Understanding the question

Close encounters of the word kind

Here’s this week’s essay

In this section of the guide we’re going to use an actual essay title to understand how to understand essay titles. Here’s the essay:

Review the evidence for links between cholesterol levels and heart disease, and evaluate the usefulness of cholesterol screening programmes in preventing heart disease.

Imagine you’ve just received this title. The first two questions you need to ask yourself are: ‘what is the essay about?’ and ‘what is it asking me to do?’

What is the essay about?

Every essay title contains key words or terms that are specific to a particular subject, in this instance health, exercise and nutrition. Looking for these key words helps you to understand what the essay is about. In the example, the subject specific key words are: ‘heart disease’, ‘links’, ‘cholesterol levels’, ‘screening’ and ‘preventing’.

What is the essay asking me to do? 1

Every essay title contains another set of key words or terms, which tell you the type of essay your tutors are expecting to see. These types of key words or terms are sometimes called ‘directive’. That is: they act as signposts or instructions that tell you which direction to go in and what to do when you get there. In the example, the directive terms are: ‘review the evidence’ and ‘evaluate the usefulness’.

What is the essay asking me to do? 2

Essay titles can contain subtle variations in directive or instructional key words. Let’s rewrite part of the example slightly:

and evaluate the extent to which cholesterol screening programmes are useful in preventing heart disease.

It’s not asking you to do anything different to our original – it just sounds like it is. If cholesterol screening programmes are, say, only 50% useful then that’s the right answer to both versions of the second part of our example question. Don’t be thrown by these variations: look at them and be clear about what you are being asked to do. If in doubt look up the words in the dictionary.

Gotcha!

When you first get an essay title, go through it and pick out these two sets of key words: subject specific and directive. Underline them or mark them with a highlighter pen. Imagine the essay title is an identity parade and you’ve got to pick out the usual suspects. This might sound like a strange analogy but some of these key words will appear in your essay titles again and again and again. Some of them are listed in the next section.

The usual suspects

Click on any of the words below and you will be taken to a definition in the glossary. Make sure you understand what each of these key words is asking you to do. Learn to look out for them in assignment questions and topics. It will save you a lot of time.

Make it into a question

In our example, you are being asked to ‘review’ and ‘evaluate’. ‘Review’ means ‘make a survey of a subject, examining it carefully’. ‘Evaluate’ means ‘Make an appraisal of the worth of something, in the light of its truth or usefulness; and include, to some extent, your personal opinion or the opinions of others’.

You are being asked to do specific things and to produce a particular type of assignment. Many people find these directive key words rather daunting and are unsure what is required of them. If you receive an assignment like this, try turning it into a question. Imagine the assignment was in the form of two questions that asked:

Are there links between cholesterol levels and heart disease? Are cholesterol screening programmes useful?

This seems much more straightforward. When we read questions, we are already thinking of answers or starting to have an opinion. If we don’t know the answer to the question, we are already thinking of places where we can go and find out.

And don’t forget part two!

There’s something else we’ve all done at least once: only answered the first part of the question.

Let’s look at the example title again:

Review the evidence for links between cholesterol levels and heart disease; and evaluate the usefulness of cholesterol screening programmes in preventing heart disease.

You will see that this title has two parts. Essay questions at university will often follow this format. Some questions often have a third part which tells you the sort of things you should put in your essay. For example: ‘Your answer should refer to at least two of the [books/theories/models] studied during this semester’. Always read your assignment topics carefully and see if you are being asked to look at more than one area. Many people read the first part of the question and don’t bother to read any further.

Always break it down

Breaking an essay question down into its component parts and turning it into a question or set of questions will help you to be clear about what you are being asked to do. It will help you to avoid writing a brilliant essay about the first thing you recognise – in this case ‘heart disease’ or ‘cholesterol’. Crucially, it will help you to start thinking about how you are going to write your essay.

Sometimes the title contains the structure

Another good reason for breaking an essay title down in the way I’ve suggested is that it can help you to think about how you are going to organise your material in terms of structure. Our example essay title has a clear two part structure: ‘links between cholesterol levels and heart disease’ and ‘usefulness of screening programmes in prevention’. So the main body or middle part of your essay could therefore look at ‘links’ first and ‘usefulness’ second.

Don’t lose sight of the title

Another way to keep focused on the question is to put it into the header of your word processing document so that it’s at the top of every page. Your title will then be in your face throughout the essay writing process.