Types of Written Assignments

While the purposes of different assignments can vary considerably, three of the most common types of written assignments ask you to Describe, Argue or Connect.

Look for specific words in the assignment instructions that signal which particular approach to take. Roll your cursor over any highlighted word in the chart below to learn more.




Signal words include:


• Define/outline/



• Demonstrate/



• Explain


• Identify


• Trace

Signal words include:


• Analyze


• Argue/debate/



• Assess/criticize/



• Consider/discuss/



• Reflect/respond

Signal words include:


• Apply


• Compare/contrast


• Relate


This type of assignment is devised to enhance your understanding of an issue by examining the relationships among its constituent parts, or its connection to other issues. For example: Choose a theoretical approach and show its relationship to [social problem X].

Apply: use methods, theories, or concepts to enhance understanding of a situation, demonstrate how something works, or identify relationships. For example: Apply the main principles of the Bauhaus movement to help interpret the later work of Mies van der Rohe.

Compare / contrast: show how two or more things are similar and/or dissimilar. Contrast emphasizes differences; compare generally asks for both similarities and differences. For example: Compare the Facebook convention “to friend someone” with the more historically conventional “to befriend someone”.

Relate: using examples, establish or describe the relations or connections between things. For example: Relate themes from mainstream media coverage of the Occupy movement to concerns around concentrated corporate control of the media.


This type of assignment asks you to advance a particular claim or viewpoint and construct an argument based on evidence. For example: Policy approach A is best for Canadians. Argue for or against based on your readings.

Analyze: break down the constituent parts of an issue, idea, argument or phenomenon and consider their importance, role, and how they might inform one’s understanding of the issue. For example: Analyze the sport utility vehicle (SUV) advertisements for their use of ‘nature’ themes and imagery.

Argue / debate / justify / prove: take a position on a debatable issue and convincingly defend it with evidence. For example: Genetically modified foods increase food security. Argue.

Assess / criticize / critique / evaluate: look at strengths, weaknesses, merits, problems, positives and negatives of a particular issue. Provide examples and some assessment of what you have discovered. For example: Evaluate the purported merits of a monetary union between Canada and the United States.

Consider / discuss / examine / explore: outline and highlight important aspects or issues related to a particular topic. These may include controversies (historical or ongoing) or potential causes or effects. Make an argument based upon your reading. For example: Consider possible models for indigenous self- government in Canada.

Reflect / respond: provide an opinion or personal reaction to a topic, while also providing your reasoning and the evidence for your conclusion. For example: Many views have been advanced on the purpose of a liberal arts education. Reflect on which of those views is most consistent with your experience.


This type of assignment is designed to assess your knowledge and understanding of a particular topic or issue. For example: Present an overview of current Canadian research on [a particular topic].

Define / outline / summarize: describe and highlight the main aspects of a specific topic, and give specifics about its particular characteristics. For example: Outline Northrop Frye’s conceptual framework for literature.

Demonstrate / illustrate / show: use specific examples in order to explain a particular topic. For example: Demonstrate the ways in which the European monetary union is a failed experiment.

Explain: clarify how or why something happened/happens. For example: Explain why the Canadian unemployment rate may decrease when there is no discernible increase in the rate of job growth or hires.

Identify: consider the facets or aspects of a particular topic or issue and organize them thematically. For example: Identify the major obstacles to developing the Alberta bitumen reserves.

Trace: outline how something has changed from an earlier to a later form, often within the framework of a wider context. For example: Trace the rise of British urbanization against the backdrop of industrialization.