Understanding the meaning of words, especially task words, helps you to know exactly what is being asked of you. It takes you halfway towards narrowing down your material and selecting your answer.

Task words direct you and tell you how to go about answering a question. Here is a list of such words and others that you are most likely to come across frequently in your course.

Table of task words
Words What they (might) mean...
Account for Explain, clarify, give reasons for. (Quite different from "Give an account of which is more like 'describe in detail').
Analyse Break an issue down into its component parts, discuss them and show how they interrelate.
Assess Consider the value or importance of something, paying due attention to positive, negative and disputable aspects, and citing the judgements of any known authorities as well as your own.
Argue Make a case based on appropriate evidence for and/or against some given point of view.
Comment on Too vague to be sure, but safe to assume it means something more than 'describe' or 'summarise' and more likely implies 'analyse' or 'assess'.
Compare Identify the characteristics or qualities two or more things have in common (but probably pointing out their differences as well).
Contrast Point out the difference between two things (but probably point out their similarities as well).
Criticise Spell out your judgement as to the value or truth of something, indicating the criteria on which you base your judgement and citing specific instances of how the criteria apply in this case.
Define Make a statement as to the meaning or interpretation of something, giving sufficient detail as to allow it to be distinguished from similar things.
Describe Spell out the main aspects of an idea or topic or the sequence in which a series of things happened.
Discuss Investigate or examine by argument. Examine key points and possible interpretations, sift and debate, giving reasons for and against. Draw a conclusion.
Evaluate Make an appraisal of the worth of something, in the light of its apparent truth; include your personal opinion. Like 'assess'.
Enumerate List some relevant items, possibly in continuous prose (rather than note form) and perhaps 'describe' them (see above) as well.
Examine Present in depth and investigate the implications.
Explain Tell how things work or how they came to be the way they are, including perhaps some need to 'describe' and to 'analyse' (see above). 
To what extent...?  Explore the case for a stated proposition or explanation, much in the manner of 'assess' and 'criticise' (see above), probably arguing for a less than total acceptance of the proposition.
How far  Similar to 'to what extent...?' (see above) 
Identify  Pick out what you regard as the key features of something, perhaps making clear the criteria you use. 
Illustrate  Similar to 'explain' (see above), but probably asking for the quoting of specific examples or statistics or possibly the drawing of maps, graphs, sketches etc. 
Interpret Clarify something or 'explain' (see above), perhaps indicating how the thing relates to some other thing or perspective.
Justify Express valid reasons for accepting a particular interpretation or conclusion, probably including the need to 'argue' (see above) a case.
Outline Indicate the main features of a topic or sequence of events, possibly setting them within a clear structure or framework to show how they interrelate.
Prove Demonstrate the truth of something by offering irrefutable evidence and/or logical sequence of statements leading from evidence to conclusion.
Reconcile Show how two apparently opposed or mutually exclusive ideas or propositions can be seen to be similar in important respects, if not identical. Involves need to 'analyse' and 'justify' (see above).
Relate Either 'explain' (see above) how things happened or are connected in a cause-and-effect sense, or may imply 'compare' and 'contrast' (see above).
Review  Survey a topic, with the emphasis on 'assess' rather than 'describe' (see above).
State Express the main points of an idea or topic, perhaps in the manner of 'describe' or 'enumerate' (see above).
Summarise 'State' (see above) the main features of an argument, omitting all superfluous detail and side-issues.
Trace Identify the connection between one thing and another either in a developmental sense over a period of time, or else in a cause and effect sense. May imply both 'describe' and 'explain' (see above). 
Other useful definitions
Words What they (might) mean...
Assumption Something which is accepted as being true for the purpose of an argument.
Issue An important topic for discussion; something worth thinking and raising questions about.
Methodology A system of methods and principles for doing something. Often used to explain methods for carrying out research.
Objective It is the point, or the thing aimed at. It is what you want to achieve by a particular activity.


Maddox, H 1967, How to Study, 2nd ed, Pan Books, London.

Marshall, L., & Rowland, F 1998, A guide to learning independently, Addison Wesley Longman, Melbourne.

Northedge, A 1997, The good study guide, Open University, Milton Keynes, UK.

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