Analysing questions

sample pages from 'Writing Essays'

1. Before you start answering an essay question, you should read it very carefully. Study it closely, and try to analyse its full meaning. Make an effort to understand the problem it is posing, the principal issue or concept behind it, or the topic it is asking you to explore.

Writing Essays2. One way you can help yourself in this is to write out the question fully and accurately on the papers you will be using for your essay plan.

3. Most questions contain within them (even if by implication) both key terms and instruction terms. Let’s look at a couple of examples.

‘Examine the significance of Iago’s role in Othello

4. Examine here is an instruction term because it tells you to
discuss the topic in a general manner.

Iago’s role is a key term because it sets the limit of the question and is asking you to focus attention on this particular aspect of the play.

‘Compare and contrast liberal-democracy and state-socialism as forms of government’

5. Compare and contrast are instruction terms because they indicate that you should be looking for any similarities and emphasizing differences in the two systems of government.

The words liberal-democracy and state-socialism are key terms because they specify the two forms of government which should be examined.

6. Other typical instruction terms are – Discuss, Evaluate, Illustrate, Outline, Review, Trace, Explain – because they tell you what to do with the topic and which approach your answer to the question should take.

7. Some of these terms have a very general meaning. Discuss is simply inviting you to talk about the topic in any way you wish.

8. Other terms however are quite specific. Compare and contrast for instance requires that you show the similarities and the differences between two different topics.

9. Most common problems in understanding questions usually arise from a failure to pay close enough attention to what they actually say. This often results in

  • Answering the wrong question
  • Misunderstanding the question topic
  • Failing to see the emphasis of the question
  • Not following the instructions

10. Contrary to what many people think, questions are not set to catch you out, to surprise you with something new, or to be especially difficult and cause intellectual pain. In almost all cases they are set to give you the opportunity to show what you have learned in a course of study.

Chapter continues …

© Mantex/Clifton Press 1996-2011

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