Designing exam questions

Designing exam questions yourself :

This section offers you some experience in designing your own questions: and working out what the key words in the exam questions may refer to. This is useful at two different points: When you are doing your revision, and want to practise doing exam answers, and in an exam itself, when you need to show you can answer the question effectively.

You will find it useful to have a specimen paper to hand.


A key skill is learning to do precisely what an examiner asks you to. This is what differentiates the student who answers the question from the one who doesn’t. This has two elements , one to do with course ideas, the other to do with the verb used in the question.


Activity: These are some of the most common verbs used in essay style questions. See how many of them you can put a definition beside before you check for mine below:







Distinguish between













Roger Lewis uses this list in the Collins Educational NEC publication ‘How to write Essays’ and gives these definitions. See how far they match yours.

Analyse Break up into parts, Investigate

Compare Look for similarities and differences between;

perhaps reach a conclusion about which is preferable

Contrast Bring out the difference between

Define Set down the meaning of a word or phrase

Describe Give a detailed account of

Discuss Investigate or examine by argument; sift and debate;

give reasons for and against; also examine the implications

Distinguish between Indicate the differences between

Evaluate Give your judgement about the merit of theories or

opinions; back your judgement by a discussion of

evidence or reasoning involved

Examine Look closely into

Explain Make plain; interpret and account for; give reasons


Explore Examine thoroughly, consider from a variety of


Interpret Make clear and explicit; show the meaning of

Justify Show adequate grounds for decisions and conclusions;

Answer the main objections likely to be made to


Outline Give the main features or general principles of a

subject, omitting minor details and emphasising

structure and arrangement

Relate a Narrate- more usual in examinations

b Show how things are connected to each other, and

to what extent they are alike or affect each other

State Present in brief clear form

Summarise Give a concise account of the chief points of a matter

omitting details and examples

Trace Follow the development or history of a topic from

some point of origin


There are key verbs for mathematical and computational questions too. These are:






Give an example.


Activity: Draw up a list of the key words which are used in your exam papers, and make your own glossary detailing what they mean. If you are in any doubt, ask your supervisor.


This is essential preparation so that in the exam room you will be in no doubt about the kind of answer you are being asked to give.


Activity: Having identified some key verbs, make yourself some questions on the lines of those in your exam paper, but substituting different verbs to see how it changes the way you tackle the answer,

My example would be as follows:

If the original question was :’ It has been claimed that the nuclear family is a universal feature of human societies. Assess the evidence for this claim.

You might change the verb to:

‘Summarise’ the evidence for this view. or

‘Trace’ the development of the family in Britain to ‘test the validity’ of this view , or

Contrast the nuclear family in Britain in the 19th and 20th Centuries to ‘evaluate’ this view.


Key words:

Having noted how the verb in the question changes what you DO, it is even more important to show the examiner that you have understood the key words in the sentence, and can define them.

Underlining the key ideas is a well established technique to remind you to define and analyse them at the planning stage of producing your answer. The process of asking yourself questions about the meaning of the key terms provides you with the beginnings of your answer.

Eg ‘John Major failed as European President because he could not take calculated risks do you agree?

First you would have to ask yourself if, in your view he had ‘failed, and what would be relevant evidence to cite of failure. You might want to decide whether he failed ‘completely’ or only partially. Did any achievements survive and form the basis for later developments? Did he fail for different reasons than the one cited?

You may want to comment about the focus on his role as European President, and indicate some limits to his success in this role caused by other factors in current politics.

And you also have to debate his risk taking. What is a calculated risk? Is it one in which you weigh up the chances of success and failure, and only act if the balance is clearly indicated? Could he trust to luck, and take uncalculated risks, and would this have been preferable?

Having asked yourself these questions you can progress to the detailed planning of your answer. the next steps are to sift your evidence, and select what is most relevant for consideration under each subheading. THEN you can plan a structure for your answer which uses your ideas and state your considered view .

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