Search for courses or information

Understanding the question

UEL east london aerial

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.

Step 1 – Note the key information
  • Read through all the assessment guidance you have been given.
  • Note the key information about what’s required, such as:
Word count
Hand-in date
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.
  • discuss
  • impact of the National Minimum Wage on the UK economy  
  • effect on employment in particular  
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.
  • describe
  • explain
  • critically evaluate
  • major improvements in HIV drug therapies
  • impact on availability of treatment
  • since 1990s
  • one developing country
  • Use the table below to help you interpret common instruction words used in different types of essay:
Instruction words Interpretation
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
Critically evaluate/
Critically discuss
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

: There is obviously some overlap between some of these terms but these definitions will help guide your understanding.

Step 4 – Make a note of your initial analysis

  • 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?
- employment
- 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

Or you could make a list, adding other ideas you have brainstormed, like these bullet points:

  • National Minimum Wage
    • History, when introduced, why
    • How it’s changed over the years
    • What is it now, how is it enforced
  • UK Economy
    • relationship NMW to UK Economy?
    • areas of the economy potentially affected by NMW? BRIEFLY
      • employment and …
      • benefits?
      • GDP and productivity?
      • consumer spending?
      • incomes from taxation?
      • business start ups/failures, outsourcing/offshoring?
  • Effects on employment in UK – DETAILS – look at data over time
    • Unemployment?
    • number of part-time/casual jobs, private/public sector jobs?
    • Particular impact on skilled/unskilled workers, people with disabilities?
    • relationships with unions/industrial disputes?
  • Arguments/discussions
    • Main data/research studies
    • what are the different conclusions?
    • cause and effect relationship/other relationships?
    • main arguments put forward to explain effects
    • evidence-based or political/ideological?
    • could effects be explained by other factors?
    (You may have key references here already from the module learning)
  • My conclusions ….
  • (You may or may not have initial ideas what these might be)
  • 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.
Step 5 – Plan your research

  • 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.
Step 6 – Ask for help if necessary

  • 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.