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Understanding what command words mean

Describe, explain, evaluate, state… Command words are essential when it comes to understanding exam questions and essay titles. I was always told to highlight the ‘key words’ in every long answer or essay question and I still think this is a crucial skill. Today, we’ll go over the definitions of some common command words and look at some examples together. This post is super practical so make sure you have a pen and paper close by!

I’ve often wondered this as well so let me paint a boundary-less scenario. You wake up, only 7 minutes before you need to leave the house for school because you forgot to set an alarm and you go to your lessons and use your phone throughout most of them. Then, you…

  1. “State” – Answer with a single word or sentence- you don’t have to explain the answer but simply state it. These questions are just factual recall (you either know it, or you don’t).

For example: “State three ways Stresemann was able to end hyperinflation in 1923.”

An answer for this might look like:

a. He stopped the use of the old currency and introduced a new one, the Rentenmark.

b. He called off passive resistance

c. He reduced government spending.

  1. “Describe” – May have to say what something is like, or write a sequence of events.
  2. “Compare” – Marks can be lost if you fail to complete a comparison between both factors or events mentioned in the question. For example:

“Veins have valves, arteries do not. Arteries have thick muscular walls, veins have thin walls.” An incomplete answer would look like: “Veins have valves, arteries have thick muscular walls.”

  1. “Discuss” – You may have to give advantages and disadvantages of the subject of the question and then give your opinion.
  2. “Explain” – Give details of why something happens- show a causation. For example:

“Explain how Stresemann was able to end hyperinflation in 1923.”

One part of the answer for this question might look like this:

One of the ways that Stresemann was able to end hyperinflation in 1923 was by calling off passive resistance. As a response to the French and Belgian invasion of the Ruhr, the Weimar government introduced the passive resistance whereby workers no longer had to work but would still be paid their wages by the government. This meant that Germany’ industrial production decreased, government income from exports reduced and the government had to print more money, leading to hyperinflation. However, by calling off the passive resistance, Stresemann was able to solve both problems as workers went back to work leading to an increase in industrial production and the government no longer had to print money to pay striking workers.

  1. Evaluate“- If you’re asked to evaluate a statement or argument, you will often have to look at why the statement might be significant or valuable and why it might not be. You may also need to come to a judgement. For example:

“Evaluate evidence for and against the theory that an increase in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere causes an increase in air temperature.”

A good answer would give reasons for the theory stated in the question and reasons against and consider the strengths and weaknesses of both sides.

  1. Analyse”– Break down the different elements of the subject and give an in-depth account of it.
  2. Define“- State the meaning of something.

I hope this post has been helpful in explaining (see what I did there) some of the most common command words. If there are any of these skills or question types you struggle with in particular, I’d suggest making a note of some definitions (another one!) and referring to this the next time you’re faced with an exam question.

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