Always check what you’re being asked to do

I learned an important lesson at school that stayed with me throughout my time at university.

My Home Economics teacher announced to class that, as a change of plan, everyone would be completing a short test during the lesson. We had planned on doing some baking that day, so the alternative was a rough deal. I could make a mean flapjack…

“Don’t worry,” said the teacher. “Maybe we’ll still make stuff after the test. There should be time…”

When the paper was handed out, the teacher said we could start and she told us to read through all the questions first so we understood what we were being asked to do. Naturally, we were more concerned with finishing the test as quickly as possible. So when the time started, we raced off.

photo by Cathdew
photo by Cathdew

The test didn’t seem too hard. Slightly bizarre, but not difficult:

  1. Read through this test.
  2. Write today’s date at the top of the page.
  3. Write your name in any corner of the page.
  4. What is 100 minus 99?
  5. Touch your nose for 5 seconds.
  6. Get out of your chair, jump up twice, and sit down again.
  7. Draw a circle in the middle of the page.
  8. Wave your arms in the air.

And the list went on like this over a couple of pages. The tasks got increasingly lengthy and ridiculous. And before long, the entire class was all over the place and laughing at each other.

But some people grew suspicious and confused. Instead of carrying on, more and more of us started to read through the test. The final task said, “To complete this test, you only need to complete the first task. Everything else is irrelevant. Thanks for reading through the test first.”

The teacher wasn’t trying to make fun of the class. She said that it may have been a laugh, but there was a serious point: It pays to check what you are being asked to do. If you don’t truly know what’s being asked, how can you be sure you’re on the right track?

From that point, I understood the importance of treating essay and exam questions as seriously as the answers. Your assignments aren’t likely to have tricks like the one I’ve described, but it shows how easily you can end up answering the wrong question and lose big marks as a result.

So what do you do?

  • Don’t rush in – Always allow a few moments to take in and read through questions and requirements.
  • Don’t look for key words in isolation – You’re unlikely to be asked to write everything you know about a particular word or subject, so take the question as a whole before you do anything else.
  • Now break the question down into pieces – When you understand the full question (and only once you do), dissect it for clues and pointers. Have you been given a specific target to frame your answer? Does the question ask you to discuss, evaluate, compare, examine, demonstrate…?
  • Look for vague comments and anything that’s open to question – Practically nothing can be boiled down to a right or wrong answer. If you can spot a flaw or anything that’s open to interpretation, it may hold the key to how you should answer. Academic writing usually involves explanations and conclusions, but it also involves asking many more questions in return.
  • If in doubt, ask your tutor – This may not be possible in exam conditions, but for other coursework and class assignments, it’s better to ask for clarification before you rush ahead.

I don’t think I ever thanked my Home Economics teacher for giving us that test. It may not have improved my flapjack recipe, but it was still a great recipe for success…