Instruction or command words indicate what your tutor would like you to do in your written assignment. It is vital that you understand exactly what these instruction words mean so that you can address all parts of the assignment question and provide a comprehensive and complete response.
Here is a list of some of the main instruction/command words most commonly used in essay questions (and examination questions as well), together with explanations.
Describe: Give a detailed account of…
Outline: Give the main features/general principles omitting minor details
Explain, Account for, Interpret: Describe the facts but also give causes and reasons for them. Depending on the context, these words may also suggest that you need to make the possible implications clear as well. Explain X and its importance for Y is an example.
Comment on, Criticise, Evaluate, Critically Evaluate, Assess: Judge the value of something. But first, analyse, describe and explain. Then go through the arguments for and against, laying out the arguments neutrally until the section where you make your judgement clear. Judgements should be backed by reasons and evidence.
Discuss, consider: The least specific of the instruction words. Decide, first of all, what the main issues are. Then follow the same procedure s for Comment on, Criticise, Evaluate, Critically Evaluate and Assess
Analyse: (An analysis) Break down into component parts. Examine critically or minutely.
How far, How true, To what extent: These suggest there are various views on the subject and various aspects to the subject. Outline some of them, evaluate their strengths and weaknesses, explore alternatives and then give your judgement.
Justify: Explain, with evidence, why something is the case, answering the main objections to your view as you go along.
Refute: Give evidence to prove why something is not the case.
Compare, Contrast, Distinguish, Differentiate, Relate: All require that you discuss how things are related to each other. Compare suggests you concentrate on similarities, which may lead to a stated preference, the justification of which should be made explicit. These words suggest that two situations/ideas can be compared in a number of different ways, or from a variety of viewpoints. Contrast suggests you concentrate on differences
Define: Write down the precise meaning of a word or phrase. Sometimes several co-existing definitions may be used and, possibly, evaluated.
Illustrate: Make clear and explicit; usually requires the use of carefully chosen examples.
State: Give a concise, clear explanation or account of…
Summarise: Give a concise, clear explanation or account of…presenting the chief factors and omitting minor detail or examples (see also Outline).
Trace: Outline or follow the development of something from its initiation or point of origin
Devise: Think up, work out a plan, solution to a problem, etc.
Apply (to): Put something to use, show how something can be used in a particular situation.
Identify: Put a name to, list something
Indicate: Point out; does not usually involve giving very much detail
List: Make a list of a number of things. Usually involves simply remembering or finding out a number of things and putting them down one after the other
Plan: Think out how something is to be done, made, organised, etc.
Report on: Describe what one has seen or done
Review: Write a report on something
Specify: Give the details of something
Work out: Find a solution to a problem, etc.
Adapted from: Coles, M. (1995), A Student’s Guide to Coursework Writing, University of Stirling, Stirling