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Instruction words in essay questions

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Description: This resource prompts students to initially consider what the assignment question is asking directly, by identifying key phrases. Although variant upon subject, the resource identifies general definitions for key words commonly utilised within essay questions.
Estimated activity time: 20 minutes
Type of media: Handout/s, Webpage, Helpsheet
Licence: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 3.0
(This resource can be freely repurposed and reused)
Category: Assessment
Date: This information/resource was last updated in .


This post was originally added to Learnhigher on:

When you get your assignment question, decide:

  • What the question means
  • What it is asking you to do.

Read the question several times and consider any implicit assumptions behind the question. Define the key words (use a dictionary if necessary) and look for any words that focus or restrict the area you need to examine in your answer.

Key words in the title

Underline the key words or phrases in your question. Use the context around each key word to help you understand what is required, for example, ‘discuss briefly’ as compared to ‘ discuss in the context of…’.

Also bear in mind that some words may have slightly different meanings depending on the discipline in which they are used. If in doubt check with a subject specific dictionary or your tutor.

The following list provides an explanation of some common question words.

Account for Give reasons for; explain (note: give an account of;
Analyse Break the information into constituent parts; examine the
relationship between the parts; question the information.
Argue Put the case for or against a view or idea giving evidence
for your claims/reasons for or against; attempt to influence
the reader to accept your view.
Balance Look at two or more viewpoints or pieces of information;
give each equal attention; look at good and bad points; take
into account many aspects and give an appropriate
weighting to those aspects.
Be critical Identify what is good and bad about the information and
why; probe, question, identify inaccuracies or shortcomings
in the information; estimate the value of the material.
Clarify Identify the components of an issue/topic/problem/; make
the meaning plain; remove misunderstandings.
Compare Look for similarities and differences between; perhaps
conclude which is preferable; implies evaluation.
Conclude/draw conclusions The end point of your critical thinking; what the results of an
investigation indicate; arrive at a judgement by reasoning.
Contrast Bring out the differences.
Criticise Give your judgement on theories or opinions or facts and
back this by discussing evidence or reasoning involved.
Deduce Conclude; infer.
Define Give the precise meaning. Examine the different possible
or often used definitions.
Demonstrate Show clearly by giving proof or evidence.
Describe Give a detailed, full account of the topic.
Determine Find out something; calculate.
Develop an opinion/a view Decide what you think (based on an argument or evidence).
Discuss Investigate or examine by argument; debate; give reason
for and against; examine the implications of the topic.
Elucidate Explain and make clear.
Estimate Calculate; judge; predict.
Evaluate/weigh up Appraise the worth of something in the light of its truth or
usefulness; assess and explain.
Examine Look at carefully; consider.
Explain Make plain and clear; give reasons for.
Give evidence Provide evidence from your own work or that of others
which could be checked by a third party to prove/ justify
what you say.
Identify Point out and describe.
Identify trends Identify patterns/changes/ movements in certain directions
(e.g. over time or across topics/ subjects).
Illustrate Explain, clarify, make clear by the use of concrete
Infer Conclude something from facts or reasoning.
Interpret Expound the meaning; make clear and explicit, giving your
own judgement.
Justify Show adequate grounds for decisions, a particular view or
conclusions and answer main objections likely to be made to them.
Outline Give a short description of the main points; give the main
features or general principles; emphasise the structure,
leaving out minor details.
Prove Show that something is true or certain; provide strong
evidence (and examples) for.
Review Make a survey examining the subject carefully; similar to
summarise and evaluate.
State Present in a brief, clear form.
Summarise Give a concise account of the chief points of a matter,
removing unnecessary detail.
Synthesise Bring elements together to make a complex whole, draw
together or integrate issues (e.g. theories or models can be
created by synthesising a number of elements).
Trace Follow the development of topic from its origin.

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