You are here

Exam Preparation: Understanding Action Words in Questions

 

During COVID-19, Student Learning Commons services continue.
 
For the complete range, including consultations, support, workshops, handouts, and groups, see SLC services continue online.  

 

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.

Analyze

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

Argue

Defend a position

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

Apply

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

Comment

Offer statements on something

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

Compare

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

Contrast

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

Critique

Make informed and discriminating judgments

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

Define

State precisely the meaning of ‘something’

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

Demonstrate

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

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

Describe

Give a mental picture or idea

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

Discuss

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

Evaluate

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

Explain

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

Summarize

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