Answering Questions

This covers tutorials, essays and exams.

Words and phrases in an Answer
Strategies for Essay Writing (Compare)
Avoiding Plagiarism with Electronic Texts
Strategies for Tutorial Papers
Strategies for Exams


Every single one of these explanations is compromised by the question in hand. The word "topic" below refers to the given question, that is the determined specific part of a subject area.

Account for Display the development and/ or underlying causes of the topic.
Analyse Examine in terms of constituent parts (causes, effects; contents) and how they work as a whole.
Argue Give informed cases for and against with an opinion to conclude based on the evidence and comparative strengths of argument as given.
Assess Give evaluative argument based on concrete evidence of some quantitative impact.
Attribute Usually requiring some judgment, this requires some abstracting (bringing out in summary form) of all specific and given traits, dimensions and characteristics of a topic that relate to some equally determined quality.
Compare Give the evidence, hypotheses and arguments and track their similarities (plus some differences as they arise in order to highlight other similarities) in closer detail than compare and contrast.
Compare and Contrast Give the evidence, hypotheses and arguments and their similarities and differences.
Contrast Give the evidence, hypotheses and arguments and track their differences (plus some similarities as they arise in order to highlight other differences) in closer detail than compare and contrast.
Consider Get involved with the meaning of the evidence, hypotheses and arguments.
Criticise This does not mean simply a negative account but in taking the evidence, hypotheses and arguments give closely observed judgment.
Define Give the meaning of something that opens it out to further understanding
Demonstrate A very concrete approach to explanation of evidence, hypotheses and arguments involving elucidation that must include examples
Describe Make something clear by opening it out through much detail.
Discuss Not a conversational style but a close, one way and then another (not necessarily binary but multiple too), set of arguments that coherently runs through the evidence or theories so that there is a sense of balance through the examination to finally give an opinion based on what is written.
Enumerate This is a descriptive examination focussing hard on an individual topic, which has a concrete even numerical quality, listing and adding up the evidence, making the arguments count, looking at almost the quantitative weight of theories by impact.
Evaluate With an emphasis on the qualitative and allowing for subjective personal perspective, bring out the qualities and lack of qualities in the evidence, theories and arguments of a topic.
Examine A close, dissection of a topic without bias if with an overall conclusion.
Explain Along with a detailed account, give some commentary, clarification and even justification for the why or how of the evidence, theories and arguments of a topic.
How? This asks to what extent or amount or degree is something the case and also in what way or manner or by what means does something come about.
If This is a condition of when something is the case, then something else may follow; in terms of a question it could introduce a counterfactual reality that needs following through.
Illustrate Bring out a rounded picture of a topic using actual examples, in the way an art critic might examine a painting.
Indicate Point to the key features of a topic.
Interpret Make a more rounded and clearer sense of a topic that brings out its main features so that it can be understood in another way and maybe even to a (virtual) person who needs to learn the subject diffferently.
Justify This means not simply show the reasonableness of something but rather demonstrate the strength of evidence, the power of the arguments and the applicability of the theories of a topic, whilst taking into account the weaknesses.
List This asks for a limited enumeration with a focus on the main points of a topic.
Outline This asks for a limited examination focussing on the big areas and not the details in order to give a rounded and eventual summary view of the topic area.
Prove Take the relevant theories and arguments of a topic and attempt to demonstrate them through the evidence.
Relate Create a holistic picture of a topic by showing the connections between parts.
Review Go back over the evidence, theories and arguments of a topic to examine certain conclusions reached before. This may be limited to literature reviewing, which should always be done with the topic in mind rather than literature centred.
State With some detail give a description.
Summarise In effect restate the main points of the evidence, theories and arguments of a topic as required without getting into detailed accounts.
Trace Starting at a suitable point, go through the main history of a topic's development.
What? A description is usually required and, if deeper, what is meant.
When? This asks at what time and in what process did something come about.
Where? This asks for a place or location for something; examples can be the placing of a theory, the correct order of an argument, the relevance of evidence. Often there is confusion with time, a where in time rather than in space and there needs to be clarity in the answer if this confusion has been presented in a question.
Why? This usually needs a reason for something, in other words its grounding, or how come it came about as it did so to give a cause or intention underlying an action or situation.

(See CDE a, 2003 for its versions; see also Worsfold, 2002)

Words and phrases in an Answer

Answers to a question contain certain functional types of words and phrases According to Centre for Educational Development and Support, Victoria University, Australia (CED a, 2003), the questions directly involve process words and phrases (how to arrange the text), but they must involve limiting words and content too even if these fall under the governing process.

Content Limiting Process
Description of the general topic: straightforward and without bias Specific focus on the question excluding others and even the explicit exclusion of others Choice and ordering of evidence
Choice and order of the theories used
Deductive (hypothesis/ theory first, arguing and relevant evidence from it) or Inductive method (evidence first building an argument and ending with an evident hypothesis)
Arguments employed with a topic.

(See CED b, 2003)

Strategies for Essay writing
Avoiding Plagiarism with Electronic Texts

These strategies take into account people lifting text from the Internet and optical character reading (scanning) sources from books and journals, both of which can become highly dangerous strategies in terms of academic rules of producing work of one's own. The best method is to have a dedicated text processor (eg NoteTab or mdiNotepad) before using a word processor, to gather material on different files, throw it around and change words and phrases.

NoteTab, as some other processors, uses a tabbed interface allowing several files to be opened at once (mdiNotepad cascades and tiles). NoteTab can show two documents at once (Shift+Control+W) and text pieces can be dragged across (copies).

