Understanding process words

Process words are terms like 'analyse', 'compare', or 'contrast'.

These words tell you what is required of you when answering essay questions and how you should use the information you have found for your essay.

Process words are not helpful when searching for information online - you will need to use keywords for this.

Common process words

Account for
Explain, clarify, give the reasons for. This is quite different from "give an account of..." which is more like "describe in detail".

Analyse
Break an issue down into its component parts, discuss them and show how they interrelate.

Argue
Make a case, based on appropriate evidence and logically structured for and/or against some point of view.

Assess
Consider the value or importance of something, paying attention to positive, negative and disputable aspects, and citing the judgements of any known authorities as well as your own.

Comment on
This term asks for a combination of the criteria found in "analyse" and "assess". Although it sounds as if it would be similar to "describe "or "summarise" it is asking you to be critical and evaluative in your approach.

Compare
Identify and discuss the characteristics or qualities two or more things have in common you will probably need to point out their differences as well. Quite often an essay will ask you to "compare" and "contrast".

Contrast
Point out and discuss the differences between two things. You will probably need to identify their similarities as well. Quite often an essay will ask you to "compare" and "contrast".

Criticise
Spell out your judgement as to the value or truth of something, indicating the criteria on which you base your judgement and citing specific instances and arguments as to how the criteria apply in this case.

Define
Make a statement as to the meaning or interpretation of something, giving sufficient detail as to allow it to be distinguished from other similar things.

Describe
Spell out the default aspects of an idea or topic, or the sequence in which a series of things happened.

Discuss
Probably the most common word to appear in essay titles and usually requiring analysis and evaluation of evidence as well as weighing up arguments and drawing conclusions.

Evaluate
Similar to "assess" in that you need to consider the value and importance of something and weigh up its different aspects, citing evidence and argument in support of your case.

Explain
Tell how things work or how they came to be the way they are, including perhaps some need to "describe" and to "analyse".

To what extent
Explore the case for a stated proposition or explanation, much in the manner of "assess" and "criticise", probably arguing for a less than total acceptance of the proposition.

Identify
Pick out what you regard as the key features of something, perhaps making clear the criteria you use in doing so.

Illustrate
Similar to "explain" but probably requesting you give specific examples or statistics to support your case.

Interpret
Clarify something or explain it, perhaps indicating how the thing relates to something else, or explaining a particular way of looking at it.

Justify
Express valid reasons for accepting a particular interpretation or conclusion, probably including the need to argue a case.

Outline
Indicate the main features of a topic or sequence of events, possibly setting them within a clear structure or framework to show how they interrelate.
 
Review
Survey a topic with the emphasis on "assess" rather than "describe".

Summarise
Give the main points briefly, omitting details and illustrations.

Trace
Describe in narrative form the progress, development or sequence of events from some particular point.

These guidance notes were produced by the Student Study Support Unit at Canterbury Christchurch College.

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