Analysing the task: direction words

Analysing a task in the right way can help you to meet the task requirements, and prevent you from going off-topic in your assessments and exam responses.

Before you begin researching or writing, carefully analyse the assessment or exam question so you fully understand what the task is asking you to do.

Assessments

Written assessments such as essays, reports and reviews generally have a question or prompt which consists of direction, content and limiting words.

  • Direction words are usually verbs, they tell you what you are required to do in the assessment, for example, 'discuss,' 'compare, 'contrast’.
  • Content words deal with topics or subtopics and identify the material you should focus on.
  • Limiting words limit the scope of the topic to a particular area, e.g. all, some, the majority of; references to time, place(s) and/or specific group(s).

Exams

Short-answer test or exam questions while containing direction, content and limiting words, usually have two types:

  1. Factual (recalling relevant information), or
  2. Interpretative (applying your understanding of key information and concepts).

Note: a question can sometimes require you to first provide facts, and then demonstrate your understanding.

Tip

Use different coloured highlighters to identify the direction, content and limiting words in your assessment and exam questions and prompts.

Examples

Here are some examples of common direction words and their definitions.

  • View examples

    Direction word

    What you need to do

    account for

    Give a justified explanation of why and how something is the case.

    analyse

    Divide into parts or elements to discover the nature of something. Describe the function and relationships of the parts to identify possible problems or weaknesses.

    argue

    Make a case for accepting or rejecting a position by systematically giving reasons and evidence for or against it. Demonstrate that you are aware of opposing viewpoints and provide grounds for rejecting them.

    assess

    Examine from different viewpoints, weighing up strengths and weaknesses. Make a considered judgement.

    calculate

    Work out exactly.

    comment on

    Provide an informed and supported viewpoint.

    compare

    Identify characteristics that are similar. Also stress differences where relevant.

    contrast/differentiate/distinguish

    Identify characteristics that are different. Emphasise similarities where appropriate.

    critical(ly)/criticise/critique

    Analyse systematically from different perspectives and identify positive aspects as well as limitations. Draw conclusions from the analysis and express as informed judgement. This does not mean to criticise in only negative terms.

    define

    Determine essential qualities. State concise and clear meanings but omit details. Mark the limits of the definition and emphasise differences to similar items or objects.

    derive

    Work out by reasoning or deduction (from general to specific).

    describe

    Characterise, recount and relate systematically.

    determine

    Come to conclusions about after calculations or discussion.

    discuss

    First analyse and then critically examine in detail. Consider pros and cons in order to come to a supported assessment and conclusion

    enumerate

    Give a listing, number.

    estimate

    Work out an approximate or rough figure or judgement.

    evaluate

    Examine from different viewpoints, weighing up strengths and weaknesses. Make a considered judgement.

    examine

    Investigate closely, paying attention to detail and considering implications.

    explain

    Make something clear by elaborating on it. Give reasons and try to analyse causes.

    give an account of 

    Describe, and give a list of reasons for something.

    identify

    Establish or say what it is distinguish from other items, point out.

    illustrate

    Explain and clarify using concrete examples, data, diagrams, etc.

    interpret

    Explain something and make its meaning explicit. Give your own judgment

    justify

    Show adequate grounds for decisions or conclusions

    list

    Present in an ordered way.

    outline

    Present the main features and how they relate to each other in a logical order. Include all main points and omit details.

    prove

    Show that something is true by presenting facts, statistics, examples etc.

    Note: prove has a particular meaning in the mathematical/physics context.

    relate

    Narrate or tell about, show how things are connected to each other and to what extent they are alike.

    review

    Survey and examine critically and comprehensively. Comment on controversial aspects.

    state

    Present the main points briefly and clearly. Omit details and examples.

    suggest

    Give ideas about, suggest.

    summarise

    Give a short and clear description of the main points.

    trace

    Follow the development of a something from a particular point in time.

Task analysis in action

Watch this video to learn how to deconstruct your assessment and exam questions and prompts to understand the task.

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