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Before answering examination questions, you need to understand exactly what the examiner expects from you. There are certain words which often feature in the language of examinations and every student ought to know what each stands for in order to provide accurate and concise answers. These words include:

(a) “Discuss”
This requires an answer that should explain a concept or idea, and go ahead to provide supporting details. You must also supply points for and against the concept, giving explanations for the points put forward. This is one of the most difficult types of essay questions to answer.

(b) “Describe”
This type of question requires careful and systematic presentation of details. Questions requiring description involves the presentation of the major features, characteristics and behaviour of someone or something. Descriptions can be objective such as in scientific writing where personal biases are absent. When descriptions are subjective, it means that they are based on the personal opinions or views of the writer or speaker. This is one of the commonest type of essay questions.

(c) “Compare”
Questions of this nature require that concepts are placed beside each other, their similarities and differences are highlighted. A balanced answer is expected.

(d) “Contrast”
This requires an answer that portrays only the differences between the items or concepts.

(e) “Criticise”
In this type of question, the student is required to show the weaknesses of a concept as well as the positive aspects of the concept. A balanced answer is expected.

(f) “Analyse”
Here, the student is expected to take a concept apart and then consider all the aspects one after the other. The answer is expected to be logically organised. Careful planning is required to do justice to this type of question.

(g) “Define”
This type of question demands that your answer provides the exact meaning of a concept or idea; probably followed by further explanation. Many definitions, especially in the sciences tend to follow the definition–pattern: Name of concept + is/are + class + wh-word + special feature. For example: A dentist is a person who takes care of people’s teeth. You may then go on to explain the definition by providing further related details.

(h) “Evaluate”
This is similar to ‘discuss’ except that here there is the requirement that your conclusion makes a judgment ‘for’ or ‘against’ the concept. Here, you have to take a stand, unlike ‘discuss’ where you present the two sides (“pro” and “con” ) while appearing aloof.

(i) “Justify”
In this type of question, your answer is expected to provide only the reasons for a position taken, probably on an issue that is controversial.

(j) “Explain”
This requires that in your answer, you present a precise but detailed explanation of the concept, situation, or attitude. You must show a logical development and organisation of thoughts, particularly through the use of link-words and paragraphs.

(k) “State”
This requires an answer that briefly expresses the important points. Supporting details are not needed here.

(l) “Trace”
This is common in historical questions. Your answer is required to show a logical and chronological description of a process, an event, a theory, a tribe, a discovery, etc. Your answer is expected to be precise and concise.

(m) “Summarise” or “Outline”
Here, your answer should be short, providing only the main points and not the supporting details.

(n) “Prove” or “Disprove”
These require answers that portray logical reasoning. Usually, they are argumentative and your answer should persuade the reader to your side of the argument. Here, you take a stand or stance and defend it.


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