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Essay writing: Analysing questions

“It is well worth the time to break down the question into its different elements.”

Kathleen McMillan & Jonathan Weyers, How to Write Essays & Assignments

When you get an essay question, how do you make sure you are answering it how your tutor wants? There is a hidden code in most questions that gives you a clue about the approach you should be taking...


Decoding the question

Here is a typical essay question:

Analyse the impact of the employability agenda on the undergraduate student experience.

Let's decode it...

Q=Analyse the economic impacts of a no-deal Brexit for the import industry. Analyse=instruction; the employability agenda=key issue/subject; the undergraduate student experience=focus/constraint


Understanding the instruction words

Did you know that analyse means something different to discuss or evaluate?  In academic writing these have very specific and unique meanings - which you need to make sure you are aware of before you start your essay planning. For example:

It is almost impossible to remember the different meanings, so download our Glossary of Instruction Words for Essay Questions to keep your own reminder of the most common ones.

Recognise the subject of the question

Many students think this is the easy bit - but you can easily mistake the focus for the subject and vice versa.  The subject is the general topic of the essay and the instruction word is usually referring to something you must do to that topic.

Usually, the subject is something you have had a lecture about or there are chapters about in your key texts.

There will be many aspects of the subject/topic that you will not need to include in your essay, which is why it is important to recognise and stick to the focus a shown in the next box.

Identify the focus/constraint

Every essay has and needs a focus.  If you were to write everything about a topic, even about a particular aspect of a topic, you could write a book and not an essay!  The focus gives you direction about the scope of the essay.  It usually does one of two things:

  1. Lecturer showing a slide about the focus of the essaySets constraints (focus on one thing, not everything else about the topic)
  2. Gives context (focus on the topic within a particular situation, time frame etc).

This could be something there were a few slides about in your lecture or a subheading in your key text.


I don't have an essay question - what do I do?

I have to make up my own title

If you have been asked to come up with your own title, write one like the ones described here. Include at least an instruction, a subject and a focus and it will make planning and writing the essay so much easier. The main difference would be that you write it as a description rather than a question i.e.:

An analysis of the impact of the employability agenda on the undergraduate student experience.

I have only been given assignment criteria

If you have been given assignment criteria, the question often still contains the information you need to break it down into the components on this page. For example, look at the criteria below. There are still instruction words, subjects and focus/constraints.

  • Instructions words = explain (twice); reflect on.
  • Subjects = two learning theories; an experience from your teaching practice; knowledge of a learning theory.
  • Focus/constraints = your own teaching context; in the circumstances

Think of each criterion therefore as a mini essay.