Answering Assignment Questions

Glossary of Task Words

Understanding the meaning of words, especially task words, helps you to know exactly what is being asked of you. It takes you half way towards narrowing down your material and selecting your answer.

Task words direct you and tell you how to go about answering an assignment question. Here is a list of such words and others that you are most likely to come across frequently in your course.

Words and What they (might) mean . . .

Account for
Explain, clarify, give reasons for. (Quite different from \’Give an account of\’ which is more like \’describe in detail\’).
Break an issue down into its component parts, discuss them and show how they interrelate.
Consider the value or importance of something, paying due attention to positive, negative and disputable aspects, and citing the judgements of any known authorities as well as your own.
Make a case, based on appropriate evidence for and/or against some given point of view.
Comment on
Too vague to be sure, but safe to assume it means something more than \’describe\’ or \’summarise\’ and more likely implies \’analyse\’ or \’assess\’.
Identify the characteristics or qualities two or more things have in common (but probably pointing out their differences as well.
Point out the differences between two things (but probably point out their similarities as well).
Spell out your judgement as to the value or truth of something, indicating the criteria on which you base your judgement and citing specific instances of how the criteria apply in this case.
Make a statement as to the meaning or interpretation of something, giving sufficient detail so as to allow it to be distinguished from similar things.
Spell out the main aspects of an idea or topic or the sequence in which a series of things happened.
Investigate or examine by argument, sift and debate, giving reasons for and against.
Make an appraisal or the worth of something, in the light of its apparent truth;include your personal opinion. Like \’assess\’.
List some relevant items, possibly in continuous prose (rather than note form) – and perhaps \’describe\’ them (see above) as well.
Tell how things work or how they came to be the way they are, including perhaps some need to \’describe\’ and to \’analyse\’ (see above).
To what extent . . .?
Explore the case for a stated proposition or explanation, much in the manner of \’assess\’ and \’criticise\’ (see above), probably arguing for a less than total acceptance of the proposition.
How Far
Similar to \’to what extent . . .?\’ (see above)
Pick out what you regard as the key features of something, perhaps making clear the criteria you use.
Similar to \’explain\’ (see above), but probably asking for the quoting of specific examples or statistics or possibly the drawing of maps, graphs, sketches, etc.
Clarify something or \’explain\’ (see above), perhaps indicating how the thing relates to some other thing or perspective.
Express valid reasons for accepting a particular interpretation or conclusion, probably including the need to \’argue\’ (see above) a case.
Indicate the main features of a topic or sequence of events, possibly setting them within a clear structure or framework to show how they interrelate.
Demonstrate the truth of something by offering irrefutable evidence and/or logical sequence of statements leading from evidence to conclusion.
Show how two apparently opposed or mutually exclusive ideas or propositions can be seen to be similar in important respects, if not identical. Involves need to \’analyse\’ and justify\’ (see above).
Either \’explain\’ (see above) how things happened or are connected in a cause-and-effect sense, or may imply \’compare\’ and \’contrast\’ (see above).
Survey a topic, with the emphasis on \’assess\’ rather than \’describe\’ (see above).
Express the main points of an idea or topic, perhaps in the manner of \’describe\’ or \’enumerate\’ (see above).
\’State\’ (see above) the main features of an argument, omitting all superfluous detail and side-issues.
Identify the connection between one thing and another either in a developmental sense over a period of time, or else in a cause-and-effect sense. May imply both \’describe\’ and \’explain\’ (see above).

Other Useful Definitions

Something which is accepted as being true for the purpose of an argument.
An important topic for discussion; something worth thinking and raising questions about.
A system of methods and principles for doing something. Often used to explain methods for carrying out research.
It is the point or the thing aimed at. It is what you want to achieve by a particular activity.

Further Reading

Rowntree, D. 1998, Learn How to Study -A Realistic Approach, Warner Books, London.

How to write a successful CV

What is a CV?

