How to Answer Essay Questions

Major points to remember when answering essay questions:

1.      The number one factor in doing well on a test is to be well prepared.  Know the material!

2.      Read the questions carefully.

3.      Mark all key words in the questions before writing answers.

4.      Do what the question asks or what the statement says.

5.      If uncertain about a question, check with the instructor before answering.

There are a variety of reasons why students don’t do well on essay questions.  One of the most common is that they don’t follow directions.  Students overlook key words in the essay questions that give directions on how to develop the answer and what to include.  Below is a list of key words.  These are the words to mark before starting to answer the question.  They will help you organize your answer, know what to say, and know when to conclude.

Analyze
Explain, step by step or point by point while writing. Pay attention to who, what, where, when, why, and how in the answer. Include strengths, weaknesses, pros and cons, research for and against.

Compare
Stress similarities and differences between objects, concepts, or ideas. (For example: "Compare operant and classical conditioning.”)

Contrast
Emphasize the differences and distinguishing characteristics in the response.

Define
Clearly state the meaning, list qualities, traits, or characteristics.

Describe
Include traits, characteristics, or retell a story including those facts that summarize the essential features.

Discuss
Present significant characteristics, pros and cons, pertinent research, and the significance of each. Develop the arguments for and against or analyze the advantages, disadvantages, or problems.

Evaluate
Emphasize positive and negative aspects. Include opinions and support these with some kind of proof, information, or examples. Normally, instructors don't like unsupported opinions from college students.

Examples
Use brief stories, analogies, relevant events, or similar instances to support general statements and main ideas.

Explain
Give reasons or justifications for something, or present causes, rationalizations, or how or why something occurred.

Interpret
Cover existing understandings of a topic. Paraphrase, translate, condense, simplify, and/or diagnose as you write.

Justify
Present rationale, reasons for conclusions, recommendations, or results. Use proof, research, examples, or quotes to support justifications.

List
Record topics in numerical, developmental, or chronological order. Many times a brief description or explanation is expected but the questions will usually request it if desired. If in doubt, ask your instructor.

Outline
Present your answer in terms of major points followed by clarifying details or facts. No elaboration is usually necessary. It is wise to find out if your instructor wishes for you to outline by listing only main and subordinate points in short numbered phrases or if they want you to use the narrative format with complete sentences/paragraphs.

Prove
Include factual evidence, research, logic, and/or scientific proof that substantiates a case, a specific position, or a set of hypotheses.

Relate
Clearly point out connections or relationships between 2 or more ideas.

Review
Mention important ideas, major points, and/or list topics from lecture or the textbook. Sometimes review means critically evaluate and/or give your opinion.

Summarize
List major ideas, concepts, and consequences in a short paragraph or a sentence. Could also mean present a brief abstract of main ideas, compose a concise resume covering only the highlights and relevant details. Little elaboration is necessary.

Trace
Discuss according to a pattern such as chronological order, according to a definite sequence, or by presenting phases or stages in order.

 

An additional suggestion for test taking is to think of the test as an opportunity to show your instructor what you know.  Maintain a positive attitude and think of the test as an opportunity to succeed rather than fail.  Avoid being negative which may cause you to have difficulty staying focused and recalling ideas and thoughts about the material that has been learned. 

 

 

 

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