Understanding the question !

The most common criticism examiners make, is that students have not answered the question being asked. Many students fail to understand exactly what the question is asking them to do, spending valuable time on a response which generates little if any marks.

Examiner Quote

Standard Exam Question Structure

All exam questions share a common structure, a set of elements, which when identified, make it possible to understand exactly what the exam question is asking you to do.

Exam Question

Consider the question above, taken from an A level Biology paper. It contains all the main elements of an exam question. The Topic, the Instructions and the Command.

The Topic

The Topic words tell you what to write about. In our example they tell us the topic/theme to be written about is the semilunar valves opening.

Exam Question

The Instructions

The Instructions set the boundaries or limits of your response, i.e. what to include, and as a consequence what not to include. In our example you are instructed to answer in terms of pressure. Other common instructions include.. show your working, use examples, or tell you the number of examples to provide.

Exam Question

The Command

The Command word or phrase, is normally found at the start of the question, and is also referred to as the question stem. Command words indicate the type of response required, and when considered alongside the number of marks, and space provided in the answer booklet, they indicate the Assessment Objectives you need to meet in your response. In short, what you need to do to get the marks.

Exam Question

In this question, we are asked to Explain (why). That means we need to provide the reasons (why) something occurs. This question was for 2 marks. A common rule in exam marking is one fact - one mark, so you can infer that two reasons are required to get full marks.

When looking at an exam question, it is relatively easy to identify the Topic, Instructions, and Command. The biggest mistake students make is that they don't follow the question's Command correctly. For example, students will Describe rather than Explain the opening of semilunar valves, and lose marks as a result. So understanding what the Command words want you to do is vital. Below we provide a brief description of the most common command words used in A level exam questions.



Similar Commands



Requires you to recall a specific item of subject knowledge, usually a term/name or title, writing the full term, correctly spelt, this is normally no more than one or two words.




Requires you to state the precise meaning of the term provided. The definition should not depend on using the term itself within it. In other questions which use specialist terms it is also good practice to start your response by defining these terms.

State the meaning of..
What is meant by..
What do you understand by the term..



Requires you to do just that and only that, provide a description/account of the topic, by stating the main features/events/stages/trends in a logical order. In some instances labelled diagrams/graphs can be used in your response. What should NOT be provided is an explanation of the features, unless the question specifically asks you to 'describe and explain'. If you are witting 'because' statements in your response you are probably wasting valuable time.


(Note that an outline would only require you to provide a brief summary of the main features/points of the topic.)



Requires you to identify the reasons/causes/steps, the why or how of the topic, which could be an event, a process, a graph, the result of an experiment. In presenting these reasons you should show an understanding of the connections between them. This can be done by presenting them in order of priority/importance/influence, or in the correct sequence, or through reference to a theory/formula which connects them. 'Because...' statements are a strong device to use in your response to an explain question.

State why..
State how..
Show why..
What causes..



Will require you to provide a numerical answer, which should be expressed using the correct units. In certain circumstances examiners will award marks for the correct method being applied, even if arithmetical errors lead to the final answer being incorrect. You should therefore show all working where possible. You should also check for instructions regarding the accuracy of your answer, in terms of significant figures / decimal places.




Requires you to present a detailed breakdown of the main characteristics / features / elements of the topic. The interrelationship between the elements of the topic should also be presented. Sometimes the phrase 'critically analyse' will be used, which means you must also question the value / validity / quality of these elements, leading to an overall assessment / opinion of the topic resulting from your analysis.

Critically analyse..



Requires you to divide the elements of a topic into groups / categories, based on an analysis of their common features.



Requires you to present a point by point analysis of the similarities and differences between two or more topics. Comparative adjectives such as .. however / whereas / less densely ..are a useful device to use in your answer.



Requires you to present a point by point analysis of the differences only between two or more topics. Comparative adjectives such as .. however / whereas / less densely ..are a useful device to use in your answer.



Requires you to present your opinion / judgement / view on the topic. You must support / justify your opinion, by providing a balanced analysis of the alternatives. The alternatives may be opposing arguments, approaches, methods, strategies or theories. There are no wrong or right answers to such questions, but what is important is that you need to be able to support your judgements. Your opinion can not be marked as incorrect, instead it is the quality of your analysis, and the justification given for the position you take which will earn you marks.



Requires you to weigh up the importance of different viewpoints on the topic. This will involve you analysing a number of possible viewpoints/arguments/outcomes/explanations and using this analysis to justify the viewpoint you favour, and how far you favour that view (including any reservations you may have).

How far..
How important was..
To what extent..



Requires you to provide a balanced and critical account (a description/explanation with critical analysis) of the different viewpoints / arguments / theories of the topic. Indicating their relative importance / significance. You may also be required to provide a conclusion, on which viewpoint you agree with.



You are required to take a stance on the topic, and defend your stance by providing evidence / reasons why your position on the topic is preferred when compared to the other options. You should critically analyse the other options and explain you reasons for rejecting them as well as your reasons for adopting your chosen stance, to ensure you have provided a balanced response.

Give evidence..
Give reasons..



Suggest questions, either refer to a topic which is unfamiliar (i.e. not directly referred to in the specifications), OR where there may be more than one correct answer. Often they will ask you to suggest reasons, advantages/disadvantages, or possible outcomes of the topic. In responding to suggest questions you need to apply and relate your subject knowledge and understanding to the topic.



Command Word Spotting

Whilst 'question spotting' is a dangerous revision strategy, you should carry out 'command word spotting'. Go back over past papers and identify the most commonly used command words. Complete a command word analysis for each Unit you are revising, and make sure you understand what these command words require you to do. To help you get started you'll find here a range of the most commonly used command words at A level, grouped by subject.

Command Words

    Explain..      Describe..      Suggest..      Name..      Calculate..

Command Words

    Calculate..      Analyse..      Evaluate..      Explain..      Define..

Command Words

    Write / Balance the equation..      State..      Explain..      Calculate..      Draw the Structure / Shape..

Command Words

    Calculate..      Explain..      Name/State..      Draw Diagram/Graph/Circuit..      Describe..

Command Words

    Describe/Outline..      Explain..      Identify..      Evaluate..      Discuss..

Command Words

    Explain why..      How far / successful / do you agree..      To what extent..      Assess the validity..

English Literature
Command Words

  To what extent do you agree / feel..    How does the writer..    Write a comparison..    Comment on..

Command Word Revision

Having identified the common command words, you should then apply these in your revision of each topic. For example, in Biology, when revising semilunar valves, you should ensure that you can explain how they work, describe their role, name/identify them in a diagram of the heart, etc..

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