Curriculum Vitae an outline of a person\’s educational and professional history, usually prepared for job applications (L, lit.: the course of one\’s life).

A CV is the most flexible and convenient way to make applications. It can convey your personal details in the way that presents you in the best possible light and can be used to make multiple applications to employers in a specific career area. For this reason, many large graduate recruiters will not accept CVs and instead use their own application form. An application form is designed to bring out the essential information and the personal qualities that the employer requires and does not allow you to gloss over your weaker points as a CV does. In addition, the time needed to fill out these forms is seen as a reflection of your commitment to the career and the company.

There is no \"one best way\" to construct a CV; it is your document and can be structured and presented as you wish within the basic framework set out below. It can be set out on paper or on-line or even on a T-shirt (a gimmicky approach that might work for \"creative\" jobs but is not generally advised!).

When should a CV be used?

 When an employer asks for applications to be received in this format
 When an employer simply states \"apply to …\" without specifying the format
 When making speculative applications (i.e. when writing to an employer who has not actually advertised a vacancy but who you hope my have one)

What information should a CV include?

 Personal details
 Education & qualifications
 Work experience
 Interests and achievements
 Skills
 Referees
The order in which you present these, and the emphasis which you give to each one, will depend on what you are applying for and what you have to offer. For example, the example media CV lists the candidate\’s relevant work experience first.

If you are applying for more than one type of work, you should have a different CV tailored to each career area, highlighting different aspects of your skills and experience.

A personal profile at the start of the CV can sometimes be effective for jobs in competitive industries such as the media or advertising, to help you to stand out from the crowd. It needs to be original and well written. Don’t just use the usual hackneyed expressions: “I am an excellent communicator who works well in a team…… “

You will also need a Covering Letter to accompany your CV.

What makes a good CV?

There is no single \"correct\" way to write and present a CV but the following general rules apply:
• It is targeted on the specific job or career area for which you are applying and brings out the relevant skills you have to offer
• It is carefully and clearly laid out: logically ordered, easy to read and not cramped
• It is informative but concise
• It is accurate – in content, spelling and grammar

How long should a CV be?

There are no absolute rules on this but, in general, a new graduate\’s CV should cover no more than two sides of A4 paper. If you can summarise your career history comfortably on a single side, this is fine and a one-page CV has many advantages when you are making speculative applications and need to put yourself across as concisely as possible. However, you should not leave out important items, or crowd your text too closely together, in order to fit it onto that single side. However academic and technical CVs may be much longer – up to 4 or 5 sides sometimes.

Tips on presentation

• Your CV should be carefully and clearly laid out – not too cramped but not with large empty white spaces either. Use bold and italic typefaces for headings and important information
• Never back a CV – each page should be on a separate sheet of paper. It\’s a good idea to put your name in the footer area so that it appears on each sheet.
• Be concise – a CV is an appetiser and should not give the reader indigestion. Don\’t feel that you have to list every exam you have ever taken, or every activity you have ever been involved in – consider which are the most relevant and/or impressive.
• Be positive – put yourself over confidently and highlight your strong points. For example, when listing your A-levels, put your highest grade first.
• Be honest – although a CV does allow you to omit details (such as exam resits) which you would prefer the employer not to know about, you should never give inaccurate or misleading information.
• If you are posting your CV, don\’t fold it – put it in a full-size A4 envelope so that it doesn\’t arrive creased.


Times New Roman is the standard windows \"serif\" font. A safe bet – law firms seem to like it! A slightly more interesting serif font might be Georgia.

Arial is the standard windows \"sans\" font. Sans fonts don\’t have the curly bits on letters. As you can see it\’s cleaner and more modern than Times and also looks larger in the same \"point\" size (the point size is simply how big the letters are on the page.) However Arial and Times Roman are so common that they\’re a little boring.

A more classy choice might be Verdana.

or Geneva – these are both common sans fonts.

