Those little words

Command words word cloud

“Sir, how do I distinguish between two ideas??’

“Miss, this question says ‘refer to the article above’ in my answer. What have I got to do?”

“Madam, this question asks me to ‘address a criticism’, what does address mean?”

So, a new school year starts! Too many new practices and policies launched in the INSET days. And new groups of psychology students to teach for GCSE and A Level. Most have never studied psychology before and wonder if it will be… interesting…help with understanding body language…be easier than some other options? Well, I hope it will be interesting, at least!

And, like it or not, there will be exams at the end of the course. Fresh in our minds are the August results for GCSE and A Level and the papers and questions that our students met in May and June. We’ve all seen lots of exam papers and may have been fiercely critical of the way some questions were framed. I’ve looked at some answers, too.

A quick analysis of questions identifies the psychological content and the command words that direct the students to use their knowledge and understanding in particular ways to respond to the question. I’m interested in these command words. Feelings of anything from mild disappointment to intense frustration and anger are aroused when students have a good command of the psychological content but misinterpret the command word –  a particular problem for students with less fluency in English.

I think I’ve noticed a change in the ways questions are framed that present students with a wider variety of challenges and seeks to avoid the mere repetition of well-practised prepared answers. I suppose that represents a better test of understanding and application of ideas from psychology courses. I’ve chosen three of these that I noticed in exam papers this year and presented them as valuable questions that students might ask when working through them. Here’s what I think might be a way to respond.

‘Distinguish’ could be written as ‘Identify and explain one difference’ and in other ways. To illustrate with an ‘easy’ example, suppose it was about ‘a closed question and an open question’. I think many students would write definitions of the two terms and that might be appropriate to get all the credit on a mark scheme. However, an even smarter answer could be to describe the feature that distinguishes them and then illustrate it for both terms. So, for example, ‘They differ in the range of possible answers, in a closed question the participant must choose from a limited number of possibilities, e.g. ‘Yes/No’, while in an open question the participant can give any response they wish’. This kind of question could crop up with many variations, e.g. structured/unstructured interviews, STM/LTM and normative/informational social influence.

Questions with a stem involving a conversation, scenario, statement etc. seem to have become more common in the past few years. They often involve psychological terms and concepts to be explained, followed by the ‘refer to…’ command. In the past, a mere quote may have been credited but a better answer involves using the material to illustrate the term or concept. For example, if a question was about normative/informational social influence, after explaining the meaning of the terms, it would be best to show how the stem involves these ideas, linking them to what people in the stem did or said.

‘Address…’ may rarely have been used in questions in the past. An example might be, ‘Many face recognition studies have been criticised for being unrealistic. How could this criticism be addressed in face recognition research’? I think many, even most, students would struggle to explain the meaning of ‘address’ in this context. One copy of the Concise Oxford Dictionary didn’t help! Perhaps this choice of command word was unfair to many students. To answer the question the student has to think of specific ways in which face recognition studies are ‘unrealistic’ and then suggest a way of making them more ‘realistic’. For example, the criticism could refer to the way that these studies are often done using 2D, stationary, images. This could be/was addressed by asking participants to keep a diary of ‘problems’ recognising and naming 3D, moving, faces in everyday life. It’s quite likely that some studies in the course have dealt with ‘improvements’ to earlier ones, so the student might be able to use these as a source of ideas. Other examples could be studies in memory, social influence and social cognition.

I did make a hurried attempt at a table of command words and their possible meanings a while ago. It may be useful.

Command word Meanings and examples


Offer a suggestion that deals with/responds to/improves on an issue raised in the question, e.g. address criticisms that memory studies are unrealistic
Apply Use ideas from the course to explain what happens in a storyline or suggest a way to do something, e.g. apply Piaget’s ideas about cognitive development in a classroom
Calculate Do a sum to work something out, e.g. the mean of a set of results. Show your working
Choose Shade or tick a box. Pick an answer from a list
Describe Write the specific details of, e.g. a theory, a study or a treatment
Devise Use your knowledge to think of a way of doing something, e.g. how to do a study
Distinguish Write down, e.g. the way in which two terms differ, such as episodic and semantic memory, and illustrate this for each
Discuss Describe the details, evaluate and, if appropriate, compare, e.g. a theory such as Gibson’s theory of perception or explanations for obedience
Draw a conclusion Look at the results of a study and write down what pattern they show
Draw a diagram For example, some parts of the brain. Make sure the labels are correct and point to the right places
Draw a graph Choose the correct graph to draw, e.g. bar chart, scatter diagram etc. Label the axes correctly and put numbers on them if appropriate. Give the graph a detailed title: the kind of graph and what it shows
Explain Usually write how or why something happens, e.g. the function of eye contact in turn-taking in conversations
Evaluate Describe, in detail, specific good and bad points about, e.g. an explanation, a theory, a treatment or a study
Give, Identify, State Just write down the answer. It may be a single word or short statement, e.g. choosing the independent variable in a study
Outline Write a brief answer containing the key points
Refer to Use some information to link to the question, e.g. quoting from a conversation in a ‘storyline’ to show how it fits in with an idea. It does not mean ‘just copy something’
What is meant by Write the meaning of a psychological term

May the new school year go well for all of us!

Our anonymous writer, P, has many years experience of teaching and assessing GCSE and A Level Psychology in a large comprehensive school.