How To Understand An Essay Question

This is part of the Essay Writing Crash Course Blog Series.

At school and university you are assigned essays so that your teacher can assess whether you have learned the material from the course. however, there are times when we look at the assigned question, whether that be for coursework or in an exam, and just think…??

How can you tackle this and understand what the question is asking you and hand your assignment in on time..???

The answer is with a process. In this post I will lay out the process for understanding ANY type of essay question. Follow this method and you will be able to decipher any question, no matter how difficult.

The Process to Understand Any Question

In order to understand a question we must first  break it down into its key words & phrases.


We break the question down into its key words and phrases to assess whether we understand each word individual word and its full meaning. This way we can determine what we do and don’t know.

How do we do this?

  1. Read the question.
  2. Take a pen and highlight/circle keywords and phrases.
  3. Brainstorm what each key word or phrase means, questions you have, and ideas.
  4. Re-read the question. Reassess your understanding.

Now we are going to walk through an example together. The process is the same for any subject, whether that be History, English, Religious Studies, Geography etc (the same method could probably be applied to science research papers too).

Throughout this process your job as a scholar is to keep questioning everything.

You must rip apart and interrogate the question, the research, evidence, other scholars arguments, your own preconceptions & knowledge, and then you will put it back together again.

Example Question:

Compare and contrast the ways in which the “Revolutions of ‘89” are approached in comparative politics, economics and history.

1. Read the question.

Note: This may sound simple but it is the most important first step. In order to even begin understanding the question, and write a relevant answer, you must always read the question. Throughout the process; you must keep referring back to the question. The question is your anchor throughout this process, refer back to it and it will keep you on task and ensure your written response actually answers the question.

2. Highlight keywords & phrases.

Note: key words and phrases are those that inform your understanding of the question. Look for words that give instruction, tell you what topic or time frame you should be looking at. For example:

Compare and contrast the ways in which the “Revolutions of ‘89” are approached in comparative politics, economics and history.

3. Brainstorm what each key word or phrase means.

Note: At this stage nothing is silly, too obvious or too simple; its all about brainstorming! I suggest starting with definitions of the words in their most simplistic form, think dictionary definitions and synonyms: what is the most basic information you know about each individual word or phrase.? Once you’ve got definitions, then start delving deeper into each word and phrase: what contextual knowledge do you already possess?  Also write down any questions you have? Is there anything that strikes you as odd in the way the question is written? Do you feel that it is written in a way that encourages you to write a specific answer? Note all of these ideas down. 

At this stage you are assessing what you do and don’t know, this is why nothing is off limits. Get it all out of your head and on to the page. This stage will be a reference point throughout the whole essay process. It will help direct your research give you more ideas as you go. You may also find that you know more than you think you did and with your contextual you already have an idea of what you could argue.

Brainstorming the essay question with definitions, own knowledge and questions.

4. Re-read the question. Re-assess your understanding.

Note: Why re-read the question? By doing the brainstorm you will have written down lots of ideas and thoughts. Now you must reacquaint yourself with the question to reassess your understanding of the question. Think about what you understand now. Do you have a better understanding of what the question is asking you? Write down any further ideas you have.

⚠️ What if I still don’t understand the question? ⚠️

If you still don’t understand the question, you need note down all your questions. These might pertain to word definitions or what happened at a certain event for example. Now do some research to answer those questions you noted down. Use your class notes, textbooks and google to help. Go back to your brainstorm and those answers. Do you have a better understanding of the question now?

Re-evaluate your understanding and use the following extra tasks to test what you think:

Extra: Test Your Understanding >>

5. Write out what the question is asking you.

Note: you may find it useful to test whether you understand the question. To do this, write out in 1-2 sentences what you believe the question is asking you. If 1-2 sentences is too difficult, then write out in as many sentences as you need, then do it again (and again, and again) until you can concisely articulate it in 1-2 sentences. See the example below for reference:

e.g. The question is asking me to analyse the methodology of academic fields of study – comparative politics, economics and history – when looking at the “Revolutions of ’89” and see how they are different and whether they have any similarities.

6. Write out what the question is NOT asking you.

Note: You may find it useful to note down what the question is not asking you. This can help later on when you’re planning and drafting your essay. If you feel lost, confused or that you may be going off topic, refer back to the question, your brainstorm and your sentences telling you the question is asking and what it is not asking.

e.g. The question is not asking me to analyse the causes or inevitability of the Revolutions.

What’s Next?

Now that you have brainstormed the question it’s time to start researching. Use this initial brainstorm to guide your research, jot down more ideas as they come to you and remember to always refer back to the question.

Brainstorming a question on Feminism.
Understanding an English Literature essay question on “A Christmas Carol”

Want to learn more about essay writing? Why not check out my essay writing crash course>>

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