The University 411: Tackling the Blank Page by Identifying Your Objective

Earlier this week we discussed how the first step to tackling problems of the blank page is to identify the root of what’s causing it. If you’ve determined that the problem is because you have loads of ideas but are not sure what to focus on, or if you have no ideas at all, taking some time to clarify your objectives might be one way to address this issue (concept or mind mapping might be another, which we talk about here). What are you hoping to accomplish with your project? If your instructor gave you prompts (a selection of questions or ideas to chose from) then look carefully at the word choices and phrasing. Whether or not you’ve been provided with prompts, you may want to consider any of the following as either components of your project or the main focus.

For instance, prompts like “identify” or “define” require succinct and concrete answers. Don’t waffle. However, unless you’re in an exam situation or answering short questions in an assignment, it’s unlikely that prompts like “define” will be the main focus question for a larger project. But you may need to consider it as a central objective in the beginning stages of your project. Similarly, prompts like “outline” and “summarise” require you to focus on the main points and not on little details. Like “identify” and “define”, it might be useful to consider it as a central objective at the beginning of your project.

A prompt like “illustrates” requires specific examples. This may require and/or inform further “analysis,” where you take your raw data and form a narrative, looking how the data interconnects and drawing conclusions. Likewise, prompts such as “evaluate” or “assess” also requires analysis of data, but here you are required to take a position and make an informed judgment. Don’t forget to consider strengths and weaknesses of your position. Show awareness that you’ve considered counter-arguments and gaps and offer rebuttals and explanations. If this is a large project, you may need to identify and define your limitations, scope, or perimeters, i.e identify for your audience the specifics variables you are examining (in humanities this might mean a specific text or artist), and acknowledge what your study must leave out (the gaps).

While we’re on the topic, don’t forget to identify your audiences. Your instructor might ask you to address a specific audience; for example, the assignment might be to write a blog piece or design a pamphlet geared at a general audience. But if the audience isn’t defined then you can assume that your assignment will be primarily looked at by your instructor. That said, I recommend taking an approach where your classmates are the primary audience. This will allow you to gauge how much information and background knowledge you need to supply. For example, if you’re taking a class on biology and your project is on a specific organism, you likely won’t have to go back to the basics of defining the taxonomic ranks of kindom, phylum, class, order etc in order to identify and situate your chosen species within these ranks. By centering your peers as the primary audience, you can make some assumptions on what your audience might already know. While this can certainly include a brief review of the concepts discussed in class, it should not be a regurgitation of the entire lesson plan.

While I’ve thrown around a number of terms and prompts, there are a great many out there that I have skipped over. I hesitate from trying to list them all as I’m guaranteed to miss some. As well, I’ve limited my discussion of these terms as I am using them only as examples. There may be more nuances to how to approach the assignment depending on how the prompt or instructions are phrased. So if you’re struggling to get started, dissecting the question or assignment instructions may be a good place to start.

A couple of final notes: as I’ve said in earlier posts, if you’re unsure what’s required, don’t hesitate to ask the instructor – either in class or in office hours. If after you dissect the assignment and/or do some concept or mind mapping and you’re still struggling to get started, make an appointment with your instructor or drop in during office hours. If you can, email them in advance and briefly outline your struggles. This will allow them time to prep and consider the best way to help you.

DON’T put off asking for help until the burden of anxiety builds up to unbearable levels. Trying to fix the problem early will allow you more time to actually work on the fix. As well, the longer you put off asking for help, the harder it is to ask. However, I want to emphasise that it’s NEVER too late to ask for help if your struggling with an assignment or with understanding a concept. Instructors that want to see students succeed will find ways for you to make-up work if they are aware of your anxieties. Your undergraduate or postgraduate coordinator is also a good person to talk to. Hopefully this blog series will help anyone struggling to navigate university. But if anxiety is a major concern, as I talked about here don’t forget to take advantage of resources that may be available to you.

Tomorrow we talk about outlines. Until then, good luck, and don’t forget to take care of yourself.

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