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Understanding the question

Introduction

Much of your writing will be prompted by an assignment, essay or exam question. Students often do worse than they should in examinations or when writing assignments in English in the UK, not because their writing skills are weak or because their knowledge of the subject matter is insufficient, but because they have not fully understood what they have been asked to do. To score high marks in an examination or an assignmnet, it is important to fully understand what a question or brief means and how it should be answered.

In order to understand the question it is useful to analyse the questions and to search for certain components. The following technique is very useful (Swales, 1982).

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The components of a question

Most assignment titles or examination questions contain the following components:

  1. Subject matter or topic. What, in the most general terms, is the question about?
  2. Aspect or focus. This is the angle or point of view on the subject matter. What aspect of the subject matter is the question about?
  3. Instruction or comment. This refers to the instruction word or phrase. These instructions tell the student exactly what to do.

Some titles also contain the following components:

  1. Restriction or expansion of the subject matter. This is the detailed limitation of the topic. What, in specific terms, is the question about?
  2. Viewpoint. This refers to the requirement, in the question, that the writer writes from - or evaluates - a point of view given by the setter of the question.

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Analysing the title

To analyse the title, it is useful to follow the following steps:

  1. Identify the topic.
  2. If the topic has a restriction or expansion, identify it.
  3. Search for the aspect. This is the angle or point of view on the subject matter. Often, the aspect is a phrase ending in 'of', e.g. 'the importance of', 'the contribution of'. Be sure you are clear about how the aspect relates to the subject matter. It can be an example of it, a stage in its sequence, the cause or effect, one of the solutions to it as a problem etc.
  4. Identify the instruction (which often comes at the beginning) and decide what it means and what it requires you to do.
  5. Check whether there is a viewpoint and if so, if it the same as your own.

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The vocabulary of questions

Here is a list of the most common assignment instruction key-words with an explanation for each.

Note: The explanations given for these words can be a rough guide only. You must always go by the total meaning of the title or question. Read the question carefully: do not jump to conclusions about what is required on the basis of these words only.

Account for
requires an answer that gives the reasons for the subject of the question.
Analyse
requires an answer that takes apart an idea, concept or statement in order to consider all the factors it consists of. Answers of this type should be very methodical and logically organised.
Compare
requires an answer that sets items side by side and shows their similarities and differences. A balanced (fair, objective) answer is expected.
Consider
requires an answer in which the students describe and give their thoughts on the subject.
Contrast
requires an answer that points out only the differences between two items.
Criticise
requires an answer that points out mistakes or weaknesses, and that also indicates any favourable aspects of the subject of the question. It requires a balanced answer.
Define
requires an answer that explains the precise meaning of a concep. A definition answer will include a definition, probably expanded.
Describe
requires an answer that says what something is like, how it works and so on.
Discuss
requires an answer that explains an item or concept, and then gives details about it with supportive information, examples, points for and against, and explanations for the facts put forward. It is important to give both sides of an argument and come to a conclusion.
Elucidate
requires an answer that explains what something means, makes it clear (lucid).
Evaluate/Assess
require an answer that decides and explains how great, valuable or important something is. The judgement should be backed by a discussion of the evidence or reasoning involved.
Explain
requires an answer that offers a rather detailed and exact explanation of an idea or principle, or a set of reasons for a situation or attitude.
Explore
requires an answer that examines the subject thoroughly and considers it from a variety of viewpoints.
Illustrate
requires an answer that consists mainly of examples to demonstrate or prove the subject of the question. It is often added to another instruction.
Justify
requires an answer that gives only the reasons for a position or argument. Answer the main objections likely to be made of them. Note, however, that the proposition to be argued may be a negative one (e.g. Justify the abolition of the death penalty.)
Prove/Disprove
both of these require answers that demonstrate the logical arguments and/or evidence connected with a proposition prove requires the 'pro' points, and disprove requires the 'contra' points.
State
requires an answer that expresses the relevant points briefly and clearly without lengthy discussion or minor details.
Summarise/Outline
require an answer that contains a summary of all the available information about a subject, i.e. only the main points and not the details should be included. Questions of this type often require short answers.
Trace
is found most frequently in historical questions (but not only in History courses); it requires the statement and brief description in logical or chronological order of the stages (steps) in the development of e.g. a theory, a person's life, a process, etc.
To what extent is X true?
requires an answer that discusses and explains in what ways X is true and in what ways X is not true.

