Last week, I talked about understanding questions as a whole and then breaking them down into parts. Both stages are in order for you to get as much meaning from a question as possible.
Questions are important. You need to understand questions, answer questions, and ask questions.
Assignments go beyond asking how much information you can remember on a topic. Assignment questions also require you to:
- create an argument;
- weigh up different views;
- provide examples and workings, as opposed to regurgitations;
- demonstrate understanding of the topics under discussion.
It’s easy to get stuck on key topic words that you have a lot of knowledge on. But dig deeper and you’ll notice more to the question. The closer you come to answering the question clearly, deeply, and effectively, the more likely your grade (and enjoyment!) will benefit.
- What’s being asked of you – Does the question ask you to discuss, compare, analyse, argue, evaluate…? The question is probably worded so that you should talk about what you know, but relate to why that’s the case and explain how it could be different or why people have different theories on the matter.
- Specific focus points – Some questions can be vague, but many ask you to concentrate on a particular feature to base your answer on. You may also notice the question is guiding you to frame your answer in a certain context, such as a single culture, time period, object, opinion, text, and so on.
- Leading words and phrases – For example, you may be asked to analyse the benefits of something. This is not an invitation to lavish praise upon the subject. To analyse the benefits means to weigh up, to argue whether they really are benefits, and to discuss alternatives. You aren’t being asked a trick question, but you do need to show awareness that there is more than one side to any story. You are welcome to have an opinion on the matter, so long as you explain why you have reached that conclusion and show why you don’t share the same enthusiasm for the alternatives. You’re not stating right/wrong, yes/no, good/bad answers. Instead, you’re reaching a conclusion after exploring the topic.
You also need to ask a lot of questions. Unanswered questions, questions that arise from your study, and questioning assumptions.
Even after you’ve written up a good draft of an essay and you’re happy with it, read through the draft again. Ask yourself — and try to answer — these 15 questions throughout your draft:
- How did I come to say that?
- Have I backed this up?
- Can I say this any clearer?
- Does this point follow on?
- Should I give more detail here?
- Does this assume something I haven’t mentioned?
- Does this need referencing?
- Will a relevant quotation and/or summary help before I move on?
- Is this relevant to the question/title?
- Could my main point be made more prominently?
- Am I making sense here?
- Am I being critical or opinionated?
- Does this require an example or demonstration?
- Has there been a more recent development?
- Is something missing?
These questions are simple enough to make you think, and challenging enough to make you respond. If you’re not asking these questions about your writing, answer this question: Why not?