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Help with understanding essay questions: 21 terms and phrases explained

In most subjects, understanding and answering essay questions is a key academic skill.

At an advanced level of study, this requires not merely the description or repetition of knowledge itself, but the analysis, evaluation and interpretation of knowledge.

If you do not fully understand the question however, you cannot make a full and appropriate response to it and so will not achieve the highest marks.

Therefore, interpreting questions correctly is extremely important.

Use this list of question types as a starting point to help you understand and answer questions that you encounter in exams and assessed coursework.

Top tip: whenever possible talk to tutors and fellow students to help clarify your understanding.

Account for

Give reasons for/explain the cause of
Demonstrate your ability and command of the subject by being able to identify and explain matters in response to the question.


Reach an understanding by closely examining the different
parts of a topic (breaking things down)

Close examination of the various factors, and perceptive observations are prerequisites for the analytical essay.


Make a value judgement about one or more factors
Arrive at an estimation about certain factors or elements, particularly in relation to their effectiveness or


Simplify or make clear
Make certain matters easier to understand through a logical process of explanation.

Comment (upon critically)

Give your point of view
Make informed comments about a particular issue, factor or event.

Compare (and contrast)

Identify similarities and differences
Examine in order to identify similarities and differences issues, factors or ideas.


Think carefully about a particular matter
Consider the merits of a particular topic to produce an answer which is thoughtful and insightful.


Comparison of unlike or opposite qualities
Discuss elements of an issue or topic in order to illustrate their differences.


Judge, analyse or evaluate (with disapproval)
Examine an issue critically, giving evidence to support your opinion.


State the precise meaning
Test whether a particular (often controversial) term or concept has been understood. Define is usually linked to another instruction, for example, ‘briefly define what you mean by the term … and explain the significance of…’ .


Give an account of
Great care should be taken with this instruction if it occurs at advanced level, particularly if it is not linked to another instruction. By itself, it merely invites a recitation of facts; if this is the case, carefully consider the whole question.


Examine by argument (debate the pros and cons)
Examine the stated aspects of a subject (often two sides) and weigh their relative merits. This involves presenting evidence, arguments and to a certain extent personal opinion.


Highlight the differences
This is often used in the first part of a question or instruction to obtain a clearer picture of two or more issues.


Judge or assess the worth of
This calls for an examination of the merits of a particular issue or position and, consequently, reaching a considered judgement.


Scrutinise carefully or in detail; investigate
Conduct a logical, detailed analysis of an issue or case, highlighting elements such as cause and effect.


Give a clear and detailed account
Clarify or account for something by selecting details you feel are important.


In what way (to what extent?)
This indicates that there is perhaps no one answer to the question. So key issues have to be identified,
arguments made, evidence offered and your final position made clear.


Give reasons for/prove
Make out a case for a particular point of view. The use of evidence and strong argument is essential.


Give the main features
Select only the essential parts.This is usually followed by a second instruction requiring more detail or an


Present briefly and clearly
Give the main features of a topic or case briefly, but clearly.


State the main points
Bring together the main points without going into detail or giving examples.

One Response to “Help with understanding essay questions: 21 terms and phrases explained”

  1. Claude says:

    This is really helpful for everyone who needs help breaking down what the essay question is really asking.

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