The Learning Centre • http://www.lc.unsw.edu.au In order to decide how to answer an essay question, you need to identify what the question requires in terms of content and genre. This guide outlines some methods to help you analyse essay questions.
Analysing a Question
Assignment questions can be broken down into parts so that you can better understand what you are being asked to do. It is important to identify key words and phrases in the topic.
Key words tell you the approach you should take when answering an essay question. There are three types of key words: • Task Words • Content Words • Limiting Words These tell you what you have to do; the action you need to perform. These tell you what the topic area is and what you should write about. These limit and focus the essay, making it workable.
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 a question.
Using Key Words
Look for the keywords in your essay question and underline them. Spend time working out what they mean. Use the glossary of task words included in this guide to help you.
An example essay question (from the school of education) Computers have had a significant impact on education in the 20th century. Discuss the changes they have made. Task word: Discuss Task words indicate what you are being asked to do. Task words are usually verbs (action words or processes). In this question, the task word is discuss.Ifyoulookupthedefinitionintheglossaryoftask words used in essay questions below, you will see that to discuss (in an essay) means to ‘examine and assess by means of an argument’. Content word(s): education, computers
Contentwordssetanddefinetheessaytopicarea.Contentwordshelpyoutofocusyourresearchand reading on the correct area, in this case on computers in education. Limiting words: changes, significant impact, 20th century
Limiting words define the topic area further, indicating aspects of the topic you should focus on. For example, in this question, you should not write broadly about computers in education, but focus on analysing the changes computers have made to education.
Implied or Complex Questions
Some assignment questions are more complex than the example above. They might have a number of parts or may not include a clear task word, which can make them appear confusing. Some tasks are implied rather than explicitly stated. In order to understand what you must do, you need to work out your task by looking at the entire question. Look for clues in the limiting and content words and in the relationships between words, phrases and parts of the question.
Some questions consist of a statement or a proposition that requires a discussion. Such questions often provide a quotation or statement, followed by a task word such as ‘discuss’. Other questions include a direction such as ‘explain the significance’of’agivenstatement. Some questions require an evaluation They may use task words like ‘to what extent’ Some questions include specific instructions. They might requireyoutoincludecertainmaterial,usespecificsources or to take a particular approach. Make sure you follow these instructions. Other questions include guidelines as to the scope of the essay.Theywillspecifiyatimeperiodorlocation,orspecify a framework for the discussion. Sometimes an assignment task consists of a number of related questions. There may be several parts to the question, including a number of task words or specific questions. In this case, it may be necessary to break the question into small chunks to find all the different sections that you will need to cover in order to answer a...