Command Words: Understanding Instructions in Exams

Not sure how to answer questions in your exam? Don’t panic! Use our guide on understanding command words. Whether you have to define or describe, you’ll know just what to do.

Busy preparing for your exam? Well in order to earn marks, you need to prove that you understand what is asked. If you are not sure how to answer questions, we are here to help. Use our guide to understanding command words in exams.

What are Command Words?

Command words are also known as task words. They tell you how to answer a question. By understanding these words, you’ll know what type of answers to give and how to structure them. They are found in all subjects and modules as they are used to test your knowledge on a topic.

Common Command Words in Exams

Whether you’re in high school or university, you’ve definitely had to answer command words or follow instructions. Knowing exactly what they mean will help you next time you are faced with a question. Below are some common command words: 

Analyse

Let’s say an image of an advertisement is added in the exam. Analysing means you need to take a close look at all the information. You have to break it up into smaller parts and examine the data. It usually makes up the first part of the question. Once you’ve done this, you will need to answer questions based on the information you gathered.

Assess

Comprehension tests are quite common in exams, right? You’ll be given a ton of information, usually in the form of a story. After going through it all, you need to come up with your own judgement in order to answer the questions. Assessing is all about weighing your options to give the best possible answers. 

Compare

So your teacher adds a picture of a red tulip and white rose in your question paper and tells you to compare them. Not sure what to look out for? Let’s help. You need to look for the similarities and differences between the two. So even though they are both flowers, they are different colours. 

Contrast

This is quite similar to compare. However, when you contrast information, you only look at all the ways in which they are different from each other. Take a look at the example above. Instead of looking at only their colours, by contrasting, you might also state how different they are in shape.

Define

Define refers to giving the definition or meaning of a word, term, concept or event. In exams, you will need to know the meaning of relevant words by heart. This means you have to study hard to memorise these definitions. A great way to memorise is by using flash cards

Describe

Got a keen eye? Then you’ll be able to describe like a pro. It means pointing out important details and characteristics of an object, process or event. Imagine having to describe an orange. You can list that it is an orange, round, citrus fruit full of vitamin C.

Discuss

Wondering how to discuss your answers in an exam? Well when they say discuss, it doesn’t mean out loud. You need to write down and explain the points of a story or information in detail. This is done in your own words, while using examples from the story or data you have.

Evaluate

This is similar to assessing. You need to look at the information and form your own opinions on it. Look at the importance of the data and what is most valuable to your answer. You could be looking at the value or impact of the information you have. 

Examine

Examining means you need to inspect the information you have closely. It is similar to analysing. So you will also need to break up the data to fully understand all things included. It is usually followed by a question on what you have studied.

Explain

When you explain in an exam, this is all about stating facts, information, reasons or your own views. After making a point, you can also explain to justify your answers and how you came to that conclusion. It shows you have an understanding of the information. 

Identify

Identifying means having to pick and name information relevant to the answer. For example, if you are asked to identify the eight planets in our solar system, you could list them all by name. Unless they want you to describe them, you don’t need to go into detail.

Outline

To outline means to focus and mention the important facts. You can do this after identifying the most important information. Instead of going into too much detail, narrow down the key points that will help you define and explain a concept. 

Predict

Imagine reading a story about a chef adding chilli peppers to his food? What do you think will happen? Of course his food will be spicy and packed with a lot of heat. When you predict, you give an assumption of what could happen using the information you have. 

Summarise

Heard the phrase “to make a long story short”? That’s what it means to summarise. You will need to give a broad overview of what you read in a few short lines or sentences. With this instruction, you will only focus on main points.

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Score Top Marks With our Useful Guide

Whether you’re studying a matric programme or our courses, this useful guide on command words will come in handy. You’ll know how to answer questions and what valuable information to look out for. Want to test out your skills? Then contact us and get started. You can: 

  • Call us on 0800 39 00 27 – it’s free
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Last Updated: June 10, 2022

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Charnell Ward
Charnell Ward
Charnell is a top-class content creator at Skills Academy. She creates engaging content with the aim to provide useful information on distance learning and further study opportunities. Her passion for writing goes beyond her career, as she enjoys writing short stories and volunteering as a writer in her free time. View my LinkedIn profile