FONT SIZE is normally 12 points for the normal font with larger sizes for subheadings and headings.

or 10 points. My own favourite CV font is 10 point Verdana

14 points is too big – wastes space and looks crude.

and 8 or 9 points too small to be easily readable by everyone, especially in Times New Roman.

Although many people use 12 points, some research on this suggested that smaller point size CVs were perceived as more intellectual!

Different Types of CV

• Chronological – outlining your career history in date order, normally beginning with the most recent items. This is the \"conventional\" approach and the easiest to prepare. It is detailed, comprehensive and biographical and usually works well for \"traditional\" students with a good all-round mixture of education and work experience. Mature students, however, may not benefit from this approach, which does emphasise your age, any career breaks and work experience which has little surface relevance to the posts you are applying for now. See an example chronological CV here.
• Skills-based – highly-focused CVs which relate your skills and abilities to a specific job or career area by highlighting these skills and your major achievements. The factual, chronological details of your education and work history are subordinate. These work well for mature graduates and for anybody whose degree subject and work experience is not directly relevant to their application. Skills-based CVs should be closely targeted to a specific job. See an example skills-based CV here.

If you are applying for posts outside the UK, remember that employers in other countries are likely to have different expectations of what a CV should include and how it should be laid out. The \"Global Resume and CV Handbook\" (available from Reception) and the
Prospects website will help you prepare CVs for overseas employment.

Targeting your CV

If your CV is to be sent to an individual employer which has requested applications in this format, you should research the organisation and the position carefully.

If your CV is to be used for speculative applications, it is still important to target it – at the very least, on the general career area in which you want to work. Use the Careers Information Room or general careers websites such as to get an idea of what the work involves and what skills and personal qualities are needed to do it successfully. This will enable you to tailor the CV to the work and to bring out your own relevant experience.

Even if you are using the same CV for a number of employers, you should personalise the covering letter – e.g. by putting in a paragraph on why you want to work for that organisation.

For example CVs, application forms and covering letters see with notes highlighting points relating to the content and style.

Emailed CVs and Web CVs

• Many employers who accept applications in CV format are happy for you to send your CV as an attachment to an email.
• Put your covering letter as the body of your email. It\’s probably wise to format it as plain text (use the format heading on Outlook Express to do this), as then it can be read by any email reader.
• Your CV is then sent as an attachment, normally in MS Word format, but Rich Text (.rtf) and html format are acceptable alternatives. Also say you\’ll send a printed CV if required.
• Email it back to yourself first to check it.

Web CVs and Electronically Scanned CVs

Web CVs use HTML format. You can include the web address in an email or letter to an employer. They have the advantage that you can easily use graphics, colour, hyperlinks and even sound, animation and video. The basic rules still apply however – make it look professional. They can be very effective if you are going for multimedia, web design or computer games jobs where they can demonstrate your technical skills.

Electronically scanned CVs have been used by Nortel, Ford and others. Resumix is the main package used for this. The system has artificial intelligence which reads the text and extracts important information such as work, education, skills.

Further Help

 For Example CVs, application forms and covering letters see
 Great CVs over 70 articles on how to create a CV.
 How to Prepare a Killer CV

How to Write an Abstract


Because on-line search databases typically contain only abstracts, it is vital to write a complete but concise description of your work to entice potential readers into obtaining a copy of the full paper. This article describes how to write a good computer architecture abstract for both conference and journal papers. Writers should follow a checklist consisting of: motivation, problem statement, approach, results, and conclusions. Following this checklist should increase the chance of people taking the time to obtain and read your complete paper.


Now that the use of on-line publication databases is prevalent, writing a really good abstract has become even more important than it was a decade ago. Abstracts have always served the function of \"selling\" your work. But now, instead of merely convincing the reader to keep reading the rest of the attached paper, an abstract must convince the reader to leave the comfort of an office and go hunt down a copy of the article from a library (or worse, obtain one after a long wait through inter-library loan). In a business context, an \"executive summary\" is often the only piece of a report read by the people who matter; and it should be similar in content if not tone to a journal paper abstract.

