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Does Discuss Mean Essay Question

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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

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.

Analyse

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.

Assess

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
consequences.

Clarify

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.

Consider

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

Contrast

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

Criticise

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

Define

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…’ .

Describe

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.

Discuss

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.

Distinguish

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.

Evaluate

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.

Examine

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

Explain

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

How

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.

Justify

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

Outline

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

State

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

Summarise

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

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