Understanding the meaning of words, especially task words, helps you to know exactly what is being asked of you. It takes you half way towards narrowing down your material and selecting your answer.
Task words direct you and tell you how to go about answering a question. Here is a list of such words and others that you are most likely to come across frequently in your course.
|Table of task words|
|Words||What they (might) mean...|
|Account for||Explain, clarify, give reasons for. (Quite different from "Give an account of which is more like 'describe in detail').|
|Analyse||Break an issue down into its component parts, discuss them and show how they interrelate.|
|Assess||Consider the value or importance of something, paying due attention to positive, negative and disputable aspects, and citing the judgements of any known authorities as well as your own.|
|Argue||Make a case, based on appropriate evidence for and/or against some given point of view.|
|Comment on||Too vague to be sure, but safe to assume it means something more than 'describe' or 'summarise' and more likely implies 'analyse' or 'assess'.|
|Compare||Identify the characteristics or qualities two or more things have in common (but probably pointing out their differences as well).|
|Contrast||Point out the difference between two things (but probably point out their similarities as well).|
|Criticise||Spell out your judgement as to the value or truth of something, indicating the criteria on which you base your judgement and citing specific instances of how the criteria apply in this case.|
|Define||Make a statement as to the meaning or interpretation of something, giving sufficient detail as to allow it to be distinguished from similar things.|
|Describe||Spell out the main aspects of an idea or topic or the sequence in which a series of things happened.|
|Discuss||Investigate or examine by argument. Examine key points and possible interpretations, sift and debate, giving reasons for and against. Draw a conclusion.|
|Evaluate||Make an appraisal or the worth of something, in the light of its apparent truth; include your personal opinion. Like 'assess'.|
|Enumerate||List some relevant items, possibly in continuous prose (rather than note form) and perhaps 'describe' them (see above) as well.|
|Examine||Present in depth and investigate the implications.|
|Explain||Tell how things work or how they came to be the way they are, including perhaps some need to 'describe' and to 'analyse' (see above).|
|To what extent...?||Explore the case for a stated proposition or explanation, much in the manner of 'assess' and 'criticise' (see above), probably arguing for a less than total acceptance of the proposition.|
|How far||Similar to 'to what extent...?' (see above)|
|Identify||Pick out what you regard as the key features of something, perhaps making clear the criteria you use.|
|Illustrate||Similar to 'explain' (see above), but probably asking for the quoting of specific examples or statistics or possibly the drawing of maps, graphs, sketches etc.|
|Interpret||Clarify something or 'explain' (see above), perhaps indicating how the thing relates to some other thing or perspective.|
|Justify||Express valid reasons for accepting a particular interpretation or conclusion, probably including the need to 'argue' (see above) a case.|
|Outline||Indicate the main features of a topic or sequence of events, possibly setting them within a clear structure or framework to show how they interrelate.|
|Prove||Demonstrate the truth of something by offering irrefutable evidence and/or logical sequence of statements leading from evidence to conclusion.|
|Reconcile||Show how two apparently opposed or mutually exclusive ideas or propositions can be seen to be similar in important respects, if not identical. Involves need to 'analyse' and 'justify' (see above).|
|Relate||Either 'explain' (see above) how things happened or are connected in a cause-and-effect sense, or may imply 'compare' and 'contrast' (see above).|
|Review||Survey a topic, with the emphasis on 'assess' rather than 'describe' (see above).|
|State||Express the main points of an idea or topic, perhaps in the manner of 'describe' or 'enumerate' (see above).|
|Summarise||'State' (see above) the main features of an argument, omitting all superfluous detail and side-issues.|
|Trace||Identify the connection between one thing and another either in a developmental sense over a period of time, or else in a cause and effect sense. May imply both 'describe' and 'explain' (see above).|
|Other useful definitions|
|Words||What they (might) mean...|
|Assumption||Something which is accepted as being true for the purpose of an argument.|
|Issue||An important topic for discussion; something worth thinking and raising questions about.|
|Methodology||A system of methods and principles for doing something. Often used to explain methods for carrying out research.|
|Objective||It is the point or the thing aimed at. It is what you want to achieve by a particular activity.|
Maddox, H 1967, How to Study, 2nd ed, Pan Books, London.
Marshall, L., & Rowland, F 1998, A guide to learning independently, Addison Wesley Longman, Melbourne.
Northedge, A 1997, The good study guide, Open University, Milton Keynes, UK.
Writing and testing series
Directives for essays, reports, tests..
"Directives" ask you to answer, or present information, in a particular way.
Review these, and most of all note that there are different ways
of answering a question or writing a paper!
Examine qualities, or characteristics, to discover resemblances. "Compare" is usually stated as "compare with": you are to emphasize similarities, although differences may be mentioned.
Stress dissimilarities, differences, or unlikeness of things, qualities, events, or problems.
Express your judgment or correctness or merit. Discuss the limitations and good points or contributions of the plan or work in question.
Definitions call for concise, clear, authoritative meanings. Details are not required but limitations of the definition should be briefly cited. You must keep in mind the class to which a thing belongs and whatever differentiates the particular object from all others in the class.
In a descriptive answer you should recount, characterize, sketch or relate in narrative form.
For a question which specifies a diagram you should present a drawing, chart, plan, or graphic representation in your answer. Generally you are expected to label the diagram and in some cases add a brief explanation or description.
The term discuss, which appears often in essay questions, directs you to examine, analyze carefully, and present considerations pro and con regarding the problems or items involved. This type of question calls for a complete and entailed answer.
The word enumerate specifies a list or outline form of reply. In such questions you should recount, one by one, in concise form, the points required.
In an evaluation question you are expected to present a careful appraisal of the problem stressing both advantages and limitations. Evaluation implies authoritative and, to a lesser degree, personal appraisal of both contributions and limitations.
In explanatory answers it is imperative that you clarify and interpret the material you present. In such an answer it is best to state the "how or why," reconcile any differences in opinion or experimental results, and, where possible, state causes. The aim is to make plain the conditions which give rise to whatever you are examining.
A question which asks you to illustrate usually requires you to explain or clarify your answer to the problem by presenting a figure, picture, diagram, or concrete example.
An interpretation question is similar to one requiring explanation. You are expected to translate, exemplify, solve, or comment upon the subject and usually to give your judgment or reaction to the problem.
When you are instructed to justify your answer you must prove or show grounds for decisions. In such an answer, evidence should be presented in convincing form.
Listing is similar to enumeration. You are expected in such questions to present an itemized series or tabulation. Such answers should always be given in concise form.
An outline answer is organized description. You should give main points and essential supplementary materials, omitting minor details, and present the information in a systematic arrangement or classification.
A question which requires proof is one which demands confirmation or verification. In such discussions you should establish something with certainty by evaluating and citing experimental evidence or by logical reasoning.
In a question which asks you to show the relationship or to relate, your answer should emphasize connections and associations in descriptive form.
A review specifies a critical examination. You should analyze and comment briefly in organized sequence upon the major points of the problem.
In questions which direct you to specify, give, state, or present, you are called upon to express the high points in brief, clear narrative form. Details, and usually illustrations or examples, may be omitted.
When you are asked to summarize or present a summarization, you should give in condensed form the main points or facts. All details, illustrations and elaboration are to be omitted.
When a question asks you to trace a course of events, you are to give a description of progress, historical sequence, or development from the point of origin. Such narratives may call for probing or for deduction.