Types of questions

Quotation + Discuss' questions

One of the most common types of essay question is a direct quotation followed by a general task word or phrase like ‘Discuss' or ‘To what extent do you agree?'.

When answering these questions, the most important thing is to work out your argument – what you think about the ideas in the quotation. Are they right, or wrong? Is there more than one side to the issue? This type of question lets you argue both sides of an argument, as long as you still come to a clear conclusion.

'Double-barrelled' questions

‘Double-barrelled' essay questions contain several issues that you need to answer separately. It's easy to miss parts of these questions – especially in an exam – but you have to answer each part in order to pass.

One way to deal with these questions is to break them into smaller, simpler questions. This makes it easy to see if you need to discuss more than one idea, and gives your research some clear goals.

Double-barrelled questions also challenge you to find relationships between different issues, and show your understanding of how they affect each other.

‘World War II saw many people question old beliefs and argue for change.' To what extent do you agree?

A good essay would talk about both issues raised in this question and talk about how they impact on each other.

Firstly, you'd write about whether WWII made people question their beliefs and if so, how their beliefs changed.

Then you would talk about whether questioning old beliefs led people to argue for change.

General questions

General questions often use task words like ‘discuss', and ask broad questions that could apply to almost any topic. This means you have to decide on the scope of your essay, and build your argument from scratch.

The good thing about general questions is that they allow you to pick a topic you know about and really show what you can do.

Were there any winners in the conflict that you studied?

This is a History question, so topics you could write about include:

  • The American Civil War
  • Colonisation in Australia
  • World War I or II.

The key to answering this question well is exploring the idea of what it means to ‘win', and whether there are ever any real winners when societies come into conflict.

The question is broad so you could answer it no matter what period of history you studied.

Specific questions

Specific questions are usually quite long and clearly outline what you need to cover in your essay. They're often easier to answer because they tell you exactly what to do, but they aren't very flexible – you have to be able to do everything in the question, so there can't be any gaps in your knowledge.

Whatever your argument is, you have to back up your ideas with examples from your research.