Sometimes you may find several different instruction words combined innto one composite question. For example:

Define financial accounting. Compare and contrast the Anglo-American and Continental approaches to financial accounting. Explain the role that the invididual accountants play in each approach.

Some other important words used in questions.

concept
an important idea
concise
short, brief
in the context of
referring to, inside the subject of
criteria
what standards you would expect; what questions you would expect to be answered
deduction
the conclusion or generalisation you come to after looking carefully at all the facts
factor(s)
the circumstances bringing about a result
function
what something does its purpose or activities
implications
results that are not obvious, long term, suggested results
limitations
explain where something is not useful or not relevant
with/by reference to
make sure you write about the following subject
in relation to
only a certain part of the first topic is needed
role
what part something plays, how it works, especially in co-operation with others
scope
the area where something acts or has influence
significance
meaning and importance
valid/validity
is there evidence and are there facts to prove the statement?

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Examples of questions

  1. Account for the large-scale immigration into Malaya in the late 19th Century.
  2. Analyse the changes in US policy towards China during the 1970s.
  3. Assess the contribution of Asoka to the spread of Buddhism in India.
  4. Explain the concept of 'role'. Of what use is the concept to a practising manager?
  5. Compare and contrast cellulose and lignin decomposition in soil.
  6. List the criteria you would apply to the presentation of government expenditure policy.
  7. Critically discuss economies and diseconomies of scale.
  8. What deductions can be made after studying the cell exhibited at C?
  9. Evaluate the contribution of political parties to the development of public policy in the United States and Canada.
  10. To what extent does the British public participate in the political process?
  11. What factors determine the elasticity of demand curves?
  12. Describe the histology and functional importance of striated muscle.
  13. Illustrate your answer by typical temperature profiles.
  14. Discuss the implications of the Milgram and Zimbardo experiments for understanding people's behaviour in situations involving authority.
  15. Discuss the use of behaviour therapy in clinical psychology and comment on its limitations.
  16. Illustrate the diversity of anaerobic bacteria by reference to either practical importance or mechanism of energy generation.
  17. Outline the requirements as to 'locus standi' in relation to injunctives and declaratives.
  18. Discuss the role of international capital movements in a world payments system.
  19. Define Administrative Law indicating its general scope and function.
  20. Consider the significance of the year 1848 for the Hapsburg Empire.
  21. Summarise the main requirements of the law in respect of the employer-employee relationship.
  22. 'They are often at a disadvantage in dealing with industry at a technical level.' How valid is this criticism of British Civil Servants?
  23. To what extent is an understanding of the various approaches to industrial relations useful in allowing us to make better sense of the changing nature of the employment relationship?
  24. Discuss the extent to which Human Resource Management and its associated individualism has led to a demise in collectivism and the role of trade unions.
  25. Discuss the respective influences of states and markets in the contemporary world economy characterised by globalisation.
  26. Analyse the process of transition from a command economy to a market economy, drawing upon the many recent examples.

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Planning the answer

In planning the answer, the instruction decides the text-type (discussion, explanation, etc.); the topic (with its restriction or expansion if there is one) determines the overall range of the subject matter but the aspect determines the particular content; viewpoint dictates which arguments, for or against, to use. The interaction between instruction and aspect will lead to decisions about the organisation of the essay.
See Organising the answer for more information on essay organisation.

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Exercise

Analyse the example questions above.

  1. Identify the topic.
  2. If the topic has a restriction or expansion, identify it.
  3. Search for the aspect.
  4. Identify the instruction.
  5. Check whether there is a viewpoint.

Press this if you want to check your answers:

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