Evaluating the essay question

When you first sit down to confront an essay question you need to spend some time 'unpacking' its meaning.

Your essay question (if set for you) will often contain some key 'clue' words which will help you evaluate what is being asked of you.

The first step, before you put pen to paper, is to evaluate what you are being asked to produce.

You also need to take a broad overview of the question, encompassing all of its component parts.

First work out what you are being asked to do, for example: 'Explain this....', 'What is this trying to achieve.....'. In an essay question 'Discuss ...', 'Compare and contrast...', 'To what extent...', are all common formulations, and express the main aim of the essay.

You will find a glossary of common phrases used in essay questions below.

Use this each time to ensure that you are addressing the essay question asked.

Then take a broad overview of the question.

Ensure that you pay attention to all of the question's component parts.

This is especially important for multiple-part questions, where it is easy to jump into one part and miss others.

By now you should have a good 'feel' for what the question is demanding of you - but you should read any general guidance points given, and the learning outcomes (if these have been provided by your learning institution) - underline or highlight anything that strikes you as important or helpful.

This will help to focus your thoughts each time you refer to the essay question.

Glossary of common phrases used in essay questions


Resolve into component parts.

Examine critically or minutely


Determine the value of, weigh up (see 'Evaluate')


Look for similarities and differences between, perhaps reach conclusions about which is preferable


Think about and examine carefully


Set in opposition in order to bring out differences


Make judgements (backed by discussion of the evidence or reasoning involved) about the merit of theories or opinions, or the truth of facts


State the exact meaning of a word or phrase.

In some cases it may be necessary or desirable to examine different possible or often-used definitions


Give a detailed or graphic account


Explain, then give two or more sides of the issue and any implications


Make an appraisal of the worth or validity or effectiveness of something in the light of its truth or usefulness (see 'Assess')


Make plain; interpret and account for; give reasons


Examine or investigate systematically

How far

Determine to what extent. Usually this involves looking at evidence or arguments for and against, and weighing them up


Make clear and explicit.

Usually requires the use of carefully chosen examples


Explain the meaning of, make clear and explicit, usually giving judgement


Show adequate grounds for decisions or conclusions, answer the main objections likely to be made about them


Give the main features or general principles of a subject, omitting minor details, and emphasising structure and argument (see 'Summarise')


Present in brief, clear form


Give a concise, clear explanation or account of. Present the chief factors and omit minor details and examples (see 'Outline')

>(Source: Open University : Assessment Guide 1, W100, Appendix)