Wednesday, August 19, 2015

THE IMPORTANCE OF COMMAND WORDS

“It is the Command Word that makes the question, not the content.”

The Command Word is the cornerstone of the question. It gives instruction on what is required. It, together with the mark allocation, gives us the route map to navigate the landscape of the content. Students need to be acutely aware of the fact that it is the Command Word that makes the question, not the content.

The following is an exercise I often to use to prove this point;
‘List the factors influencing Global Warming.’
‘Describe the factors influencing Global Warming.’
‘Explain the factors influencing Global Warming.’
As you can see, even though the topic, section and factors that the questions deal with are identical, the task varies rather significantly.

In the case of ‘list’, the candidate is supposed to identify specific features to meet a particular purpose. There is no need to mention characteristics or give reasons. In contrast, ‘describe’ requires candidates to give an account of the distinctive features of the item; while ‘explain’ requires reasons to be given for processes or phenomena. Giving one in place of another will render the answer inaccurate to the question. This is true for any subject. Here is an example from math.
‘Solve a+b=c’
‘Prove a+b=c’
In the first instance, the question is focused on deriving the final answer. In the second instance, the focus is on showing the equation to be true.

Various subjects and disciplines have different definitions for what each Command Word means. Teachers and students will do well to get their hands on a copy of their exam syllabus which should spell out the demands and definitions for each of the Command Words.

Nonetheless, Command Words can be broadly classified into 3 types; the List type, the Describe type and the Explain type.

List
List type questions are characterized by;
  • requiring candidates to identify a catalog of specific features to meet a particular purpose, 
  • typically brief answers, which could be a short sentence or single word answer. 
Other possible terms used to elicit this same response are;
Identify, Name, State, Give, Suggest.

While there are subtle differences between the various forms and therefore different situations for their use, they lead to the same general nature of answer.

Describe
Describe type questions are characterized by;
  • requiring candidates to give a written factual account of the distinctive features of an item, 
  • requiring candidates to relate what an item looks like or to give overall changes and trends. 
It is important to note that when used in a Data Response Question, (i.e. questions that require candidates to derive answers from given information) relevant figures should be used to support the description. This is of vital importance as in some subject syllabus, answers to describe type Data Response Questions have this requirement inbuilt into the definition of the Command Word and hence, do not earn credit if relevant supporting data is not given.

Deciphering a 'Describe' Question

Therefore, it is only when BOTH Descriptor AND Evidence are present that the answer will merit the 1 mark allocated.

Compare
Following from the Describe type question, Compare questions are those which build on the same Describe skills but double the requirements. Such questions take the elements that make up a Describe answer, and add the additional requirement of a comparative adjective between the two descriptions.

Compare may be written as ‘List/State/Describe/Contrast the similarities and differences between…’ Regardless of the way it is expressed, merely giving 2 descriptions does not make a comparison. The comparative adjective is paramount.

There are 2 ways that such questions can be answered; by grouping the descriptions or by grouping the descriptors. Here is an example worked both ways;

Deciphering a 'Compare' Question - Method 1

OR

Deciphering a 'Compare' Question - Method 2

Explain
Explain type questions are characterized by;
  • reasons provided for the occurrence of phenomena or processes, OR 
  • short precise definition of terms. 
Other possible terms used to elicit this same response are;

For the first type - Account for, Give/Suggest reasons for.
For the second type - State the meaning of, What is meant by.

This is where the importance of understanding Command Words in context can be clearly seen. This same Command Word, when placed in different situations, elicits differing and mutually exclusive nature of answers.

For example;
‘Explain the meaning of Global Warming.’
‘Explain the causes of Global Warming.’
In the example above, the same Command Word, when used in the first instance, asks for a definition; whilst in the second instance, it asks for reasons. From here we see the influence that context has on Command Words.

Command Words are also sometimes used in combination. When this happens, it significantly changes the question. Here are some examples;
‘Suggest how Global Warming has exacerbated.’
‘Suggest why Global Warming has exacerbated.’
‘Describe how Global Warming has exacerbated.’
‘Describe why Global Warming has exacerbated.’
‘Explain how Global Warming has exacerbated.’
‘Explain why Global Warming has exacerbated.’
In the first instances (i.e. the how questions) the questions focus on the ways global warming has been made worse; and in the latter cases (i.e. the why questions) the questions are focused on the reasons for Global Warming.

So when both Command Words are put together, the first instance requires candidates to list ways and reasons, which has worsened global warming; the second instance, to describe the ways and reasons for global warming worsening; and the third instance, to give reasons for the ways and reasons mentioned above. This is yet another example of how Command Words are altered by context.

Conditional Command Word
Complementing the Command Word are words that set the parameters within which the task needs to be completed. These are what I call Conditional Command Words. These can take many forms; ‘Using information from Fig. 1,’ ‘Study Source A and answer the questions.’ ‘From the graph,’ ‘Using your answer from part (i)’. This list is clearly not exhaustive.

Regardless of the form, it is clear that Conditional Command Words are usually used to set boundaries to which information for the question can be taken. When used, the Conditional Command Word could potentially pose 3 options for candidates; can use, must use, must only use.

Can use
In this case, the candidate has an option to or not to use the information given. There is no penalty if the information is not used. An example of such a question is;
‘Using either information from Fig. 1 or your own knowledge, explain the meaning of life.’
Must use
In this case, the candidate has no option but to use the information given. There will be a penalty if the information is not used. However, the candidate may also use information from his studies, outside of the information given. An example of such a question is;
‘Using information from Fig. 1 and your own knowledge, explain the meaning of life.’
Must only use
In this case, the candidate has no option but to use the information given. There will be a penalty if the information is not used. The candidate also cannot use information from his studies. An example of such a question is;
‘Using information from Fig. 1 only, explain the meaning of life.’
We cannot underestimate the importance of Conditional Command Words. By placing such a term in a question, limits are set and therefore answers should not require responses that fall outside of these limits. Similarly, responses falling outside of the prescribed boundaries should also not be awarded.

Here are some worked examples to illustrate what I mean.

Next up: Managing Structured Questions

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