Terms Used in Essay Exams

You will be more effective as a student if you know what kind of response is required by different types of questions. In fact, professors construct tests and exams in order to evaluate their students’ depth of thought on a given subject. 

In the process of researching how we think, psychologist Benjamin Bloom (1956) recognized that test questions require different levels of thinking and created what is known as Bloom’s Taxonomy. Bloom’s Taxonomy shows the progressive demands in levels of thinking. First year courses will include knowledge and comprehension questions, whereas fourth year courses will pose synthesis and evaluation questions.  Once you know the level of thinking required for essay questions, you can maximize how and what to study to answer them effectively.


The most basic type of questions solicits basic knowledge. You are required at this level to memorize and recall.


  • Organize items, events or qualities into categories or into classes or groups that share traits. Librarians, for example, use a classification system for organizing books, and biologists for organizing plants and animals.


  • Systematically recount or explain in narrative form. When you describe something it is important to be both detailed and sequential.


  • List or outline by recounting, one by one, in concise form, the points required.


  • See enumeration. Concisely present an itemized series or tabulation.


  • Provide an organized description. Give main points and essential supplementary materials, omitting minor details, and present the information in a systematic arrangement or classification.


  • Supply the main points or facts in condensed form. Omit details, illustrations, and elaborations.


Comprehension questions include remembering (knowing) and understanding the information.


  • Similarities and associations of things, qualities, events or problems should be stressed. The term compare is usually stated as "compare with" and it implies that you are to emphasize similarities although differences may be mentioned.


  • Dissimilarities, differences, unlikeness of associated things, qualities, events, or problems should be stressed.


  • Definitions should be clear and concise, indicating what is important or not, and representing authoritative or official meanings for a discipline or subject area. In such statements, details are not required but limitations should be briefly cited.  Keep in mind the class to which a thing belongs, the function it serves and whatever differentiates the particular object from all others in the class.  In some courses you are asked to create a definition of a concept that has been variously defined by experts.  This type of question requires you to synthesize your understanding of course material to produce a succinct explanation of the concept.


  • Clarify, elucidate, and interpret the material you present. In such an answer it is best to state the how or why, reconcile any differences in opinion or experimental results, and state causes where possible. The aim is to make plain the conditions that give rise to whatever you are examining.


  • Express the main or key points in brief, clear form.  Details, and usually illustrations or examples, should be omitted.


Application questions require using known concepts in different contexts.


  • Explain or clarify your answer to the problem by presenting a figure, picture, diagram, or concrete example.


  • Show how a concept or thing can be used.


  • Propose future developments.


  • Give the main points or facts in condensed form.  Omit details, illustrations and elaborations.


  • Describe progress, historical sequence, or development from the point of origin.  Such narratives may call for probing or deductions.


Analysis questions call for seeing the overall structure of the ideas or concepts and its components.


  • Examine, analyze carefully, and present pro and con considerations regarding the problems or items involved. Answer in a complete and detailed manner.


  • Emphasize connections and associations in descriptive form.


  • Emphasize differences in descriptive form.


  • Describe progress, historical sequence, or development from the point of origin.  Such narratives may call for probing or deductions.


Synthesis questions involve combining information from various sources to create new ideas.


  • Create something new, using the learned concepts. Similar words are: compose, design, construct, and develop.


  • Present a drawing, chart, plan, or graphic representation in your answer.  Generally, you are also expected to label the diagram and, in some cases, to add a brief explanation or description.


  • As in an explanation question, you are expected to translate, exemplify, solve, or comment upon the subject and usually to give your judgment or reaction to the problem.


Evaluation questions are the most demanding because they require presenting the overall worth of a concept using sufficient evidence and grounds.


  • Express your judgment on the correctness or merit of the factors under consideration.  Give the results of your own analysis and discuss the limitations and benefits or contributions of the plan, work, or concept in question.


  • Prove or show grounds for decisions.  In such an answer, evidence should be presented in convincing form.


  • Provide confirmation or verification. In such discussions you should establish something with certainty by evaluating and citing experimental evidence or by logical reasoning.


  • Present a careful appraisal of the problem, stressing both advantages and limitations. Evaluation implies authoritative and, to a lesser degree, personal consideration of both contributions and limitations.


  • In a critical examination, analyze and comment brie.y in organized sequence upon the major points of the problem or issue.


Diablo County College (2003). Key Directive Words Used in Essay Questions. Retrieved April 5, 2004, from http://www.dvc.edu/english/Learning_Resources/keyDirective.htm.

Fleet, J., Goodchild, F., Zajchowski, R. (1999). Learning for Success: Effective Strategies for Students. Scarborough: Nelson Thompson Learning.

Longman, D. G. & Atkinson, R. H. (2005). Class. (7th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.

University of Victoria (2003). Bloom’s Taxonomy. Retrieved December 20, 2004, from http://www.coun.uvic.ca/learn/program/hndouts/bloom.html.

University of York (January 30, 2004). Preparing for Essay Style Exams. Retrieved April 5, 2004, from http://www.yorku.ca/cdc/lsp/eponline/exam5.htm#What.