How to answer exam questions correctly

When a learner understands what the examiner is asking them, they’ll be able to answer the questions in an exam paper correctly. To understand what the examiner is asking, the learner must identify the question and focus words in an exam question.

Learner studying for exams

It is important for learners to look for and understand the question words (the words that tell you what to do, also known as key action words) to correctly understand what the examiner is asking.

Once the learner has read the question once, they should circle the question word and then underline any other important focus words (the words that tell you what content to include in your answer). The combination of the circled and underlined words will tell the learner exactly what is being asked.

Share these explanations with your learners so they can use it as a guide to help them answer questions.

Analyse Separate, examine and interpret the concept
Argue Give arguments to support your statement or to oppose somebody else’s statement, and substantiate your argument with an example
Assess Give a judgement and back it up with evidence or reasoning
Calculate This means a numerical (number) answer is required. You must show your working, especially where two or more steps are involved
Classify Group things based on common characteristics
Compare Point out or show both similarities and differences between things or concepts
Critically evaluate Describe both sides of an argument, come to a conclusion and justify your decision
Debate State the positive or negative side of an argument, and substantiate your point with an example
Define Give a clear meaning of the concept
Describe State in words (using diagrams where appropriate) the main points of a structure/process/phenomenon/investigation
Determine To calculate something, or to discover the answer by examining evidence
Differentiate Use differences to qualify categories
Explain/ Discuss Give a clear, detailed description of the focus topic
Identify Name the essential characteristics
Illustrate Give examples to demonstrate or prove something
Justify Give clear, detailed reasons fo taking a particular position
Label Identify on a diagram or drawing
List Write a list of items, with no additional detail
Mention Refer to relevant points
Name Give the name (proper noun) of something
State/Give Write down information without discussion
Recommend / Suggest Give your opinion and back it up with facts, reason or an explanation
Tabulate Draw a table and indicate the answers as direct pairs

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