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Analysing an exam question 101

by | Nov 6, 2014 | Higher Education


While a sound knowledge of the subject being tested is integral to exam success, it’s also about how you answer the questions. Aligning your knowledge with the specific intention of the question will ensure you get the best results. There are many types of exam questions and it is important not to begin an answer before you have fully understood what the question is asking you to do. ‘Compare’, ‘discuss’ and ‘analyse’ all have different meanings and may require a different style of answer. Here are some tips to help you deliver the right content, in the right way:

  • Clarify which particular aspect of the topic you are focusing on.
  • Avoid covering too broad an area, including unnecessary information, or answering only part of the question.
  • Break the question into: content words, task words and how words.
  • Content words will tell you what to specifically focus on. In the following example you are required to discuss the application of additive bilingualism, not in general, but specifically in a South African context.
  • Task words will tell you what you must do (explain, define, compare etc.) and what skills your examiner is testing. They are usually verbs which ask you to perform a specific task. E.g. briefly explain what is meant by additive bilingualism in language education in South Africa.
  • How words will tell you what to include and the required length of the answer such as in 100 words, in a paragraph, in an essay. These will determine the scope of the answer or what you put in and what you leave out. Note: examiners sometimes subtract marks if you write more than the specified length.
  • Content by Judy Seligman, Oxford University Press Southern Africa author of Academic Literacy for Education Students, 9780199045396, November 2011

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