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If you’ve ever found yourself baffled by an exam or essay question, you’re not alone – our Twitter and Facebook feeds have featured more than a few student distress calls on the subject. That said, this feature should allay most of your fears and angst for a while.

Instructional terms and signposting

Probably the best kept, hidden in plane-sight type secrets in academics (possible slight exaggeration) but the great thing about them is that where you find one, you find the other.

Keeping it brief (so you can hurry back to those essays), instructional terms are words used by lecturers when constructing essay and exam questions, to signpost you to the answer(s) they want you to give. There are more than 30 possible instructional terms and there is not one question you’ll come up against that hasn’t been constructed in this manner.

Unfortunately, a list of instructional terms in its entirety isn’t too easy to come by. Fortunately, for you, we were gifted a sneak peak of one such list – so thought we’d share some of it.

Instructional terms and what they mean

Analyse – ‘Take apart’ an idea or statement; ‘unpack’; de-construct; examine in depth and consider how the parts interrelate. Give reasons and answers to questions, e.g. Who? What? Where? When? Which? Why? How?

Compare – Examine/judge two or more things/ideas in order to focus on their likeness/relationship and only mention/acknowledge differences.

Define – Explain precisely; state the meaning of; give details to show boundaries/distinguish it from others.

Forecast – Predict, estimate or calculate possible results linked to criteria, complete/incomplete facts/reasoning.

Illustrate – Make clear by using examples; use figures or diagrams to explain; show the meaning of something by giving related examples.


This article was compiled using principles and examples taken from How On Earth Do I Get A first? (eBook), by Nathan Ghann