As already stated, exams don’t just test your ability to remember information, they also  test your ability to answer particular types of questions. For this reason, you must practice writing full answers to questions from past papers. In this way you can work on your depth of answering and timing so that you will not lose marks because of poor exam technique on exam day. Good exam technique is crucial to performing well. The first, and most critical, step is to read the question carefully and accurately interpret its meaning. Sometimes this is not always straightforward. Misinterpreting questions is one of the biggest errors students make in exams. Unfortunately, answering a question you weren’t asked will gain you little or no marks.

So, how do you go about reading the question?

All exam questions contain two types of words – ‘topic or theme’ words and ‘command or instruction’ words.

Identifying the key ‘topic’ words or phrases in the question will help you to work out what the question is about. You could underline these words or phrases – and use a particular colour, eg. blue.

Identifying the ‘command’ words in the question helps you work out what you are being instructed to do. What does the examiner want? You could box these words – and use a particular, but different, colour, eg. red. Remember there could be more than one command word in a question, eg. List and explain, Mark and label, etc.

The next step is to be clear about what exactly each of the command words mean. Knowing the difference between similar ‘command’ words is especially important.

Familiarise yourself with the following terms or command words and their meanings/definitions commonly used in exam questions:

Analyse: say why things happened (eg. in history) and how they affected events that came later.

Amplify: explain further, give extra details.

Assess: give a judgement about something. Was it a success or a failure?

Brief/briefly: Make a short concise statement – details are not necessary.

Calculate: Determine, show how the answer was obtained.

Classify: Arrange items into particular groups.

Comment on: Make observations on.

Comment on the validity of: Say, giving reasons, whether the statement is true or false.

Compare: Discuss items and at the same time, identify their similarities and differences.

Contrast: Discuss items and at the same time, identify their differences. Compare in such a way as to emphasise differences.

Correlate: Show connections between different items.

Criticise: Examine the evidence and give your views.

Define: State clearly and concisely the meaning  of.

Describe: Trace out and give a general account of.

Discuss/discuss critically the view that: Debate, giving arguments for (Pros) and against (Cons).

Distinguish between: Show what makes things different.

Emphasise: Highlight and lay stress on.

Evaluate: Analyse, judge, assess the amount, number, value, importance of.. or soundness of..  eg. an argument put forward. In Maths – a numerical expression or equivalent equation, formula or function.

Examine: Inspect something thoroughly in order to determine its nature or condition.

Explain: Make clear and understandable.

Explore: Inquire into or discuss in detail, examine or evaluate.

Give evidence: Give proofs or reasons for.

Give an account of: Give a description or explanation of.

Give an illustrated account: Support your description with labelled/annotated diagrams or back up your explanations with examples.

Give reasons for: Explain or give evidence for.

Identify: Establish or indicate who or what (someone or something) is

Indicate: Show or point out clearly.

Illustrate: Show clearly, using examples or diagrams if necessary.

Label: Identify and name the parts of the diagram, graph, photograph or map.

List: Give an itemised record of. Descriptions or explanations are not required.

Mark: Draw in an item-as on a map/diagram.

Name: Identify someone or something.  

Outline: Give a precise, brief account of the main points, features or ideas without the details, or, briefly state the general plan.

Refer to/with reference to: Make mention of.

Relate/what is the relationship: Connect/ what is the connection between.

Show: Display your workings-as in Maths, Mark/draw in an item-as on a map/diagram.

State: Express in words.

Summarise: Give a concise broad account covering the main points only. (Same as ‘outline’)

Trace: Follow an idea, argument or set of images through an entire piece of writing from start to finish. Or, follow developments over a period of time. 

Treat of: Same as ‘give an account of’, ‘trace’, ‘outline’.

What is the basis for: What is the principle for or what is the foundation for… .

What is the significance for: Why is it important or what is the meaning of

Write notes on: Give a short summary in words.

A very useful exercise would be to go through your past exam papers and identify the subjects in which these instruction words frequently appear.