Obliterating the Obfuscation: Understanding Academic Jargon

A common grievance with writing assignments is that the hardest part is getting started. However, sometimes the challenge begins even earlier. Often we struggle to get going because we don’t fully understand the tasks we are asked to perform in our writing.

You may have observed by this time in your higher education journey that there is a fairly particular vocabulary that college instructors draw from in assigning projects. A clear understanding of common academic terms can be the difference in completing an assignment successfully and falling short of the instructor’s requests.

For a deeper comprehension of “what the heck” your teacher is asking of you, I’ve compiled the following list of terms accompanied by “in-my-own-words” descriptions, commonly used in instructor discourse and found on assignment sheets and syllabi.

Evaluate/Access-You should consider not only the work or topic as a whole, but also the smaller elements that make up that work. Draw some sort of conclusion or implication out of what you are evaluating and discuss that in relation and based on it.

Analyze-Your instructor will expect you to go beyond a summary. He or she will want to see not only that you engaged with whatever you were asked to analyze, but also that you are interpreting its elements. Supporting examples are key in making analytical claims. Ask questions throughout your reading, researching, and composing process and then answer them with the texts.

Compare-You will most likely have two or more sources to draw comparisons among. The point in comparing two or more items is to show their connections (“contrast” is usually automatically implied, so your instructor will want you to show the differences as well.) The purpose in this task is for you to be able to make some sort of conclusion based on the comparison.

Survey-Your instructor wants you to ask and answer questions about a topic, but not necessarily in a literal sense. This is the approach to writing that you want to keep in mind as you explore and then compose. Write about your topic in a way that you are anticipating the questions other readers would ask by providing textual support.

Summarize-You will probably see less of this request now that you’re in college, however, this is oftentimes a component in a larger writing assignments. The key is to compose effectively, yet concisely. A good trick is to break the text you’re summarizing in to main points/sections (if headings are involved, those can provide a good outline for your summary), and then aiming to get one to two good sentences that represent that point or section.

Reflect– Your instructor will want you to go beyond summary here, too. He or she most likely wants to know your reaction to a certain topic or text. Try to express your thoughts and feelings by incorporating examples from your source or topic.

Research-You are expected to go beyond the reach of your own personal thoughts and opinions. Your instructor wants you to spend some time in the library, skimming reference books and surfing the scholarly databases. While there are definitely quality sources on the Internet, consider digging a little deeper than just using whatever links pop up first after a general Google search.

Synthesize-You will draw from multiple parts, sources, or topics in order to make one argument. Think of it as quilt making; you’re weaving together different materials along with your own inquiries and thoughts in order to make one product.


I hope this list has helped you review the meaning of some of those words your instructors use to assign your writing assignments. If there are terms that are not listed here that you come across in your syllabi or assignment sheets, don’t be afraid to ask one of us Writing Center tutors to clarify the meaning. There is no judgment in wanting to understand so that you can be successful in your writing performance.



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