With Notetab, use a new page and select Control+Shift+P to produce a pasteboard. With mdiNotepad use Edit and Autopaste. Enter the date and time (F5 NT; Shift+F5 MN). Minimise. Go on the Internet. For each web page visited, click on the URL in the browser above the web page itself and click Control+C. The pasteboard automatically records a separator plus the copied URL. Then highlight and copy (control+C each time) sections of text each time (with separators added). For .PDF files take a note of the page number each time.

Scanning using OCR needs a comparison of the book or journal section and the original. Full details of the sourcing need to be recorded with the text in the saved file. A text file is recommended.

As lifting and scanning takes place, use a different text file to bring items together.

The best way to avoid plagiarism in an essay is to read all these gathered sources in the text processor, make any further notes including summary points from them on another tabbed document, get an idea in mind of the whole topic area, and - perhaps after writing an essay plan on another tabbed document - write something through without much recourse to the notes and all that text, only then filling in the details from the notes and pasting in verbatim quotations. The conclusion should be the idea in mind suitably refined, and the introduction (perhaps the last thing to do) is a conclusion without giving away the whole plot. Keep the sources with the text on other files, but start to build up a bibliography which NoteTab (and other some other text processors) can place into alphabetical order. Once the essay is under way, transfer to a word processor for formatting.

Nevertheless, if this confident approach is not possible, there are other strategies to employ.

(See CEDS b, CEDS c, 2003)

It has to be said that the above methods may not be enough: an essay constructed like this leaves itself open to chunks that are insufficiently one's own. Plagiarism is not simply reproducing verbatim text unsourced, or too much of someone else's text if sourced, but also includes following a text and its author's ideas too closely without adding in one's own steering through the evidence, theories and arguments so presented and failing to insert one's own commentary along the way.

The point about essay writing, and examination answers, is to show understanding and the ability to write about it meaningfully oneself, not the ability to reconstruct what someone else and even a few other people have done. They provide sources of information, theories and arguments rather than constructions for reuse.

People who lift webpages and replace and rearrange a few words can still be successfully prosecuted for plagiarism.

Strategies for Tutorial Papers

Tutorial papers may not need to be written out in full, so they can be a series of cues for presentation. The key here then needs to be the narrative.

Essentially the presentation is a talk. It may carry visual aids and may not. Rules of giving talks then apply. The talk needs a good launch, giving within that launch the central issues being tackled. It needs a narrative method, using either inductive (building up to a conclusion from the evidence) or deductive (working from a hypothesis to the evidence) line of reasoning. An academic tutorial paper should refer to key texts, and perhaps even have something of the briefest literary review within it (to point to sources with commentary according to the topic's needs). The talk should put points that raise discussion, so it is acceptable to have less balance than in an essay. Certainly the conclusion, which contains no extra information, should be of the sort that puts the issue over to everyone else. It means to some extent they will ask questions of the speaker, for which extra preparation is necessary, as well as having discussion around the room.

Whilst it is usually acceptable to read verbatim from a paper, this can have a deadening effect. Such a preparation has a density that needs reading rather than hearing. A talk should come back to the topic theme many times, with some repetition of key points, for the purposes of the listeners' retention. Technical jargon, except that which everyone should know, should be kept out. Read like a newsreader (staccato - punchy emphasis delivery) to get a cross the simplicity of the words. By the time a conclusion is reached everyone should have developed a mind-picture from these words and realise the angle taken, with which there can be some debate

Strategies for Exam Answers

The first point is there is no alternative to thorough revision, and in the past I have found reducing lecture notes down, recording them by microphone and playing through headphones many times while reading has a huge impact when remembering details in the exam room. The essential notes must follow the logic of the arguments and then there is a double reminder.

Do not gamble by revising well say two thirds of a syllabus. Other areas of a syllabus often provide support for the areas being answered. A wealth of remembered information cannot be useless.

It is essential to answer the question put. These days, however, marking exams is generous, and whilst once can gain marks for correct elements written down it is not possible to lose marks for incorrect or irrelevant elements put down. So there is always the random possibility of extra marks through volume of writing. Volume is not a substitute for an answer that is focussed and shows real understanding, but no one is marking the beauty of an examination answer. If there is time, keep writing.

The point of doing a brief answer plan is to get the essential points out in a relevant logical order in the quickest possible time, but it must be the case that as the writing flow kicks in the tape recording comes back to mind and there is so much more to add. So volume and additional likely relevant information is important.

There is no point going over time on two or three answers on the basis they are good and marks can be poicked up and then leaving not enough time for the last answer or even leaving one unanswered. This is often a mistake made in exams. Marks in exams rarely fall below 30% and higher than 75% each, so mathematically it is most advantageous to write all answers with sufficient time allocated. So volume and time should be fairly equally distributed. Watching the clock is therefore essential.

Note that this does not wholly apply to essays as they will get higher marks for an impressive, focussed, rounded, piece of work that shows understanding. Waffle and lack of focus afterwards can harm the finished result in terms of added top marks, whereas exam conditions always make an answer somewhat rough. The editing process should place extra information thought up into the body of the essay with the relevant narrative process for the evidence, theories and arguments.


Centre for Educational Development and Support (CEDS a), Victoria University, Australia, Appendix A: Glossary of ‘Process´ words frequently used in academic questions, [Online], Available World Wide Web, URL: [Accessed December 29, 2003, 23:45]

Centre for Educational Development and Support (CEDS b), Victoria University, Australia, Preparing for tutorials: Answering discussion and review questions in Microeconomic Principles, [Accessed December 29, 2003, 23:50]

Centre for Educational Development and Support (CEDS c), Victoria University, Australia, Tutorial Preparation, [Online], Available World Wide Web, URL: [Accessed December 29, 2003, 23:56]

For more on essays (including (questions) see Worsfold, A. J. (2002), Writing an Essay, [Online], Available World Wide Web, URL: