Key terms in essay questions

1. Key terms are those parts of a question which either state or reveal its subject.

2. Key terms should be distinguished from an instruction terms, which tell you how to approach the question, and how to deal with the subject.

‘Discuss the significance of railways in the Industrial Revolution’

3. Both the terms ‘railways’ and ‘Industrial Revolution’ are key terms here. These are the subject of the question. You are being asked to concentrate on one topic (‘railways’) in relation to a specified historical period (‘the Industrial Revolution’).

4. The term ‘discuss’ on the other hand is an instruction term. This tells you how to approach the question.

5. Don’t expect key terms to jump off the page at you – or to be
unproblematic. Sometimes you will need to think carefully about the possible implications of the subject. They might also be expressed in very ordinary language.

‘To what extent was Clement Atlee a successful politician?’

6. It is the term ‘To what extent’ which acts as an instruction: you are free to construct your own response. The key term is ‘successful
politician’, which isn’t as obvious as it might first appear. Does ‘successful’ mean winning general elections, or being the author of policies which are adopted? You would need to give careful thought to these issues.

6. In order to make these distinctions (particularly when they are not obvious) you should be prepared to analyse questions very carefully.

© Roy Johnson 2003

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