Tips For Answering Essay Questions

from Robyn Sanderson

The questions you are asked in this class commonly fall into three categories. You can tell what kind of question it is by key words and phrases:

  • Comparison questions - you are asked to compare/contrast two ideas or things. Look for phrases like "similarities and differences", "compare and contrast", etc.
  • Description questions - you are asked to describe an idea, a process, or an object. Look for words/phrases like "what is", "how does", "what are", "describe", or for a process "what are the steps." NOTE: DON'T get these confused with explanation questions (see below). Many times I've seen students describe something when they were supposed to explain its causes.
  • Explanation questions - you are asked to explain why something happens. Look for words/phrases like "why", "explain why", "explain how", "what causes", etc. If you're not sure whether you are supposed to describe or explain something, do both.

There are other types of questions you'll run across as short answer essays, but these are the three big ones. There are different strategies for answering each type of question, but all of them involve organizing your thoughts first in a short list or outline. This isn't like outlining a paper; just jot down the main points you want to cover and any important details, and make sure the different points flow logically from one to another. It should only take a few minutes at the most, and the time you use doing this on an exam or on a homework assignment will pay off in the end because your answers will be a lot clearer. The clearer your answers, the more points you'll get.

Strategies for the different types of questions include:

  • Comparisons: make a table (as we've done in class) listing the points of comparison for the two things. Discuss similarities in one part of your answer and differences in another - don't mix and match.
  • Descriptions: Make a list of the key details you want to include. If what you're describing has subcategories (i.e. the different kinds of eclipses) then write down each one and list details for it. If it's a process you're describing, write down the steps in chronological order, then make a note of any important points about each step.
  • Explanations: often in astronomy, something either has many causes or is the result of a chain of effects. In really complicated cases it may even be both! If something has several causes, write down a list of them and add details about each one. Indicate which are major contributors and which are minor effects, if possible. If something is the result of a train of reasoning, make a list of the logical steps involved in coming to the final answer, like a flow chart. Be sure to specify ALL the intermediary steps, even the ones you think are obvious.

In general, the key words are DETAIL and CLARITY. The clearer, more well thought out, more specific, and more detailed your answer is, the more credit you will get for it. Also, if you're planning your answer on an exam and you can't remember something, leave a blank space in your list, finish outlining, and come back and look at the blank spot. Often, thinking about other aspects of the subject will jog your memory. Finally, include well-labeled diagrams if you think they might be useful, but don't use them instead of words.