Essay question words explained

It is this time of the academic year. Semester one is slowly coming to an end and you are writing your end-of-semester assignments, perhaps an essay-type of assignment.

One of the things I struggled the most when I was a student was understanding the exact wording of the assignment or essay title. Being a non-native English speaker, many words seemed to have the same meaning to me. I couldn’t properly understand what the difference between ‘describe’ and ‘explain’.

I want to make your life easier and write a post about essay titles. Here is something you can keep in mind for future reference.

To ace you essay assignment, the best thing you could do for yourself (beyond studying) is fully understanding the title. You might be writing an essay with beautiful words, but if what you write does not match what the title asks, you will put much effort into nothing.

Essay titles normally contain so-called ‘question words’ that might ask you to have a critical approach or a descriptive approach. It is very easy for students to misinterpret such question words which makes the risk of answering incorrectly quite high.

For a descriptive approach you will see written in your essay title words like: describe, explain, elaborate, summarise while for a more critical approach you will read word like: critically evaluate, analyse, or discuss.

Descriptive approach

Describe: try to provide a detailed insight related to the specific topic asked. Remember to characterise the facts in a narrative form. This is not necessarily related to the meaning of something but more on the characteristics.

Es. Describe the process of interesterification of fats: you will answer with what happens during interesterification of fats thus mentioning the many steps involved in the process.

Explain: by ‘explaining’ you are expected to clarify a topic, here you can get a little bit more into the details. You have to think as if you were talking about a specific topic to someone without a background. You need to get into the meaning of every step.

Es. Explain the process of interesterification of fats: you will talk about the steps that you can find in the process or processes and getting into the details of what happens in each of them. What is an interesterification reaction and what are all of the reagents doing. Make sure that the complexity of the process is fully understood by the reader.

Elaborate: you need to provide much in-depth evidence of extra reading and independent learning. Here you need to give more information and expand on the given topic.

Es. Elaborate on the many interactions that proteins can have with the main components of food: here you will need to further expand on the main interactions proteins can provide and make some examples of interactions that happen in real food systems. You can get into the details of each interaction explaining the nature of each (covalent, non-covalent etc).

Summarise: here you should condense the main points of a research or of a general topic in its main points omitting everything that is minor, remember to highlight the key points or findings. Try to make this straight to the point. You will find this type of questions normally at the end, when you are asked to in fact summarise the key points you discuss in your essay. Don’t use bullet point unless asked.

Critical approach

Analyse: when you are asked to analyse a determined aspect of a topic, most of the time is related to a case study. You are expected to look in depth at each part of the topic using evidence (from literature mostly). You need to deconstruct the essay subject and go through each fundamental part. Try not to give a narration (description) but show your position and justify it with the material that you have gone through during your literature search and independent reading.

Es. Analyse the impact of insect foods in wester countries: you will be perhaps covering the reason why insect foods is gaining importance, sustainability issues, protein functionalities, western countries diet vs easter countries, psychological aspects.

 Discuss:  this is when you normally are covering a debated topic and you need to use your reasoning skills and selected evidence to make a case against or in favour of a specific topic. You need to cover advantages and limitations of your specific topic and remember to include a conclusive paragraph as well that wraps up the discussion and covers the main points discussed.

Es. Discuss the impact of a vegan diet on climate change: here you will need to talk about challenges and limitations related to a complete switch in diet – you will probably cover sustainability aspects, nutrition, diet and food technology aspects. The depth you will need will depend on your academic level, on the specific question and on the overall wordcount.

Critically evaluate: try to provide your point of view regarding a determined aspect of a topic. Try to gather evidence that is both related to an agreement or a disagreement with the topic or statement you are asked to write about. Try to justify the reason why you will agree or not with the statement.  Here it is important that you do your extra reading and independent learning in order to understand how to back up your observation with research-based evidence (remember to cite the evidence/references).

Es. Critically evaluate the statement ‘the world population needs to switch to a complete vegan diet in order to save the planet’: here you will need to express your opinion and use research-based information to evaluate whether a strict vegan diet would be the best option (or not) to tackle climate change (and offer alternatives if not).

Hopefully, things are going to be smoother now and if you click on the link below you will be able to download a checklist of these question words with a definition for each of them. Feel free to use these to revise and prepare for your end-of-semester essay assignment.

*Download checklist HERE*

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