Checklist: Parts of an Abstract

Despite the fact that an abstract is quite brief, it must do almost as much work as the multi-page paper that follows it. In a computer architecture paper, this means that it should in most cases include the following sections. Each section is typically a single sentence, although there is room for creativity. In particular, the parts may be merged or spread among a set of sentences. Use the following as a checklist for your next abstract:

• Motivation:
Why do we care about the problem and the results? If the problem isn\’t obviously \"interesting\" it might be better to put motivation first; but if your work is incremental progress on a problem that is widely recognized as important, then it is probably better to put the problem statement first to indicate which piece of the larger problem you are breaking off to work on. This section should include the importance of your work, the difficulty of the area, and the impact it might have if successful.

• Problem statement:
What problem are you trying to solve? What is the scope of your work (a generalized approach, or for a specific situation)? Be careful not to use too much jargon. In some cases it is appropriate to put the problem statement before the motivation, but usually this only works if most readers already understand why the problem is important.

• Approach:
How did you go about solving or making progress on the problem? Did you use simulation, analytic models, prototype construction, or analysis of field data for an actual product? What was the extent of your work (did you look at one application program or a hundred programs in twenty different programming languages?) What important variables did you control, ignore, or measure?

• Results:
What\’s the answer? Specifically, most good computer architecture papers conclude that something is so many percent faster, cheaper, smaller, or otherwise better than something else. Put the result there, in numbers. Avoid vague, hand-waving results such as \"very\", \"small\", or \"significant.\" If you must be vague, you are only given license to do so when you can talk about orders-of-magnitude improvement. There is a tension here in that you should not provide numbers that can be easily misinterpreted, but on the other hand you don\’t have room for all the caveats.

• Conclusions:
What are the implications of your answer? Is it going to change the world (unlikely), be a significant \"win\", be a nice hack, or simply serve as a road sign indicating that this path is a waste of time (all of the previous results are useful). Are your results general, potentially generalizable, or specific to a particular case?

Other Considerations

An abstract must be a fully self-contained, capsule description of the paper. It can\’t assume (or attempt to provoke) the reader into flipping through looking for an explanation of what is meant by some vague statement. It must make sense all by itself. Some points to consider include:

• Meet the word count limitation. If your abstract runs too long, either it will be rejected or someone will take a chainsaw to it to get it down to size. Your purposes will be better served by doing the difficult task of cutting yourself, rather than leaving it to someone else who might be more interested in meeting size restrictions than in representing your efforts in the best possible manner. An abstract word limit of 150 to 200 words is common.

• Any major restrictions or limitations on the results should be stated, if only by using \"weasel-words\" such as \"might\", \"could\", \"may\", and \"seem\".

• Think of a half-dozen search phrases and keywords that people looking for your work might use. Be sure that those exact phrases appear in your abstract, so that they will turn up at the top of a search result listing.

• Usually the context of a paper is set by the publication it appears in (for example, IEEE Computer magazine\’s articles are generally about computer technology). But, if your paper appears in a somewhat un-traditional venue, be sure to include in the problem statement the domain or topic area that it is really applicable to.

• Some publications request \"keywords\". These have two purposes. They are used to facilitate keyword index searches, which are greatly reduced in importance now that on-line abstract text searching is commonly used. However, they are also used to assign papers to review committees or editors, which can be extremely important to your fate. So make sure that the keywords you pick make assigning your paper to a review category obvious (for example, if there is a list of conference topics, use your chosen topic area as one of the keyword tuples).


Writing an efficient abstract is hard work, but will repay you with increased impact on the world by enticing people to read your publications. Make sure that all the components of a good abstract are included in the next one you write.

Further Reading

Michaelson, Herbert, How to Write & Publish Engineering Papers and Reports, Oryx Press, 1990. Chapter 6 discusses abstracts.

Cremmins, Edward, The Art of Abstracting 2nd Edition, Info Resources Press, April 1996. This is an entire book about abstracting, written primarily for professional abstractors.

