Understanding essay questions

When you're given an assignment, it may be tempting to simply Google your essay question and type it into our Library Search - but you'll probably get either too many results or none at all.

To find the information you need, you'll need to first understand your essay question and identify which words to use in your online search.

A good way of approaching your essay is to break the question down. Most essay questions will contain two different types of words - keywords and process words.

As an example, we'll use the following essay title:

'Assess what impact the media has on our fear of crime'

Keywords

Keywords are the words which define the topic. They are the words you'll need to use in your online searches.

In our example above, the keywords are 'media', 'fear' and 'crime'.

Process words

Process words tell you what is required of you when answering the question and how you will be using the information in your essay. They will not be helpful for your online searches.

In our example, the process word is “assess”.

Planning your search

Before you start searching with your keywords, think about the type of information you are looking for and where you should search.

Books can be provide useful introductions to a subject, but they may not always cover the very latest information. Journals are more specialist, but also more up-to-date. Websites will give you the very latest information.

Before starting your search, ask yourself these questions:

  • Can you limit your search to a particular geographical area? For example, are you looking for information about the UK, or United States, or China?
  • Are you considering your topic from all angles or from a particular perspective? For example, could you limit your search to just a social, economic or political point of view?
  • Are you looking for newer material or older material?
  • How far back will it be useful to go?
  • Is there a meaningful start or finish date for your topic, such as an important event, law or technological innovation?
  • Are you looking for introductory or specialist information? Do you need a general overview or do you need to find the latest research on specific topic?

Recommended reading

For tips on writing essays, have a look at the book Write great essays! (Levin, P. (2009), 2nd ed. Maidenhead: Open University Press). The book can be accessed by signing in to dawsonera.

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