Pearson Adult Learning Centre HomePearson Adult Learning Centre: How to Answer Questions Well

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Years ago, when I taught in an English classroom in our high school, I wrote a document entitled, "How to Answer Questions Well." I was frustrated by my students' ineffective answers to questions posed in their assignments. Now, some 25 years later, I am happy to report that students in my self paced English 12 still find the document useful and I, as I finish my last year of teaching, have the same impression that a student would do well to heed this advice!


Rule One:

Read and understand the question before you answer. Never break this rule as it will cause a poor result no matter how well you follow the other suggestions!

Ah yes, I have broken this rule myself! It is easier to state than it is to follow. Every week, students break this rule by not taking a little extra time. I have found that students who occasionally consult with their teachers will increase their ability to read and understand questions well (and will become more independent in time).

Rule Two:

Know exactly what the question word used requires you to do. For example, comment means to give your opinion, but it also means to give evidence from a story to support that opinion!

Lack of support is a key failing of student answers. Oftentimes, a student will give a thoughtful opinion, but fail to indicate where in a piece of literature that opinion originates. Answers without proper support never receive full marks!

Rule Three:

Write no more than is necessary. This means do not summarize or quote large sections of a story (by retelling plot, for example). Summary rarely answers a question. Long answers often indicate to the teacher that the student cannot find or understand the correct passage; in addition, it makes the teacher work hard to find any useful information.

Teachers will give poor evaluations to answers with little substance. The more you say about the quote or part of the story you are talking about, the better your answer will usually be.

Students with the longest answers to questions are rarely the most effective. Not only is over summarizing a lot of work for the student, it is also a lot of work for the teacher! The best answers are concise, to the point, and easy to mark.

Rule Four:

Use a shorter, simpler word (which gives the correct meaning, of course) before using a longer, more complex word. Try to be simple, concise but still intelligent.

Beware of the thesaurus (especially in your word processor) and dictionary! I've lost count of the number of times an archaic, unusual, or infrequently used term has popped up in student assignments. Usually, a commonplace word that expresses your meaning is the better choice. See George Orwell's Politics and the English Language for more on that!

Rule Five:

Quote accurately. Students often quote incorrectly. This shows a lack of care to the reader and leads to a bad impression of the student.

I've lost count of the number of times I've said to myself, "That doesn't sound right"! Even simple spelling errors, if they occur inside quoted material, are jarring to a reader. Improper quotation is a sure sign that a student has not been working carefully.

Rule Six:

When quoting, identify the speaker of the quote. For example: When Harry says, “Other women want to buy a house, other women want their kids to have a yard to play in,” he showed how his desire to be ordinary has forced him to look at other people for a model of behaviour different from his own. Try to always fit the quotation into your own sentence. Avoid allowing the quote to be a sentence on its own.

Again, I often am not told who the speaker is when students use quotations. Usually, I can guess, but why should the teacher be forced to do that extra work? Anything a student can do to make the teacher focus on your good ideas the better.

Rule Seven:

Analysis means to answer the question “Why?”. Examples alone will not answer this question, so you should make sure that all examples are explained by you and shown to have a reason (in other words you will say why the author used irony rather than just saying that he/she used it).

Many many marks are lost this way. The student is successful at finding the appropriate example, quotes well, but then fails to provide the essential explanation for why they have included that information. Ask yourself this question: could anyone, even someone who has never read the story, understand my example?

Rule Eight:

Finally, don't plagiarize (copying other people's work without reference) Plagiary includes: copying a friend's homework; including more than two words from any textbook without using quotation marks; handing in work written by a tutor; even putting the teacher's ideas in your work without saying where the ideas came from. Get help if you need it and do your own work. This way you will learn to do it yourself.

In the "Internet Age" teachers have had to become super sleuths. Just this week, I came upon one of our teachers with several printed sheets that included large sections of a student's essay plagiarized from Internet sources. Needless to say, the student will have to do everything over again! Next time, however, the student will receive a zero. For more on plagiary see my Weekly Feature on Plagiary .

—originally written in 2002 and updated November 5, 2015; by Brad Hyde