Common Terms Used In Essay Tests

Most university essay questions include an instructional word in the question. These are the words that tell you what your essay should do. It is important that you understand exactly what these words mean so that you don't misinterpret a question. Below is a list of terms describing actions you may be asked to undertake in your assessment tasks.

You should print this page for future reference because it will help you to analyse the key instruction terms in your future essay questions.

Printable version of the list of instructional words

AnalyseSeparate or break up something into its component parts so that you discover its nature proportion, function, relationship, etc.
CommentMake critical observations, even if they are fairly open-ended. Your texts, learning guide, lecture and discussion notes should provide sufficient guidelines and your own commonsense should prevail.
CompareFind similarities and differences between two or more ideas, events, interpretations, etc. Ensure you understand exactly what you are being asked to compare.
ContrastFind similarities and differences between two or more ideas, events, interpretations etc. Focus on the differences.
Critical
Analysis
Examine the topic or argument in terms of its strengths and weaknesses.
CriticiseExpress your judgements regarding the correctness or merit of the factors being considered. Discuss both strong and weak points and give the results of your own analysis. Student insights are expected and arguments must be justified.
DefineProvide concise, clear, authoritative meanings. In such statements, details are not necessarily required, but briefly cite the boundaries or limitations of the definition. Remeber the 'class' to which a things belongs and whatever differentiates the particular object from all others in that class.
DescribeRecall facts, processes or events. You are not asked to explain or interpret. Try to provide a thorough description, emphasising the most important points.
DiagramPresent a drawing, chart, plan or graphic representation in your answer. Generally, you are also expected to label the diagram and a brief explanation or description may be required.
DiscussPresent a point of view. This is likely to need both description and interpretation. Your opinion must be supported by carefully chosen and authoritative evidence.
EnumerateProvide a list or outline form of reply. In such questions you should recount, one by one, but concisely, the points required.
EvaluatePresent a judgement of an issue by stressing both strengths and advantages, and weaknesses and limitations. The emphasis is on assessing the value, worth or relevance of the matter under scrutinty.
ExplainYour main focus should be on the 'why' of a particular issue, or on the 'how' with the aim of clarifying reasons, causes and effects. You are being tested on your capacity to think critically, to exercise perception and discernment.
IllustrateThis asks for an explanation; you may clarify your answer to a problem by presenting a figure, picture, diagram or concrete example.
InterpretExplain the meaning of something and give your own judgement of the situation.
ListGive an itemised series or tabulation; such answers should be concise.

OutlineThis asks for an organised description. Give the main points and essential supplementary materials, but omit minor details. Present the information in a systematic arrangement or classification.
ProveTo conform or verify. You should establish something with certainty by evaluating and citing experimental evidence, or by logical reasoning.
RelateWhen showing relationships, your answer should emphasise connection and associations in a descriptive manner.
ReviewRe-examine, analyse and comment briefly (in an organised sequence) on the major points of an issue.
StateExpress the high points in brief and clear narrative form. Details, and usually illustrations or examples, may be omitted.
SummariseProvide a brief statement or an account covering the main points; omit details.
TraceGive the development, process or history of a thing, event or idea, especially by proceeding from the latest to the earliest evidence.

Source: Adapted from Bate, D. 1979, Essay Method and English Expression, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Group, Sydney.

These are very important words and you must be clear about their meaning. For example, an essay that asks you to describe a topic is very different to an essay that asks you analyse a topic. Use this table to help you analyse the instructional words in your essay questions.

 




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To write a good essay, you firstly need to have a clear understanding of what the essay question is asking you to do. Looking at the essay question in close detail will help you to identify the topic and ‘directive words’ (Dhann, 2001), which instruct you how to answer the question. Understanding the meaning of these directive words is a vital first step in producing your essay.

This glossary provides definitions of some of the more typical words that you may come across in an essay question. Please note that these definitions are meant to provide general, rather than exact guidance, and are not a substitute for reading the question carefully. Get this wrong, and you risk the chance of writing an essay that lacks focus, or is irrelevant.

You are advised to use this glossary in conjunction with the following Study Guides: Writing essays and Thought mapping written by Student Learning Development.

