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Exam Preparation: Understanding Action Words in Questions


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Exam and assignment questions typically contain one or more key question words.

  • Watch for and circle these key words whenever you read assignment or exam questions.
  • Below are listed typical question words, their meanings and possible response strategies.


Separate and examine the elements

  • Break the question/subject into its major parts
  • Describe, define, explain, or interpret each part
  • Explain how parts relate to each other
  • Judge overall quality of what has been analyzed


Defend a position

  • Provide reasons in support of your position
  • Refute objections to your position
  • Provide your objections to the opposing position(s)


Use an abstraction to explain a concrete situation

  • Show how an abstract idea, concept, principle, model or method explains a concrete situation or solves a problem


Offer statements on something

  • Critique, discuss, evaluate, explain, or illustrate the meaning of something and its implications


Demonstrate the similarities and differences between 2+ items

  • Identify elements the comparison will be based on
  • For each element, describe and support how items are similar or different
  • Evaluate overall commonality and its significance in relation to what is being asked in the question


Demonstrate the differences between 2+ items

  • Identify elements that contrast will be based on
  • For each element, describe and support how items are different
  • Evaluate overall distinction and its significance in relation to what is being asked in the question


Make informed and discriminating judgments

  • Identify positive/negative merit, validity/fallacy, etc.
  • Offer support for your judgments


State precisely the meaning of ‘something’

  • Give precise meaning in concise manner
  • Meaning is usually specific to the academic discipline


Explain/describe by use of experiments, examples, etc.

  • Depending on context, ‘demonstrate’ could mean: to prove, provide evidence, or illustrate with an example


Give a mental picture or idea

  • Identify main aspects, characteristics, components, and qualities
  • Clarify through illustration, comparison, and contrast


Explore various points of view

  • Identify viewpoints and their respective positive/negative aspects
  • Evaluate the positive and negative merits of a matter to provide an overall judgment on its validity, strength or worth


Determine the value of something

  • Identify criteria by which something will be measured
  • Appraise degree to which the matter satisfies the criteria
  • Provide reasons that justify your appraisal
  • Support your reasons with evidence and illustrations


Make plain or understandable

  • In Science: provide a detailed presentation of the elements required to obtain the product
  • In Social Sciences & Humanities: identify factors that influence outcome; provide evidence for each factor and demonstrate how factors are related


Give a brief, condensed account

  • Include conclusions
  • Avoid unnecessary details


Sources: Ellis, D. Becoming a Master Student.  Canadian 2nd ed. Boston, Mass: Houghton Mifflin Company  1998 and Canadian 4th  ed.  Boston, Mass: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006.  Wood, N. College Reading and Study Skills. 3rd ed. New York, N.Y.: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1986.  Learning Skills Program @ University of Victoria Simplified Plans of Action for Common Types of Question Words