A frequent problem faced by students when they write essays is that they often do not understand what the question is asking them to do. This is usually indicated by the use of irrelevant information in the essay. It sounds simple but when you read an essay question, you should ask yourself ‘What is the question specifically asking? What am I supposed to be examining?’ There are generally four main points to look for when ‘unpacking’ an essay question that will lead to a greater and clearer understanding of what the question is asking. 1. Statement of fact which orients the question – this will provide the general theme of the essay 2. The question being asked – what are you specifically being asked to examine 3. Instructions – how are you supposed to go about answering the question 4. Scope –the limitations for this essay
Instruction terms are words commonly used in essay questions. They instruct or direct you in the approach you should take towards the proposition of the question. The exact meaning of these terms will vary depending upon the subject being studied. The following give some idea of what is normally required for essays and examination questions. Think carefully about the meaning of these terms in relation to the entire question. Try to understand exactly what an instruction is asking you to do. Do not look for problems where they might not exist. If in doubt, ask your tutor. account for
Explain the reasons for, giving an indication of all relevant circumstances. Different from "Give an account of..." which is more like "Describe in detail". analyse
Break an issue down into its component parts, study in depth, identifying, describing, and criticising in detail the main characteristics and how they interrelate. argue
Make a case, based on appropriate evidence and logically structured for and/or against some point of view. assess
Closely examine in a balanced way the value or importance of something, paying attention to positive, negative and disputable aspects or weaknesses, and citing the judgements of any known authorities as well as your own. State your own judgement clearly in the conclusion. calculate
Reckon or compute by mathematical means.
Simplify and make clear.
State clearly and in moderate fashion your opinions on the material in question. Support your views with reference to suitable evidence or explanations. Means more than "describe" or "summarize" and more likely implies "analyze" or "assess". compare
Identify and discuss the characteristics or qualities two or more things have in common (and probably pointing out their differences as well). consider
Express your thoughts and observations about something.
Point out and discuss the differences between two things (but probably identifying their similarities as well). criticise
Give your judgement about a statement or a body of work as to the value or truth of something; explore its implications, discussing all the evidence which is available. Be specific in your examination and indicate the criteria on which you base your judgement, citing specific instances and arguments as to how the criteria apply in this case. define
Set down the precise meaning or interpretation of something, giving sufficient detail to allow it to be distinguished from other similar things. Take note of multiple meanings if they exist. demonstrate
Show how, and prove by giving examples.
Give a detailed and comprehensive account of an idea or topic, or the sequence in which a series of things happened. develop
Expand on something, taking it further.
Probably the most common term to appear in essay titles, usually requiring analysis and evaluation of evidence as well as weighing up arguments and drawing conclusions. Explore the implications and the...