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Defining Common Exam Instruction Words

Part of the Study Skills For Dummies Cheat Sheet (UK Edition)

When answering an exam question, it’s easy to misread what’s being asked and simply answer it in the wrong way. Your argument may be logical, thoughtful and well researched, but if you aren’t tailoring your response to the question, you stand to lose some serious marks! Below are definitions of some common instruction words.

Instruction word What you have to do
Analyse Take apart an idea, concept or statement and examine and criticise its sub-parts in detail. You have to be methodical and logical.
Assess Describe a topic’s positive and negative aspects and say how useful or successful it is, or consider its contribution to knowledge, events or processes (this is usually about how important something is).
Criticise Point out a topic’s mistakes or weaknesses as well as its favourable aspects. Give a balanced answer (this will involve some analysis first).
Compare Put items side by side to see their similarities and differences – a balanced (objective) answer is required.
Contrast Emphasise the differences between two things.
Define Give the meaning of an idea, either a dictionary definition or from an academic authority in your subject of study (technical definition).
Describe Give details of processes, properties, events and so on.
Discuss Describe, explain, give examples, points for and against, then analyse and evaluate the results.
Evaluate Similar to discuss, but with more emphasis on a judgement in the conclusion.
Examine Take apart and describe a concept in great detail.
Explain Give detailed reasons for an idea, principle or result, situation, attitude and so on. You may need to give some analysis as well.
Illustrate Give concrete examples – including figures or diagrams. Illustrate is usually added on to another instruction.
Interpret Explain and comment on the subject and make a judgement (evaluation).
Justify Give reasons to support a statement – it may be a negative statement, so be careful!
List Provide an itemised series of parts, reasons or qualities, possibly in a table.
Prove/disprove Provide evidence for or against and demonstrate logical argument and reasoning – you often have to do this for abstract or scientific subjects.
Relate Emphasise the links, connections and associations, probably with some analysis.
Review Analyse and comment briefly, in organised sequences – sentences, paragraphs or lists – on the main aspects of a subject.
State Give the relevant points briefly – you don’t need to make a lengthy discussion or give minor details.
Suggest Give possible reasons – analyse, interpret and evaluate. (This is also the verb most commonly used to quote another author.)
Summarise or outline Just give the main points, not the details.
Trace Give a brief description of the logical or chronological stages of the development of a theory, process, a person’s life and so on. Often used in historical questions.
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