"Understanding Discursive Examination and Essay Questions"
Understanding Discursive Examination and Essay Questions Introduction Essays are a common mechanism for evaluating a variety of skills that a student is expected to develop during her or his time as an undergraduate or postgraduate. In general, discursive essays are an excellent way of assessing students’ ability to express and communicate complex ideas in a disciplined written form. More specifically, crafting and writing essays hones critical, analytical, integrative and problem solving skills. Discursive essay questions are carefully constructed to address sets of issues that rarely have single or simple answers. The aim is always to give students the opportunity to delve, probe and explore the debates and controversies arising in a certain area of knowledge, but to do so in a disciplined and informed manner. Instruction Words Whether set as a course assignment or part of formal examination, and independent of the content, subject matter or field of knowledge, answering discursive essay questions demands an understanding of instruction or directive words. In designing questions, lecturers consciously select certain instruction words or phrases that are intended to inform students exactly how they are expected to respond to the issues raised. A question may use just one instruction word (‘discuss’ is a favourite), or a combination of instruction words (e.g. ‘compare and contrast’ or ‘outline and evaluate’), or an instruction phrase (e.g. ‘with reference to examples, discuss..’ or ‘to what extent do you agree with….’). Some instruction words call for fairly simple tasks to be done (e.g. ‘explain’ or ‘outline’), while others, far more normal in university management studies, require the expression of a complex set of abilities (e.g. ‘discuss’ or ‘evaluate’), and presume the accomplishment of necessary basic tasks such as describing a theory. Examiners often attach the adverb ‘critically’ to an instruction word, thereby leaning the answer more towards showing the problems associated with a set of issues. In preparing the essay, it is imperative to bear in mind the instruction word, because this tells you the main tasks that should be accomplished. Having written the essay (or drafted it, in the case of assignments), you should be able to re-read the answer and feel confident that you have fulfilled the obligations implicit in the instruction words. There follows a Glossary of common instruction words with brief descriptions of what is intended in their use. The Glossary distinguishes between two types of instruction terms according to the skills they demand. First, simpler terms, which are rarely used in isolation in discursive management essays, only require the student to put together information from other sources. Second, more complex instructions require the expression of more advanced skills, in particular those of reasoned, analytical and critical argument. Further Reading There are a variety of books to consult on study skills, mostly located in the Bedford Library around 378.17. 1 GLOSSARY OF KEY INSTRUCTION WORDS Instruction Brief description of requirements Simple skills Clarify Make clear; give a simple explanation of; expand upon Define In a fairly concise manner, give the meaning of Describe Write a detailed account of (this does not in itself call for judgement or evaluation) Explain Make clear; give a simple account in your own words Illustrate Give examples in order to enhance explanation or discussion Outline Give a simple, orderly account of the main points; summarise briefly State Offer a brief account of the main points Summarise Bring together the main points ‘with reference to..’ Use examples of cases, theories etc. in order to enhance explanation or demonstrate ability to apply Complex skills Analyse Break down a proposition or theory into component parts and examine those parts in detail. Assess Examine a proposition or statement by considering pros and cons. Make an informed judgement, justified by your argument, at the end. Comment (on) Briefly give your views on; what are some of the implications or consequences of; why is this so? Compare (and contrast) Examine the similarities and differences between to things and draw out their implications Consider Same as discuss Criticise (offer a critique) Drawing on evidence or alternative views, evaluate the value of a theory, proposition etc. (note: this always requires an appreciation of the theory as well as negative views) Discuss Examine through debate and argument the implications of; consider alternatives in investigating a proposition Evaluate Same as assess Explore Like discuss, but encourages you to be more creative and interpretive in your examination of issues Interpret From an explanation of a proposition or theory, develop your own disciplined understanding ‘to what extent…’ Same as assess. 2