Understanding the question
Even a well-written, correctly referenced essay will not receive a good mark if it doesn’t answer the question that has been set. Before you begin reading, making notes or writing a plan, you must make sure you understand the question properly. This guide will help you to interpret your essay title and direct your research.
- Read through all the assessment guidance you have been given.
- Note the key information about what’s required, such as:
Submission instructions – usually e-submission via Turnitin Grademark
Any other guidance e.g. particular marking criteria, specific resources to consult, relevant parts of the module learning to use.
Step 2 – Think about the title overall
Copy the essay title exactly word-for-word onto a piece of paper.
Read through it 2 or 3 times, noticing what thoughts come up each time.
Ask yourself questions to shape your understanding, for example:
What is the focus of this question – what is it about?
What do you know about this area already?
How does it relate to what you have studied so far?
What is the question asking you to do exactly?
Rewrite the question in your own words and compare your version to the actual question. This can help highlight areas where you’re not sure what is expected.
Note: Only refer to the exact original question when you come to write the essay.
Step 3 - Break the title down
- Highlight the key words and phrases in different colours.
- Essay titles typically break down into 3 components:
instruction/directive/action words – these tell you what to do
themes/subjects/topics – these tell you what the essay is about
restrictions/limits/boundaries – these narrow the subject down to specific contexts or aspects.
- Being clear on each of these areas is very important to give direction to your research and your approach to the answer.
Here are two examples:
|Discuss the impact of the National Minimum Wage on the UK economy with particular reference to the effect on employment in the UK.|
|Describe and explain the major improvements to drug therapies to treat HIV since the 1990s and critically evaluate the effects of these improvements on the availability of treatment in one developing country.|
- Use the table below to help you interpret common instruction words used in different types of essay:
|Analyse||Break down a topic, examine it in detail and identify important points|
|Assess||Look at strengths/weaknesses, pros/cons, advantages/disadvantages, similarities/differences of the subject|
|Compare||Look at similarities and differences of the subject in a systematic way and indicate their relevance|
|Contrast||Look at two or more opposing ideas on the subject, focus on the differences between them and indicate their relevance|
|Weigh arguments for and against the subject, assessing the strength of the evidence - make sure you use different viewpoints|
|Critique||Examine the strengths and weaknesses of the subject from multiple viewpoints, assessing their various merits|
|Describe||Give the main characteristics, features, events etc. of the subject, consider different definitions|
|Discuss||Write about the subject in detail from several angles and consider arguments and debates around the issues|
|Examine||Look at the subject in detail as if under a microscope|
|Explain||Define the subject, account for it, make it clear and assess the reasoning behind the concept / theory / issue etc.|
|Illustrate||Explain the subject with examples|
|Outline||Give only the main points of the subject|
|State||Present the subject briefly and clearly|
|Summarise||Pull together the main characteristics or features or events of the subject in a succinct way|
|Trace||Follow the order of different stages in an event or process|
Note: There is obviously some overlap between some of these terms but these definitions will help guide your understanding.
- Capture your early interpretation of the question in any written form that suits you.
- This could just be a simple table listing the 3 key areas described above, for example:
Discuss the impact of the National Minimum Wage on the UK economy with particular reference to the effect on employment in the UK.
|Instruction||What do I need to do?|
|- Discuss||- look at NMW and economy/employment from different angles
- what are main arguments and viewpoints about effects of NMW on economy/employment?
- assess strengths/weaknesses of evidence put forward for different conclusions
|Subjects||What am I writing about?|
|- National Minimum Wage in UK
- impact on UK economy
|- history and background of NMW
- relationship with economy
- what main areas does it affect and how (brief)
|Restrictions||What areas do I focus on?|
- UK context
|- range of possible impacts on employment/unemployment
- research studies/data showing links with employment – look at historical data
- arguments/conclusions put forward to explain the relationships
- You might prefer to brainstorm in graphical formats like mindmaps or spider diagrams, for example:
- As you read and make notes, you can develop a more detailed mindmap that contains ideas on what you might include in your answer.
- Remember, these early notes will not necessarily reflect the structure of your essay but they will guide your research and help you to keep your focus on what is and isn’t required in your answer.
- Once you have analysed the title, it should be straightforward to start planning your research.
- Make a list of the topics and the types of sources you are looking for e.g. textbooks, journal articles, statistics, newspaper articles etc.
- Ask yourself if there is anything that you’re still not sure about and you need to check with your tutor. It’s much better act on this now rather than half way through your first draft!
Keep these initial plans and list of other requirements handy for reference as you read. Your basic interpretation of the focus of the question should not change, but as you read you will develop your understanding and start to plan your answer in more detail.