How to Write a Good Essay

The following is a description of some typical problems that students encounter in writing college papers — particularly philosophy papers. Please read this carefully and make every effort to avoid these pitfalls.
One of the major errors that students commit is that they offer up a pastiche of their “opinions” on a given topic, but they never follow-through to justify those opinions. The first thing that one must realize is that your audience (the smart reader) is not in the least bit interested in your “opinion” or anyone\’s opinion for that matter. This is a shock to some students who believe that what we\’ve been doing in class is just trading opinions on various topics. The confusion lies in the fact that some students are only attending to the first part of a two-part process — they are forgetting or not sufficiently following the second part of the process. The smart reader is not interested in your opinion. The smart reader is interested in the argument that you can give which explains why you hold that opinion. Giving an argument that supports and defends your opinion is the second-part of the two-part process that we encounter in our readings and class discussions. Generally speaking, you should treat all opinion-statements as logical conclusions , and the art of good reading and writing is to dig back to the premises, the assumptions, and the evidence that led a person to draw that conclusion. Just as in math classes, wherein providing only your conclusions is unacceptable, you must “show your work” in essay-writing too.
A metaphor may be helpful for grasping this common confusion. If we think of the relationship between a flowering plant and its hidden root system, we may see the relevant relation. Our opinions and our beliefs are like the flowering plants, and the reasons for holding those opinions are like the hidden but all-important root-systems. Some students confusedly think that writing a humanities paper is like displaying their particular flower gardens, but they do not expose the root-systems (the “why”) in their writing, and it\’s precisely this aspect that the smart reader always seeks. Once a student has stated his belief that “God makes our destiny”, or “abortion is immoral”, or “animals should not be tortured”, or “racism is bad”, or “science is too masculine”, or what have you — once he has stated this position, he has only begun to give a proper response. He must now go on to detail the specific reasons and the specific evidence that led him to hold that belief. This second step is the only truly important part of a good paper, and some students never even begin to provide it in their essays.
“Opinions” are like “armpits”, everyone has them and nobody really cares. A class in which everyone just stated their opinions (for or against) the death-penalty, for example, would be as fascinating and illuminating as a class in which everyone just stated their favorite ice-cream flavor. The smart reader wants to know why a person holds a particular opinion, but some students mistakenly believe that simply stating the opinion is enough. It is not enough to write “I am against the death-penalty” in your essays and then move on to some additional opinions. One must explain in detail the reasons, experiences, and factual evidence that lead a person to be against the death-penalty. One can argue against the death-penalty on ethical grounds, social grounds, religious grounds, epistemic grounds, economic grounds, and more.
A student must articulate the most compelling grounds for their opinion and present them in the most persuasive and logical terms possible. Notice also that each and every “controversial” claim that is made in the sequence of your argument will likely need additional argumentation and justification. For example, it will not be terribly helpful to claim that you believe capital punishment is wrong because the Bible says so. It will then be immediately incumbent upon you to give some argument for why your interpretation of the Bible is the only correct one, and then you will also have to give some argument for the existence of God, and quickly follow this with a strong argument for why God is communicating through this scripture and not, say, the Bhagavad Gita, and so on. All this is a very tall order, especially when we remember that the essay topic in this case is only the death penalty and one should stay focused on the topic at hand.
The example above illustrates the fact that many people will unfortunately attempt to justify their opinion by invoking other highly controversial opinions. Imagine trying to convince an atheist, for example, that the death penalty is wrong because the Bible says so. Apart from the fact that the Bible doesn\’t actually say anything of the sort, the atheist is going to be remarkably unimpressed with the “premises” (the God-talk) that led to your “conclusion.” A better argument strategy is to search for the most “common-sense” premises that you can find (some fact or idea that most people — atheists and theists alike — would agree to), and try to show how your conclusion (“capital punishment is wrong”) must follow from those premises. Ideally speaking, your objective should be to show how your controversial opinion is in fact the most reasonable conclusion that follows from some relatively uncontroversial facts or ideas.
