Does Discuss Mean Essay Question

How to understand the essay question

As your first step in preparing for the essay, take some time to think about what the question means and what you are being asked to do. You may think that the question looks straightforward and want to charge straight in and begin reading, or even writing a first draft of your essay.

Although some people take this approach, it is likely that they will fail to grasp the full implications of the question and not produce a good essay. If you work in the way suggested below, your essay should take the right approach to the topic from the outset.


Essay questions are usually worded in one of a number of standard ways: they often start with words and phrases such as discuss, analyse, assess, and to what extent? which give you a hint as to how to deal with the question. Here are some typical instructions and what they mean:

analyse / examine / investigate
break down an issue into its main features and look at them in detail
assess / evaluate / how far? / to what extent?
present your judgement as to how far something is the case, supported by evidence
identify the similarities between the stated items
identify the differences between the stated items
give the exact meaning of; explain in detail
describe / give an account of / state
present a detailed account of
discuss / do you agree?
present the arguments for and against something
explain / what? / why? / how?
show that you understand something fully; display your factual knowledge of an issue
look at the issue from different points of view
present the main features, giving relevant examples
outline / trace
present the main aspects of an issue
sum up the main aspects of an issue

Key words

One way to get to grips with a question is to write it out and highlight or underline these instructions and any other words which seem important. Make sure you understand all the words you have highlighted: look them up in a dictionary or your lecture notes or ask your tutor if you are not sure what they mean.

For instance, if answering an essay question which asked you to ‘Assess the risks of global war during the Cuban missile crisis’, you might highlight the key words as follows:

Assess the risks of global war during the Cuban missile crisis

Once you have thought about or investigated each highlighted word, then you should be able to make sense of the question and understand exactly what is expected in your essay. In addition to thinking about the key words, another useful strategy is to write in your own words what you think the question is asking you to do.

Read more about essay preparation in:

How to plan time for essay writing

How to do research for an essay

How to organize material for your essay

Back toWriting essays.

See more from Writing essays

In most subjects, understanding and answering essay questions is a key academic skill.

At an advanced level of study, this requires not merely the description or repetition of knowledge itself, but the analysis, evaluation and interpretation of knowledge.

If you do not fully understand the question however, you cannot make a full and appropriate response to it and so will not achieve the highest marks.

Therefore, interpreting questions correctly is extremely important.

Use this list of question types as a starting point to help you understand and answer questions that you encounter in exams and assessed coursework.

Top tip: whenever possible talk to tutors and fellow students to help clarify your understanding.

Account for

Give reasons for/explain the cause of
Demonstrate your ability and command of the subject by being able to identify and explain matters in response to the question.


Reach an understanding by closely examining the different
parts of a topic (breaking things down)

Close examination of the various factors, and perceptive observations are prerequisites for the analytical essay.


Make a value judgement about one or more factors
Arrive at an estimation about certain factors or elements, particularly in relation to their effectiveness or


Simplify or make clear
Make certain matters easier to understand through a logical process of explanation.

Comment (upon critically)

Give your point of view
Make informed comments about a particular issue, factor or event.

Compare (and contrast)

Identify similarities and differences
Examine in order to identify similarities and differences issues, factors or ideas.


Think carefully about a particular matter
Consider the merits of a particular topic to produce an answer which is thoughtful and insightful.


Comparison of unlike or opposite qualities
Discuss elements of an issue or topic in order to illustrate their differences.


Judge, analyse or evaluate (with disapproval)
Examine an issue critically, giving evidence to support your opinion.


State the precise meaning
Test whether a particular (often controversial) term or concept has been understood. Define is usually linked to another instruction, for example, ‘briefly define what you mean by the term … and explain the significance of…’ .


Give an account of
Great care should be taken with this instruction if it occurs at advanced level, particularly if it is not linked to another instruction. By itself, it merely invites a recitation of facts; if this is the case, carefully consider the whole question.


Examine by argument (debate the pros and cons)
Examine the stated aspects of a subject (often two sides) and weigh their relative merits. This involves presenting evidence, arguments and to a certain extent personal opinion.


Highlight the differences
This is often used in the first part of a question or instruction to obtain a clearer picture of two or more issues.


Judge or assess the worth of
This calls for an examination of the merits of a particular issue or position and, consequently, reaching a considered judgement.


Scrutinise carefully or in detail; investigate
Conduct a logical, detailed analysis of an issue or case, highlighting elements such as cause and effect.


Give a clear and detailed account
Clarify or account for something by selecting details you feel are important.


In what way (to what extent?)
This indicates that there is perhaps no one answer to the question. So key issues have to be identified,
arguments made, evidence offered and your final position made clear.


Give reasons for/prove
Make out a case for a particular point of view. The use of evidence and strong argument is essential.


Give the main features
Select only the essential parts.This is usually followed by a second instruction requiring more detail or an


Present briefly and clearly
Give the main features of a topic or case briefly, but clearly.


State the main points
Bring together the main points without going into detail or giving examples.


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