Wednesday, August 19, 2015


“All questions share the same building blocks, regardless of topic, factor or discipline. As long as we can decode the building blocks, we can answer any question, anytime, in any discipline.”

An important part of exam preparation that is often overlooked is the analysis of questions. Teachers and students usually focus on acquiring information, forgetting that the content acquired must be eventually turned into responses which are aimed at answering specific questions.

Without proper guidance, students often end up thinking that questions fit into generic types and there can therefore be a ‘one size fits all’ approach to answering each type of question. This cannot be further from the truth. Every question is unique. Even if questions look similar, changing one element within the question can change the desired response entirely.

In order to accurately deduce the demands of the question, we must first identify the elements that make up a question.

Parts of a Question

From the example, you can see that questions are made up of 6 elements;

Parts of a Question - Explained

Let me explain in greater detail what these elements do.

Command Words
These tell you what the question wants you to do. Typically, there are 1 to 2 Command Words in any question. Care should be taken to identify ALL Command Words so that the requirements of the question can be comprehensively met.

Mark Allocation
It is usually assumed that the mark allocation is evenly distributed across all Command Words. If the question requires a description, an explanation of process or a worked example, the mark allocation will then reflect the number of steps or unique items within the process required in the answer. Therefore, the question in the previous example will require explanations for 3 reasons (‘why’) and 3 ways (‘how’) forest act as green lungs.

Conditional Command Word
An often under-rated part of questions is the Conditional Command Word. This refers to any word or phrase that sets the parameters within which the candidate is to answer. It can either look like what has been mentioned in the example, or come in other forms, such as; ‘With reference to examples,’; ‘Study Fig. 2B,’.

Regardless of how it is worded, the Conditional Command Word must be heeded; else the answer will be void. A deeper discussion can be found in section on the importance of Command Words.

A final element that needs to be heeded is the numbering convention. Questions marked 1, 2 and 3 are discrete and have little to do with each other. Within each question, parts marked (a), (b) and (c) are also discrete and have little to do with each other, save for covering the same topic. However, within each part, sub-divisions of (i), (ii) and (iii) are related, in so far as the answer from (i) may feed (ii) or they may all take answers from the same data source.

Here are some worked examples to illustrate what I mean.

Next up: Types of exam questions

Exam Tips

Like our messages?

Sign up to get our messages delivered daily.

Social Media Policy Privacy Policy Disclaimer Terms of Use