How to break down complex questions into simpler parts

complex questions

1. Determine what the question is asking from you by looking at the command word.

A few common examples of command words include ‘list’, ‘state’, ‘describe’, ‘compare’, ‘explain’, and ‘discuss’. This list of command terms progressively increases in complexity, and thus your responses are also required to be more extensive. Also, note the amount of marks available, as this will give you an indication of what kind of response is required.

Tuning into the task will allow you to mentally prepare yourself before you pick up your pen. The higher-order questions may require a few deep breaths and some hand exercises before you feel ready to begin writing. Trust in your own ability and think back to when you have answered similar questions in the past for guidance.  If you allow yourself to panic or feel overwhelmed, chances are you will reduce your capacity to think of ideas.

Take the time to really focus and visualise yourself achieving the task at hand. When you can achieve a sense of calm, you will be able to make connections and move into a state of flow, which will make it much easier for you to put in the effort.

2. Answer the question presented to you, not the one you want to answer.

Read, re-read, and re-read again until you feel you know what you are being asked to do. Students commonly misinterpret the question they are given and thus do not actually provide relevant content in their responses.

Going off on tangents to show an examiner that you know a everything there is to know about a certain topic is a waste of words because the aim is not to write lots and lots of pages, but rather to answer the question in as much detail as you can in as few words as possible. This is where you will gain marks.

Examiners are real people too, so be conscious that they have to suffer through long hours of marking and enormous stacks of papers. The easier you make it for them to find your key points, the happier they will be. This, in turn, can only lead to good things in terms of your grades! Tune in to any highlighted, repeated or underlined words. The key is to be precise and concise.

3. Use contextual clues to help you figure out what an unfamiliar word means.

Complex questions often have words that you aren’t sure of or haven’t seen before. Remembering the previous tip, we have to work out what they mean before starting to write. You can do this by looking them up (if this is a possibility) or by looking at the surrounding words to determine the context.

If a word is followed by a negative consequence, you can presume that it is not something beneficial. You can try break the word down into its components as well. For example, ‘disadvantageous’ can be broken down into the more familiar ‘advantage’, while the prefix ‘dis-’ tells you it is the opposite of an advantage.

4. When you are unsure how to proceed, go back to what already you know.

If you get stuck with trying to add new information, reflect on what you know for certain. Thinking back to the state of flow mentioned in the first tip, sometimes you need to revisit old ideas at a new time when you have reached a state where you can think more deeply and critically.

It is a good idea to have a plan in whatever format you are comfortable with so you can make links between different ideas and come up with new ones that link back or allow you to take a new direction. Sometimes another question might trigger a memory or give you an idea that you can use in a different question. If possible, the old advice of ‘sleeping on it’ has truth to it. When you are asleep, your brain works to solve problems that you have faced throughout the day, and you might wake to find that you have a simple solution that you weren’t able to think of before.

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