Essay termDefinition
Analyse
Break an issue into its constituent parts. Look in depth at each part using supporting arguments and evidence for and against as well as how these interrelate to one another.
AssessWeigh up to what extent something is true. Persuade the reader of your argument by citing relevant research but also remember to point out any flaws and counter-arguments as well. Conclude by stating clearly how far you are in agreement with the original proposition.
ClarifyLiterally make something clearer and, where appropriate, simplify it. This could involve, for example, explaining in simpler terms a complex process or theory, or the relationship between two variables.
Comment uponPick out the main points on a subject and give your opinion, reinforcing your point of view using logic and reference to relevant evidence, including any wider reading you have done.
CompareIdentify the similarities and differences between two or more phenomena. Say if any of the shared similarities or differences are more important than others. ‘Compare’ and ‘contrast’ will often feature together in an essay question.
ConsiderSay what you think and have observed about something. Back up your comments using appropriate evidence from external sources, or your own experience. Include any views which are contrary to your own and how they relate to what you originally thought.
ContrastSimilar to compare but concentrate on the dissimilarities between two or more phenomena, or what sets them apart. Point out any differences which are particularly significant.
Critically evaluateGive your verdict as to what extent a statement or findings within a piece of research are true, or to what extent you agree with them. Provide evidence taken from a wide range of sources which both agree with and contradict an argument. Come to a final conclusion, basing your decision on what you judge to be the most important factors and justify how you have made your choice.
DefineTo give in precise terms the meaning of something. Bring to attention any problems posed with the definition and different interpretations that may exist.
DemonstrateShow how, with examples to illustrate.
DescribeProvide a detailed explanation as to how and why something happens.
DiscussEssentially this is a written debate where you are using your skill at reasoning, backed up by carefully selected evidence to make a case for and against an argument, or point out the advantages and disadvantages of a given context. Remember to arrive at a conclusion.
ElaborateTo give in more detail, provide more information on.
EvaluateSee the explanation for ‘critically evaluate’.
ExamineLook in close detail and establish the key facts and important issues surrounding a topic. This should be a critical evaluation and you should try and offer reasons as to why the facts and issues you have identified are the most important, as well as explain the different ways they could be construed.
ExplainClarify a topic by giving a detailed account as to how and why it occurs, or what is meant by the use of this term in a particular context. Your writing should have clarity so that complex procedures or sequences of events can be understood, defining key terms where appropriate, and be substantiated with relevant research.
ExploreAdopt a questioning approach and consider a variety of different viewpoints. Where possible reconcile opposing views by presenting a final line of argument.
Give an account ofMeans give a detailed description of something. Not to be confused with ‘account for’ which asks you not only what, but why something happened.
IdentifyDetermine what are the key points to be addressed and implications thereof.
IllustrateA similar instruction to ‘explain’ whereby you are asked to show the workings of something, making use of definite examples and statistics if appropriate to add weight to your explanation.
InterpretDemonstrate your understanding of an issue or topic. This can be the use of particular terminology by an author, or what the findings from a piece of research suggest to you. In the latter instance, comment on any significant patterns and causal relationships.
JustifyMake a case by providing a body of evidence to support your ideas and points of view. In order to present a balanced argument, consider opinions which may run contrary to your own before stating your conclusion.
OutlineConvey the main points placing emphasis on global structures and interrelationships rather than minute detail.
ReviewLook thoroughly into a subject. This should be a critical assessment and not merely descriptive.
Show howPresent, in a logical order, and with reference to relevant evidence the stages and combination of factors that give rise to something.
StateTo specify in clear terms the key aspects pertaining to a topic without being overly descriptive. Refer to evidence and examples where appropriate.
SummariseGive a condensed version drawing out the main facts and omit superfluous information. Brief or general examples will normally suffice for this kind of answer.
To what extentEvokes a similar response to questions containing 'How far...'. This type of question calls for a thorough assessment of the evidence in presenting your argument. Explore alternative explanations where they exist.

References

Dhann, S., (2001) How to ... 'Answer assignment questions'. Accessed 12/09/11. http://www.education.ex.ac.uk/dll/studyskills/answering_questions.htm

The following resources have also been consulted in writing this guide:

Johnson, R., (1996) Essay instruction terms. Accessed 12/09/11. http://www.mantex.co.uk/samples/inst.htm

Student Study Support Unit Canterbury Christchurch College (no date) Common terms in essay questions. Accessed 22/02/08. http://www.wmin.ac.uk/page-2714

Taylor, A.M. and Turner, J., (2004) Key words used in examination questions and essay titles. Accessed 12/09/11 http://www.reading.ac.uk/internal/studyadvice/StudyResources/Essays/sta-planningessay.aspx#answering

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