Short answers in exams: what are they asking; and how should you answer them

Short answers in exams: what are they asking; and how should you answer them

Short answers a big deal in university/college exams – which make them an even bigger part of university/college student life.  After all, while they might not have a lot of marks associated with each one – they certainly add up.  Again, this wouldn’t be a problem but when you ask students the question(s) above – i.e.,   short answers in exams – what are they asking?  And how should you answer them?  Many students, when asked these questions have the same response:

So what we’re going to do today is go over what is involved with short answer questions – firstly by looking at the questions themselves and what lecturers/assessors are looking for when they ask the questions.  Then we’re going to look at some short answer question examples and possible answers and see what makes them good.  Okay?  

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Short answer questions vs Bloom’s Taxonomy

You may (or may not) have seen this before:

This is Bloom’s Taxonomy.  To understand what it is, we need to talk very quickly about who Bloom was.

Benjamin Bloom  was a 20th century educational psychologist.  He was interested in creating a system of classifying the processes of thinking and learning.  He reasoned, if we understand WHAT thinking and learning are, we have a better chance of IMPROVING them.

Bloom’s Taxonomy is a system of classifications that educators (lecturers, assessors, and more) can use to help them better understand the relationship between education and assessment.  This, in turn, helps them to design courses, programmes, and assessments.

So why is this useful for you?

Because if you can understand what lecturers are asking for – it is much easier to give them what they want.  Think of it like learning the rules of a game before you play.  After all, if you want to win a game, it makes it a LOT easier when you know the rules. 

And ultimately, exams and assessments are a very strange kind of high-stakes game…   probably not quite as stressful as this one below but an exam paper full of words that you don’t know and time running down on for a paper that you must pass – all this can make assessments feel very stressful indeed.

So what are the levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy?

As you can see there are six levels.  These are arranged in a hierarchy – with the simpler levels at the bottom moving through to increasingly complex levels of thinking.  Think of it like a steps, moving from simpler types of thinking (remembering, understanding, and applying) à to more complex thinking skills (analysis, synthesis, and evaluation).  In another sense, these levels correspond to the level of thought required at different levels of university/college study (something we talk about in a number of our Academic Skills lessons). 

 Anyway, we’re not going to go through each of the levels in detail in this post because short answer questions only tend to focus on the lower three levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy.  So let’s talk about them in turn, starting with remembering or ‘knowledge’.

Knowledge (or 'remembering' questions)

The most basic level, this is purely about remembering information that you’ve learned.  Questions aimed at this level of learning will ask you to define, identify, or name something. 

For example: Name three types of industry structure. 

A possible answer might be: Monopoly, Oligopoly, and Perfect Competition.

Comprehension (or 'understanding' questions)

The next level up, this level is about demonstrating understanding rather than just showing you remember something (like the previous level).  Exam questions will ask you to explain, identify, or summarise something. 

For example: Summarise the role of the WTO in international trade.

A possible answer might be: The WTO seeks to ensure that global trade functions smoothly, freely, and predictably.  Ultimately, the WTO creates and maintains a system for international commerce through standardised ground rules for global trade.  

Application (or 'applying' questions)

This level is about applying what you’ve learned – using it in a new/concrete situation.  Assessments will ask you to demonstrate, solve, or interpret something.

For example: Explain the difference between three types of industry structures.

A possible answer might be: A monopoly is an industry with only one seller – because there are no substitutes, they can largely charge any price they want.  At the other end of the scale is pure competition where many competing firms sell identical products or services.  In between these is monopolistic competition where many small firms sell slightly differentiated products or services.   

Okay for now?  We’ll return to the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy in another post but for now, that should be most of what we need when talking about short answer questions.  Let’s look at three questions across the remembering, understanding, and applying levels in turn – on this:

Short answers - questions and examples

So let’s look at three short answer questions at the three different levels with examples of possible answers for each.

A 'remembering' short answer question

Question: Name three of the four sections (i.e., lobes) of the cerebral cortex.

Answer: The frontal lobe, parietal lobe, and occipital lobe.  (With the last being the temporal lobe – just in case you’re interested).

No nonsense whatsoever – just get the answers down and move on.

An 'understanding' short answer question

Question: Describe the function of the frontal lobe.

Answer: The frontal lobe is associated with reasoning, planning, parts of speech, movement, emotions, and problem solving.

A ‘higher’ level of knowledge, with a bit more detail required but ultimately the idea is to get what you remember down on paper as quick as possible and then move on,

An 'applying' short answer question

Question: Explain what impact a failure of the occipital lobe will have on an otherwise healthy individual.

Answer: As the occipital lobe is the centre of our visual perceptions, damage here will produce subtle changes to this persons visual-perceptual system e.g., visual field defects or hallucinations.  

A still higher level of knowledge but, different from the previous answers, this short answer question requires students to apply their knowledge to a particular type of situation.  This abstraction requires a higher level of thought and so possibly more words to successfully complete it.

Okay?  We hope that starts to clear things up for you…

No problem.  If you’re interested in learning more about Instruction Verbs (the words in Blooms Taxonomy) and how you can use these to guide your academic writing – definitely check out our Academic Skills lessons.  Or, for more writing materials, guides, and lessons – check out our Academic Writing lessons

Otherwise, that’s us for this HeadStart Guide on short answer questions, and short answer questions and examples of answers in exams – we hope it’s been useful!  As always, we’d love to hear from you if you have any questions or comments – write us a post below or follow us on Facebook.   Or, if you want to get more of these blog posts straight to your inbox – join our mailing list.  Or if you have a question or a topic that you’d like us to write a blog post (or even better – a full lesson) about – email us!  We read every email.


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