Understanding essay questions

The following guide has been created for you by the Student Learning Advisory Service, for more detailed guidance and to speak to one of our advisers, please book an appointment or join one of our online workshops

Understanding the essay question is the first and most important step you will undertake with any assignment, as without fully understanding the task you cannot respond to it. Consider the key elements in the question e.g. Examine the role of women in Parliament since 1918, with reference to key Equality legislation and ask yourself:

  • What is the main subject of the question? (e.g. Parliament)
  • Is there a particular aspect of that subject the question is asking you to consider? (e.g. the role of women in Parliament)
  • Does the question indicate any limits to your answer? (e.g. the role of women in Parliament since 1918)
  • What is the ‘instruction verb’ in the question asking you to do? (e.g. Examine the role of women in Parliament since 1918)
  • In addition, is the question asking you to demonstrate any specific areas of module knowledge? (e.g. Examine the role of women in Parliament since 1918, with reference to key Equality legislation)

Identifying and understanding these different elements of your question will allow you to answer it confidently, directly and fully. If a question is long and complicated break it down into its component parts and consider what each is asking you to do.

Above all, do what the instruction verb is telling you to do:

Instruction What you are asked to do
Account for Give reasons for; explain (give an account of; describe).
Analyse Give an organised answer looking at all aspects
Compare Look for similarities and differences between; perhaps conclude which is preferable
Contrast Bring out the differences
Criticise Give your judgement on theories or opinions or facts and back this by discussing evidence or reasoning involved.
Deduce Conclude; infer.
Define Give the precise meaning.  Examine the different possible or often used definitions
Demonstrate Show clearly by giving proof or evidence.
Describe Give a detailed, full account of.
Determine Find out something; calculate
Discuss Investigate or examine by argument; debate; give reason for and against; examine the implications of.
Elucidate Explain and make clear.
Estimate Calculate; judge; predict.
Evaluate Appraise the worth of something in the light of its truth or usefulness; assess and explain.
Examine Look at carefully; consider.
Explain Make plain and clear; interpret the account for; give reasons for.
Identify Point out and describe.
Illustrate Explain, clarify, and make clear by the use of concrete examples.
Infer Conclude something from facts or reasoning.
Interpret Expound the meaning; make clear and explicit, giving your own judgement.
Justify Show adequate grounds for decisions or conclusions and answer main objections likely to be made to them.
Outline Give a short description of the main points; give the main features or general principles; emphasise the structure, leaving out minor details


Show that something is true or certain; provide strong evidence (and examples) for.
Review Make a survey, examining the subject carefully
State Present in a brief, clear form.
Summarise Give a concise account of the chief points of a matter, leaving out details/examples
Trace Follow the development of topic from its origin.
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