It is also important to notice that a rational argument for a particular opinion is not just the personal history of your own intellectual commitments. You need to do more than just tell how you came to hold the opinion (which, after all, may be only the result of some weird personal coincidences). In presenting a rational argument, you are sketching the chains of ideas that any rational person could potentially recognize as convincing. Like an attorney who tries to convince a jury of reasonable people to see the truth of her position, you are expected to make your position logically compelling to the average but thoughtful intellect. In fact, your job is even harder than the lawyer\’s because, as a logical essay writer, you cannot fall back on rhetorical tricks to distract and manipulate your reader. You must use logic and evidence as your primary tools of persuasion.
When someone feels very strongly about some issue (the death penalty, animal rights, the existence of Fate, etc.), they can become so close to their belief — so familiar and comfortable with it — that this belief will seem utterly natural and uncontroversial to them. It will seem so obvious as to be unworthy of any further explanation and justification. This is one of the most common reasons why students neglect to give arguments for their opinions/beliefs. Students believe that many of their claims are so obvious that they don\’t need to “spell it out.” But, in good college essays, one always needs to “spell it out.” You should never think of your instructor as the only audience for your papers, because this will lead you to cut important corners (imagining incorrectly that “oh, he\’ll know what I mean by this”). Always write a college paper with the assumption that your reader is someone who disagrees with you, but is willing to listen to reason and possibly change his/her mind. In writing for that audience, you will avoid taking things for granted, and you will be more careful to articulate your position (or the position of another thinker).
Lastly, it is important to realize that once you\’ve adapted to this method of always giving arguments for your claims, you still have to master the art of constructing good arguments. Not just any rationale for your beliefs will do. Badly constructed arguments are all around us — they populate most advertising that we see on T.V., and they comprise most of what is said in political campaigns. In your papers, you should always be vigilant against bad argumentation. Below are just a few examples of poor arguments that seem, at first, like reasonable positions.
I. Adamant conviction does not substitute for logical argumentation. (e.g., yelling or weeping does not improve the cogency of someone\’s position.) Appealing to fear is also a fallacy. For example, a lawyer might say “If you do not convict this criminal, one of you may be his next victim.” This is fallacious because what a defendant might do in the future is irrelevant to determining whether he is responsible for a crime committed in the past. It may be relevant at the time of sentencing, but not during the deliberation of guilt or innocence.
II. Nothing follows from the fact that you passionately believe x to be true, except that you passionately believe x to be true. In other words, the external world need not mimic your subjective internal states. (e.g., believing with every fiber of your being that Jim Morrison is still alive, has nothing whatever to do with Jim\’s current status.)
III. Correlation is not necessarily cause. (e.g., a recent prime time T.V. program argued that since a number of wealthy men had consulted with psychics about their investments, psychic insight caused the men\’s wealth. We could just as easily and erroneously point out that these wealthy men all wore underwear, therefore underwear causes wealth. The latter is logically and experientially equivalent to the former.)
IV. “Logical possibility” is not the same as physical possibility, and the truth of a claim or the persuasiveness of a claim cannot be founded only on mere logical possibility. Conceptual coherence is a first step which then must be accompanied by evidence. (e.g., It is logically possible for a cow to jump over the moon because that act does not violate any laws of logic [in the way that a “married bachelor” would so violate the laws]. Despite its logical possibility, the jump is clearly absurd because of the physical impossibilities — gravitational laws and bovine physiology won\’t allow it. But many people will leap from the fact that x is logically possible (usually a trivial point) to a whole hearted belief in x.)
V. Positive or substantive claims do not follow from the appeal to ignorance. A lack of evidence is no evidence at all. (e.g., “no one has proved that angels don\’t exist, therefore they exist.” Clearly fallacious. Another example: “No one has proved that the Loch Ness Monster doesn\’t exist, so I believe it does”)