Understanding instruction words

Many assignment titles contain instruction words. Sometimes, question words (‘What’, ‘How’, ‘Why’, ‘How far’, ‘To what extent’) are used instead. We have seen that converting these question words to instructions can help you to interpret the question. But for this to work well, you need to be sure what each instruction requires you to do.

The following table presents a list of common instruction words and what they mean:

Instruction Meaning

Account for

Give reasons for; explain.

Analyse

Examine in detail; identify key features. If appropriate, examine critically.

Assess

Decide how important, useful, valuable or effective something is. Identify merits and limitations. Justify your decision.

Compare

Identify similarities between two items, concepts, methods or theories. It may also be appropriate to identify both similarities and differences, even if the question does not specifically ask you to ‘compare and contrast’. If appropriate, justify your choice.

Contrast

Identify differences. If appropriate, give reasons for your preference.

Critically assess/evaluate

Make a judgement based on careful consideration of the evidence for and against something.

Define

Give the exact meaning of a word or phrase. You may have to consider different definitions and examine the issues involved in attempting to define a term.

Describe

Identify and explain the features of something.

Discuss

Explain; present both sides of an issue; take a position; explore implications.

Distinguish/differentiate between

Identify differences (especially where confusion is possible).

Elaborate

Give a full answer, exploring the issues and justifying conclusions.

Evaluate

See ‘Assess’.

Examine

Consider in detail; investigate. If appropriate, critically assess.

Explain

Give reasons; describe how something happens.

Illustrate

Use examples or evidence to explain something/to make something clear.

Justify

Use evidence to support an argument; explain how conclusions or decisions were reached; anticipate and deal with objections to your point of view.

Outline

Give main points only; do not include detail.

State

Present key points or features clearly, avoiding elaboration.

Summarise

Select the main points and present them concisely.

Trace

Present events or stages of a process in order.