March 2, 2009

Helping Students Understand Verbs Used in Test Questions

Teaching and Learning

To instructors, who have received an extensive formal education, knowing exactly what a test is asking may come easy. For some students, though, the ability to know exactly what they should do when words like "analyze" or "discuss" on exam can be vague and even foreign., one of our favorite websites, recently published a list that all instructors could use a reference to help their students. Here is a list of what they call "test" verbs that you may want to share with students in your syllabus or exam preparation documents:

Analyze—break something down into parts, such as a theory into its components or a process into its stages or an event into its causes.

Assess/Criticize/Evaluate—determine or judge the degree to which something meets or fails to meet certain criteria.

Compare/Contrast—identify important similarities and/or differences between two or more elements in order to reveal something significant about them.

—give the key characteristics by which a concept, thing, or event can be understood.

Describe—give the characteristics by which an object, action, process, person or concept can be recognized and visualized.

—debate, argue, and evaluate the various sides of an issue

Explain/Justify—give the basic principles or reasons for something; make it intelligible.

Interpret/Explain—say what the author of a quotation or statement means.

Illustrate—Use a concrete example to explain or clarify the essential attributes of a problem or concept.

Reference: Nilson, L. B. Teaching at Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors. 2nd ed. Bolton, Mass. Anker, 2003. [now available from Jossey-Bass]

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