One of the keys to taking an exam, especially the essay or short-answer types, are understanding what it is the questions on the exam are asking you to do. Below are some key terms to keep in mind.
“¢ Compare: Emphasise similarities between two or more sources, or show how they relate to one another.
“¢ Contrast: Stress differences between two or more pieces.
“¢ Criticise: Express your judgement on the material, and discuss its limitations, good points, contributions, correctness, merit, etc.
“¢ Define: Calls for clear and concise meanings. Details aren’t required, but limitations of the definition should be briefly noted.
“¢ Describe: Recount, characterise, sketch, or relate information in a narrative form.
“¢ Diagram: You should use a drawing, chart, table, or other graphical representation in your answer, and perhaps add labels and a brief explanation.
“¢ Discuss: Examine, analyse, and present considerations (pro and con). This type of question calls for as complete an answer as you can give.
“¢ Enumerate: Specifies a list or outline form of reply. In questions like this you should detail the required points one by one, and in concise form.
“¢ Evaluate: Present an appraisal of the material, with emphasis on both limitations and advantages. It’s implied that both an authoritative and, though to a lesser degree, personal appraisal of the material.
“¢ Explain: With answers to questions like these, it is important that you clarify and interpret the material you’re presenting. State the “how” or “why”, and, where possible and applicable, relate the causes. The goal is to make plain the conditions which led to the material you are covering.
“¢ Illustrate: It is usually expected, with questions like this, for you to present some form of concrete example that explains or clarifies your answer.
“¢ Interpret: These are similar to “explanation” style questions. You are expected to translate, exemplify, solve, or comment on the material, and usually to give your own reaction to that material.
“¢ Justify: Prove or show grounds for decisions, with evidence formatted in a convincing manner.
“¢ List: These are similar to “enumeration” question. Your answers will be expected in an itemised format, and termed concisely.
“¢ Outline: Your main points, and other essential information, should be presented in a systematic manner, as an organised description.
“¢ Prove: Answers to such questions require verification, and in such answers you should establish your proofs by citing evidence or using logical reasoning.
“¢ Relate: Your answer should emphasize connections and associations in a descriptive manner.
“¢ Review: Questions like these expect a critical examination. Your answer should consist of an analysis and brief commentary, systematically organised upon the material’s major points.
“¢ State: In questions which direct you to specify, give, state, or present, you’re expected to express the main points in a brief, clear narrative form. Minutia and examples may be omitted.
“¢ Summarise: In a condensed format, give the main points or facts of the material, leaving out details, examples, and elaboration.
“¢ Trace: Give a description of the progress of events, a sequence, or development from a chosen point. Deduction, and some probing, may be expected.
Adapted from: Writing the Essay Type Examination: http://www.history.ohio-state.edu/essayexm.htm (Communication Skills Development Center, Division of Student Affairs, University of South Carolina)