Understanding instruction words in academic essay titles

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Instruction or command words indicate what your tutor wants you to do in your written assignment. It's vital that you understand exactly what these instruction words mean so you can answer all parts of the essay question and provide a complete response.

Here's a list of some of the most common instruction/command words you'll see in essay questions (and examination questions as well), together with an explanation of what they mean.

Describe:     Give a detailed account of…

Outline:        Give the main features/general principles; don't include 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. For example: 'Explain X and its importance for Y'.

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 procedures for Comment on, Criticise, Evaluate, Critically Evaluate and Assess.

Analyse: (An analysis)     Break down into component parts. Examine critically or closely.

How far, How true, To what extent:        These suggest there are various views on 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 clear. These words suggest that two situations or 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 main factors and excluding 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, solve 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. This does not usually involve giving too much detail.

List:                   Make a list of a number of things. This usually involves simply remembering or finding out a number of things and putting them down one after the other.

Plan:                  Think about how something is to be done, made, organised, etc.

Report on:      Describe what you have seen or done.

Review:           Write a report on something.

Specify:           Give the details of something.

Work out:      Find a solution to a problem.


Adapted from:  Coles, M. (1995), A Student’s Guide to Coursework Writing,  University of Stirling, Stirling 

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