Analyse, Explain, Identify… 22 essay question words
(Last updated: 12 May 2021)
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Now, we may be experts in best essay writing, but we’re also the first to admit that tackling essay questions can be, well, a bit of a challenge. Essays first require copious amounts of background reading and research so you can include accurate facts in your writing. You then have to figure out how to present those facts in a convincing and systematic argument. No mean feat.
But the silver lining here is that presenting your argument doesn’t have to be stressful. This goes even if you’re a new student without much experience and ability. To write a coherent and well-structured essay, you just have to really understand the requirements of the question. And to understand the requirements of the question, you need to have a good hold on all the different question words. For example, 'justify', 'examine', and 'discuss', to name a few.
Lacking this understanding is a pitfall many students tumble into. But our guide on essay question words below should keep you firmly above on safe, essay-acing ground.
Question words – what are they?
No matter their nature, question words are key and must always be adhered to. And yet, many students often overlook them and therefore answer their essay questions incorrectly. You may be a font of all knowledge in your subject area, but if you misinterpret the question words in your essay title, your essay writing could be completely irrelevant and score poorly.
For example, if you are asked to compare the French and British upper houses of parliament, you won’t get many points by simply highlighting the differences between the two parliamentary systems.
So, what should you do? We advise you start by reading this guide – we’ve divided the question words either by ‘critical’ or ‘descriptive’ depending on their nature, which should help you identify the type of response your essay requires.
These are the question words we will cover in this blog:
|Critical question words||Descriptive question words|
|To what extent||Outline|
Question words that require a critical approach
Once you have done this, it’s also important that you critically (more on this word later) examine each part. You need to use important debates and evidence to look in depth at the arguments for and against, as well as how the parts interconnect. What does the evidence suggest? Use it to adopt a stance in your essay, ensuring you don’t simply give a narration on the key debates in the literature. Make your position known and tie this to the literature.
It is essential to provide information on both sides of the debate using evidence from a wide range of academic sources. Then you must state your position basing your arguments on the evidence that informed you in arriving at your position.
Also, you may want to consider arguments that are contrary to your position before stating a conclusion to your arguments. This will help present a balanced argument and demonstrate wide knowledge of the literature. Here, a critical approach becomes crucial. You need to explain why other possible arguments are unsatisfactory as well as why your own particular argument is preferable.
4. Critically evaluate
The key to tackling these question words is providing ample evidence to support your claims. Ensure that your analysis is balanced by shedding light on, and presenting a critique of, alternative perspectives. It is also important that you present extensive evidence taken from a varying range of sources.
State your conclusion clearly and state the reasons for this conclusion, drawing on factors and evidence that informed your perspective. Also try to justify your position in order to present a convincing argument to the reader.
Put another way, ‘review’ questions entail offering your opinion on the validity of the essay question. For example, you may be asked to review the literature on electoral reform in Great Britain. You'll need to give an overview of the literature. and any major arguments or issues that arose from it. You then need to comment logically and analytically on this material. What do you agree or disagree with? What have other scholars said about the subject? Are there any views that contrast with yours? What evidence are you using to support your assessment? Don’t forget to state your position clearly.
Review answers should not be purely descriptive; they must demonstrate a high level of analytical skill. The aim is not simply to regurgitate the works of other scholars, but rather to critically analyse these works.
However, when assessing a particular argument or topic, it is important that your thoughts on its significance are made clear. This must be supported by evidence, and secondary sources in the literature are a great start. Essentially, you need to convince the reader about the strength of your argument, using research to back up your assessment of the topic is essential. Highlight any limitations to your argument and remember to mention any counterarguments to your position.
Give a detailed examination of the topic by including knowledge of the various perspectives put forward by other scholars in relation to it. What are your thoughts on the subject based on the general debates in the literature? Remember to clearly state your position based on all the evidence you present.
You should also try to provide some context on why the issues and facts that you have closely examined are important. Have these issues and facts been examined differently by other scholars? If so, make a note of this. How did they differ in their approach and what are the factors that account for these alternative approaches?
‘Examine’ questions are less exploratory and discursive than some other types of question. They focus instead on asking you to critically examine particular pieces of evidence or facts to inform your analysis.
9. To what extent
Such questions require that you display the extent of your knowledge on a given subject and that you also adopt an analytical style in stating your position. This means that you must consider both sides of the argument, by present contrasting pieces of evidence. But ultimately, you must show why a particular set of evidence, or piece of information, is more valid for supporting your answer.
Question words that require a descriptive response
It is important that you provide more than one meaning if there are several of them as it shows that you are very familiar with the literature.
Make sure you assert your position with these types of questions. It's even more important that you support your arguments with valid evidence in order to establish a strong case.
‘Describe’ question words focus less on the basic meaning of something, therefore, and more on its particular characteristics. These characteristics should form the building blocks of your answer.
In addition, always remember to back any claims with academic research. In explanatory answers it is important that you demonstrate a clear understanding of a research topic or argument. This comes across most convincingly if you present a clear interpretation of the subject or argument to the reader. Keep in mind any ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions as this will help you to structure a clear and logically coherent response. Coherence is extremely important in providing explanatory answers.
A somewhat detached, dispassionate tone can be particularly effective, in contrast to the more assertive, argumentative tone you might adopt for other types of essay question. Just remember that the key objective here is to give a nuanced account of a research topic or argument by examining its composite parts.
Such questions require you to shed light on a topic or, in some instances, break down a complex subject into simple parts. Coherence is very important for acing such questions, remembering to present your answer in a systematic manner.
Furthermore, you may also want to emphasise any differences, although the focus of your essay should be on establishing similarities.
Here are a few more handy tips to bear in mind when addressing your essay questions:
When you first get your essay question, always try to understand exactly what the question means and what it is asking you to do. Look at the question word(s) and think about their meaning before you launch into planning what to write. Hopefully, our guide has shown you how to do this expertly.
Remember to read the question several times and consider any underlying assumptions behind the question. Highlight the key words and if possible, make a very basic draft outline of your response. This outline does not have to be detailed. But if you follow it as you write, it will help keep your response coherent and systematic.
Finally, remember to read through your essay at the end to check for any inconsistencies and grammatical or spelling errors. Or, if you're in search of the perfect finishing touch, have a professional apply an edit to your final essay. It always helps to have a second set of fresh eyes to assess your work for any errors or omissions.