How to understand what an exam question is actually asking

How to understand what an exam question is actually asking

Have you ever received the feedback ‘You needed to answer the question more directly’?

Many students think that the solution to doing well in exams is to write a prepared essay, memorise it and then simply replicate it during the exam. But this is actually one of the most dangerous things you could do.

Let’s face it, you’re not going to be given the same question as the previous year. Or even in the last 5 years. Examiners know that students can access past papers (in fact, they are even encouraged to do so). So, writing even a perfect essay that doesn’t address the question certainly won’t increase your marks.

So, how can you make sure that you directly answer the set question?

Here are our top 5 tips.

1. Know The Cognitive Verbs

The cognitive verbs (or task verbs) indicate what sort of response is required.

The verbs most likely to appear on exam papers are defined in the QCAA Glossary as:

 ANALYSE: dissect to ascertain and examine constituent parts and/or their relationships; break down or examine in order to identify the essential elements, features, components or structure; determine the logic and reasonableness of information; examine or consider something in order to explain and interpret it, for the purpose of finding meaning or relationships and identifying patterns, similarities and differences

ARGUE: give reasons for or against something; challenge or debate an issue or idea; persuade, prove or try to prove by giving reasons

CALCULATE: determine or find (e.g. a number, answer) by using mathematical processes; obtain a numerical answer showing the relevant stages in the working; ascertain/determine from given facts, figures or information

COMPARE: display recognition of similarities and differences and recognise the significance of these similarities and differences

CONTRAST: display recognition of differences by deliberate juxtaposition of contrary elements; show how things are different or opposite; give an account of the differences between two or more items or situations, referring to both or all of them throughout

DISCUSS: examine by argument; sift the considerations for and against; debate; talk or write about a topic, including a range of arguments, factors or hypotheses; consider, taking into account different issues and ideas, points for and/or against, and supporting opinions or conclusions with evidence

EVALUATE: make an appraisal by weighing up or assessing strengths, implications and limitations; make judgments about ideas, works, solutions or methods in relation to selected criteria; examine and determine the merit, value or significance of something, based on criteria

EXPLAIN: make an idea or situation plain or clear by describing it in more detail or revealing relevant facts; give an account; provide additional information

INTERPRET: use knowledge and understanding to recognise trends and draw conclusions from given information; make clear or explicit; elucidate or understand in a particular way; bring out the meaning of, e.g. a dramatic or musical work, by performance or execution; bring out the meaning of an artwork by artistic representation or performance; give one’s own interpretation of; identify or draw meaning from, or give meaning to, information presented in various forms, such as words, symbols, pictures or graphs

JUSTIFY: give reasons or evidence to support an answer, response or conclusion; show or prove how an argument, statement or conclusion is right or reasonable

PROVE: use a sequence of steps to obtain the required result in a formal way

SYNTHESISE: combine different parts or elements (e.g. information, ideas, components) into a whole, in order to create new understanding

2. Know the genre in which you are required to respond.

Each genre has a definite structure, style, tone and voice. Look closely at the specified audience and purpose, as this will further determine your response style and content.

  • Does your response need to be written in fully formed paragraphs or will dot points suffice?
  • Does your voice need to be formal or informal?
  • How should this style of response be structured? Do you use headings and subheadings, or write one continuous essay?
  • Is it appropriate to express a personal opinion, or should you remain factual and impartial?
  • Use past papers to familiarise yourself with the question style and phrasing.

 3. Tricks for Short Response

  • Choose your words carefully and be succinct. Select only the most relevant information.
  • Be sure to structure your responses in the expected manner.
  • Check whether you need to write in complete sentences and paragraphs. In the new syllabus there is a communication criteria on every assessment task, so it is important that you communicate effectively and write the way you are expected.
  • Use the number of marks and lines allocated to help you calculate how much information is expected in your response.
  • You may be asked to provide evidence for something, but not be told how many pieces of evidence. Use the number of marks as an indication.
  • If the question asks you to compare, you will also need to contrast.
  • Look for any clues in the wording of the question that will indicate how much detail is required in your answer.
  • Structure your response so that your marker doesn’t have to do too much work.
  • In Maths, make sure that you clearly show all working. You can get the final answer wrong, but may still get part marks if the marker can follow your line of thought.
  • In short response questions use the PEEL paragraph format – start with your main point and then provide the Explanation, Evidence and Examples to support it. Finish with a strong link sentence that ties it all back to the question..

 4. Tricks for Multiple Choice Papers.

  • Read the question first, then any text., This way you know what you are looking for.
  • Look for any ‘trick’ words eg a negative question, ‘Which of the following is not the result of global warming?’
  • Before you look at the options, try to answer the question. Then look to see if your answer is one of the options.
  • If it is, select it and move on.
  • Don’t waste time reading the other options. You may also confuse yourself and become uncertain of your initial response.
  • Otherwise, read all 4 answer options
  • Of the 4 answers there will usually be 1 you can discard immediately – 2 if you are lucky.
  • If an option is ‘always’ try to think of one example that doesn’t fit. Then you know this option is wrong.
  • If an option is ‘never’, try to think of one example where it does happen. Then you know this option is wrong.
  • See if one of the remaining options is a simile for a word in the text.
  • Eliminate any responses that aren’t on the same theme as the text
  • Be wary of options that are a valid stand alone statement. While the information may be correct, it may not be an appropriate response to the question.
  • Go with your gut. Boys tend to do better at multiple choice because they have the courage of their convictions. Girls tend to 2nd guess themselves and change a correct answer to an incorrect.
  • Check to see if there are penalties for incorrect answers. If not, have a guess. You have a 25% chance of getting it right!
  • As you go on to the next question check if there is any information in it that will trigger your memory to answer the previous question that stumped you.
  • If you choose to leave a question and come back to it, clearly mark the missed question on your question booklet and on your answer sheet. Watch carefully that you do in fact leave a space, otherwise every answer from there on will be for the wrong question.

 5. Tips for Essay Responses

  • If you are given a choice of questions, choose the one you feel you can confidently write the most about. You could make a few notes next to each question to help you decide which one to choose.
  • But don’t waste too much time deciding – you want to leave yourself as much time as possible for planning.
  • Don’t ever change questions ½ way through!
  • Don’t use opinionative, critiquing or persuasive language
  • Keep your language formal, use the appropriate voice and tense
  • Avoid hyperbole, description and emotive words
  • Make your writing sophisticated – use subject and topic specific vocabulary.
  • Learn the meaning and spelling of key words.

Above all, stay calm – you’ve got this!