Instructional words

Instructional words are used by your lecturer to explain how they want you to respond to an essay, assignment or exam question. The list below provides examples of some of the most commonly used instructional words and explains their meaning.

  • account for - give reasons for
  • give an account of - describe
  • to take into account - to consider, to think of
  • analyse - divide into parts and describe each part and explain their relationship; discuss a problem
  • argue - systematically support or reject a position by presenting reasons and evidence for acceptance or rejection
  • assess - decide how important something is and give your reasons
  • assume - first accept that the following is true
  • classify - arrange into groups or classes
  • comment on - explain why something is important
  • compare - describe the ways in which two things/characteristics are alike, but also mention differences
  • concept - an important idea
  • concise - short, brief
  • in the context of - referring to, within the subject of
  • contrast - describe the ways in which two things, qualities or problems are different
  • criteria - what standards you would expect; what questions you would expect to be answered
  • criticise - analyse and discuss faults and disadvantages, or merits and facts
  • deduction - the conclusion or generalisation you come to after looking carefully at all the facts
  • define - provide clear, concise, authoritative meanings with key details
  • describe - give details, recount or relate in sequence to illustrate the topic
  • discuss - give both sides of an argument (evidence) and then your own opinion
    (A warning: 'discuss' is often used loosely by lecturers when they actually mean 'describe')
  • distinguish between - describe the difference between two things
  • elaborate - Answer fully with reasons and examples (Yes or No is not enough)
  • evaluate - decide and explain how great, valuable or important something is
  • evaluate - look at reasons for and against, draw conclusions (you may judge in favour of one side)
  • explain - clarify and interpret meaning in order to show reasons, causes and effects
  • to what extent is (x) true? - Discuss, explain in what ways (x) is true and in what ways (x) is not true
  • factor(s) - the circumstances which bring about a result
  • function - what something does, its purpose or activities
  • identify - point out and describe
  • indicate - show, explain
  • illustrate - use examples or diagrams that prove the answer is correct and clarify meaning
  • implications - results which are not obvious; long term, suggested results
  • justify - provide reasons for a decision or viewpoint
  • limitations - explain where something is not useful or not relevant
  • list - provide an itemised series of points (often expressed in point form)
  • outline - give an organised description in which you state main points or features but omit detail
  • prove - confirm or verify by stating and evaluating evidence or by logical reasoning
  • with/by reference to - make sure you write about the following subject
  • relate - emphasise connections, relationships and associations
  • in relation to - only a certain part of the first topic is needed
  • review - re-examine, analyse and comment briefly on the major points
  • role - what part something plays, how it works, especially in co-operation with others
  • state - formally set out a position
  • summarise - give a concise account of main points of a subject, omitting details or examples
  • validity, valid - is there evidence and are there facts to prove this statement?

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