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Decoding the Question (Definitions)
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Tips for In-Class Essays and Take-Home Essays

  • Determine exactly what the question asks you to do. Seek out keywords that are commonly used by professors in essay exams. For example, if you are asked to define (describe or identify) a concept or theory, you must tell what the theory or concept is and is not.

    • For example, a general definition of democracy might be government decision making by the people. Within that general definition, however, might be several sub-categories including direct democracy, representative democracy, and parliamentary democracy. You should use care in selecting appropriate terms to explain their answers.

  • You professor may ask you to compare and contrast two theories, concepts, or authors’ main points.

    • To compare involves highlighting the similarities and differences of each subject, and then providing details of the variations between each subject.

    • Contrast is similar to comparison but the emphasis is on the differences or disagreement between subjects.

  • To explain something involves the how and why of it. You should try to state clearly the reasons for, or basic principles of something. If asked to evaluate or assess something, students must provide their judgment on its accuracy or usefulness.

    • This might involve your judgment on a concept or theory’s accuracy in relation to actual events.

  • You must use care in providing judgment and state impressions about the subject based on an informed use of course concepts and theories.