Understanding essay/exam questions

In some disciplines, take-home exams and open-book exams consist of so-called essay questions. In order to succeed with such assignments, it is vital that you understand what you are expected to do.

Essay questions demand answers with an element of reasoning. This means you are not only expected to present facts but also to provide an interpretation, argument, or reflection which shows that you have understood the course content. The information below is of a general nature; as a student, you must make sure that you understand what the requirements are in your course and in your field.

Understanding the exam/essay question

Read instructions carefully: they are intended to help you complete the assignment, and how well you adhere to instructions will affect your grade. Essay questions often consist of three elements:

1.    an informative part that provides some background and context
2.    a directive part that tells you how to approach the task
3.    an instructional part with instructions on how the text is to be written

You may find that not all elements are provided in each exam question. For instance, some information may be given in an introductory passage that applies to all questions. Such general instructions often stipulate the required format of the answers as well as what resources (if any) may be used.

Instructional verbs

Even though you may very well know what the instructional verbs that you come across in exams mean in general language use, they sometimes have a more specific meaning in exam questions.

Some instructional verbs in exams ask you to demonstrate your knowledge of something (e.g. list, give examples of) or to show that you have understood something (e.g. explain, compare). Still other verbs indicate that you need to show that you can use your knowledge (e.g. apply, demonstrate, illustrate) or that you are able to show your skills in critical thinking (e.g. examine, create, design, justify).

Although verbs like the ones listed above may be almost synonymous in everyday speech, as instructional verbs in written assignments they require different actions. In the list below, you will find some common instructional verbs and their definitions. Note that some verbs may have a more specific meaning in your field.

Discussto discuss something means to write about it in detail and to
take different ideas and perspectives into account.
Analyseto analyse means to study something in detail, often by
identifying what different components the study object
consists of and how these different parts/components
relate to each other and to the whole.


to interpret something means to explain and comment on
something. In an assignment, you may be asked to interpret
a text, a statement, a research result, or a graph, for instance.
Depending on your field, the interpretation may be based on
different concepts / theories, etc.

Supportto support your argument / answer usually means that you
need to provide examples or to back up your answer in
some other way with evidence from a text / experiment / etc.

to define means to explain the meaning of, for instance, a
phrase, word, or concept.



To pick up on what instructional verbs may mean in your specific field, read textbooks and scholarly articles carefully, paying attention to how instruction verbs are used.

Composing your answer

In addition to what is said above, the following advice might be useful when you write your answers to exam and essay questions:

Show that you understand the question

If you are asked to apply a theoretical concept or to discuss something from a particular perspective, make sure your answer shows that you understand the issue at hand and that you know how to use the concept. How to do this will depend on your discipline: In some areas, it might be relevant to define terms as you use them in an argument, and in other areas it may be essential that you demonstrate your ability to carry out some kind of calculation.

Stay on track

Students are examined based on how well their answers respond to the stated question. This means you need to provide relevant information and present an on-topic discussion; it also means that information that is not relevant will usually not be assessed.

Check that you have answered the question

Before submitting the exam, go through your answers. Double-check that you have understood the question and the instruction verbs.

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