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Approaching the Question

Author: Unknown Author (Unknown affiliation)
Description: This resource highlights the importance of fully considering an essay title and offers guidance on essay title interpretation. The resource suggests how identifying directive words, the topic area and limiting words may help students to organise and structure their essays effectively, and thus obtain higher grades.
Estimated activity time: 20 minutes
Type of media: Handout/s, Webpage, Helpsheet, PDF file
Licence: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 3.0
(This resource can be freely repurposed and reused)
Category: Academic Writing
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Date: This information/resource was last updated in .


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In order to achieve the highest grades in your assignments, it is important to understand what the question is asking you to do. By looking specifically at key words and phrases, you will gain a clearer understanding of the focus of the question, which will help you to identify required research and to plan and structure your response appropriately.


Use these headings to break down your assignment question into the following categories:


  • Directive words - words which tell you to do something; Analyse, Discuss, Evaluate
  • Topic area – the main topic areas or themes outlined by the question
  • Limiting words – words which provide boundaries or constraints for your assignment
Critically discuss the effect that entry into the European Union has had on the sovereignty of the UK Parliament.

How to interpret the question

Firstly you will need to ensure that you understand what is required of you. The directive words will give you an idea of how you need to approach your piece of writing. Use the table overleaf to find definitions of some of the directive words you might find in your assignment questions.


You will also need to identify the topic areas of your assignment as outlined in the question. Use the following resources to collect relevant information. Remember that you will need to consider the topic area with reference to the required approach as identified by the directive words:

  • Google Books
  • Course related journals and articles ·
  • Module handbook ·
  • Lecture notes and handouts ·
  • Lab reports where appropriate ·
  • Reading list

Identify the focus and limits of the question

Finally, you will need to identify the limiting words and any other limiting factors as outlined by the assignment criteria. This will help you to plan and structure your work, and to organise your time effectively. If you are unsure about any of the information provided in the assignment criteria, then consult your module handbook, or module leader.

Examples of Directive words

Analyse Break up into parts; investigate
Comment on Identify and write about the main issues; give your reactions based on what you’ve read/heard in lectures. Avoid just personal opinion.
Compare Look for the similarities between two things. Show the relevance or consequences of these similarities concluding which is preferable.
Contrast Identify the differences between two items or arguments. Show whether the differences are significant. Perhaps give reasons why one is preferable.
Criticise Requires an answer that points out mistakes or weaknesses, and which also indicates any favourable aspects of the subject of the question. It requires a balanced answer.
Critically evaluate Weigh arguments for and against something, assessing the strength of the evidence on both sides. Use criteria to guide your assessment of which opinions, theories, models or items are preferable.
Define Give the exact meaning of. Where relevant, show you understand how the definition may be problematic.
Describe Give the exact meaning of. Where relevant, show you understand how the definition may be problematic.
Discuss Investigate or examine by argument; sift and debate; give reasons for and against; examine the implications.
Evaluate Assess and give your judgement about the merit, importance or usefulness of something using evidence to support your argument
Examine Look closely into something.
Explain Make clear why something happens, or is the way it is; interpret and account for; give reasons for.
Explore Examine thoroughly; consider from a variety of viewpoints.
Illustrate Make something clear and explicit, giving examples of evidence.
Justify Give evidence which supports an argument or idea; show why a decision or conclusions were made.
Outline Give the main points/features/general principles; show the main structure and interrelations; omit details and examples.
State Give the main features briefly and clearly.
Summarise Draw out the main points only; omit details and examples.
To what extent… Consider how far something is true, or contributes to a final outcome. Consider also ways in which it is not true. 

 (Adapted from a table as published by London Metropolitan University)

Common mistakes

Students often fail to follow the directive words and therefore do not fulfil the criteria of the question

Now you’ve read the guide, we suggest that you have a go at the Approaching the Question worksheet.

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