online libraries or resources.  
  • Check what material you already have. This can include textbooks, notes from your tutorials, lectures, or seminars, or reading lists. Decide if any of the material you have can be used for your assignment. Identify any gaps, or points that you could investigate further.
  • Remember you are not expected to find every single source relevant to your topic: there is simply too much information out thereIt is more important to use key sources, and critically, rather than providing a long list of sources just for the sake of it. 



Godfrey, J. (2016) Writing for University: Second EditionLondon: Palgrave. ISBN: 9781137531865. 

Gillett, A., Hammond, A. and Martala-Lockett, M. (2009) Successful academic writingHarlow: Pearson Longman. ISBN: 978027372171. 

Wallace, M. and Wray, A. (2011) Critical reading and writing for postgraduates: Second Edition. London: Sage. ISBN: 9781849205610. 

Cottrell, S. (2008) The Study Skills Handbook: Third EditionBasingstoke: Palgrave MacmillanISBN: 9780230573055.