Interpreting assignment questions

Related: Strengthening your writing

Essay and examination questions tell you what type of essay to write.

Instruction words can be categorised into the three general types. Most essays require both description and analysis*.Diagram breaking down instruction terms

Describe / Explain

Describe:

Give a detailed account of the main issues of a subject.

For example: “This article provides the first five steps in the process. Each step I will summarize in the following five paragraphs”

Explain:

Clarify, or make clear, the meaning or significance of something; give the reason or cause for something; or show how something has developed or occurred.

For example: “An electric circuit is the flow of electrons from a negatively charged terminal to an earthed terminal”

Analyse / Interpret

Analyse:

Separate the subject into its main parts and discuss the significance of the parts and their inter-relationships.

Interpret:

Show the meaning or significance of information.

Evaluate

Evaluate:

Assess the merits and limitations of something. Weigh up the evidence and give judgement.

Other wording

Argue: 

Set out a reasoned case in support of a point of view.

Compare:

Present and discuss the similarities of two (or more) things. It is usually appropriate to discuss the differences at the same time.

Contrast: 

Present and discuss the dissimilarities, or differences, between two (or more) things. Questions will often ask you to compare and contrast.

Criticise (or critique, critically discuss): 

Weigh up the issues and make a judgement. You are expected to discuss the limitations, as well as the merits or contributions.

Define:

Give a clear, concise meaning. You should keep in mind the class to which a thing belongs and whatever differentiates the particular object from all the others in that class.

Diagram:

Present a drawing, chart, or plan, with clear, concise labels. In some cases you should also include a brief explanation or description.

Discuss:

Examine, and analyse, carefully all aspects of a topic. Present considerations for and against

Examine:

Investigate or research a topic and discuss in detail.

Illustrate:

Explain or clarify your answer by presenting a figure, picture, diagram or concrete example

Justify:

Prove, or show, grounds for your decisions or conclusions.

List (or enumerate):

Give the key points in a concise form. Notes, headings, tables, numbered points may be appropriate.

Review:

Analyse and discuss the key points or issues. Critically examine ideas and themes.

Summarise (or outline):

Give the main points or facts in a condensed form. Details, and usually illustrations or examples, may be omitted.

Useful tools

*It is always risky to try and precisely define, in isolation, the words used in essay instructions; these words can used in slightly different ways in different disciplines and by different lecturers. When you are interpreting assignment questions, consider the following:

  • what level is the course?
  • what are the course objectives?
  • what other guidelines have you been given by the lecturer?

Finally, don’t forget to ask for clarification from your course tutor, lecturer, or a Learning Advisor if you are unsure about what is required in an assignment.