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Describe or explain? Let’s discuss

Watch this for a crucial reminder about interpreting command words in Higher Biology (and don’t forget to look both ways)

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If you and I were walking along a busy street or trying to cross the road, and I shouted this, you would do it. Why? because you instinctively know it matters – It is a direct command word. Even if I was shouting it at someone else you would probably stop to make sure. If you didn’t you might end up getting hurt. We learn these skills to respond to command words as very young children and we never lose it.

It’s puzzling, then, that when we READ a command word in an assessment or a question, we often don’t respond properly. I am an examiner in Biology and I see the impact this has on people’s grades. Trust me, it matters, a lot.

Let’s look at this in the context of Biology assessments and consider some of the most misused command words you will have to face.

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The first ones are fairly easy to understand and they correspond to very straightforward answers. These are NAME, STATE, GIVE AN EXAMPLE. For instance, “Name the other component of ribosomes, apart from rRNA”. The answer is just “protein”. Or “State the advantages of appeasement behaviour”. The answer here is just “To reduce conflict”. These are simple to answer and extended responses are not needed. SUGGEST and CALCULATE will work this way too.

The harder command words to get right are DESCRIBE and EXPLAIN. If you answer these, you need to get the style of answer right, otherwise you’ll be throwing away marks. You always need to be using a slightly expanded answer. Let’s think about vasoconstriction. Let’s say the question is “Describe what happens to blood vessels in the skin during vasoconstriction”. If you are describing something, just say what you see, say what happens. So here, your answer might be “The muscles in the blood vessel walls contract and the diameter of the vessel narrows”. You’re not saying WHY it happens. That comes with an explain question and these are the hardest sort of question to answer as you often need to link a few things together to answer them fully. So if you were asked to “Explain why blood vessels in the skin contract during vasoconstriction”, you would have to say why and what the effect of this was. In this case “So less blood will flow near the skin surface and less heat will be lost by radiation, keeping the heat in the body core”. You're saying WHY. Less blood flow AND less heat lost as a result. Just remember which way you need to answer each type of question as the result is different.

Descriptions require the ability to see what is in front of you; Explanations require prior knowledge and an understanding of why something is happening. Imagine you witness a crime on the street – a physical assault between two people you have never met, for example. When the Police interview you, you will offer a description of what you saw; you cannot possibly explain why it happened and what the motivations were of the people involved.

My biggest piece of advice to you in an exam or assessment is to look at the command words very carefully, not just the biology content, and then answer accordingly. It sounds ridiculously simple, but it costs people a lot of marks in Biology examinations.

Remember: describe – say what you see; explain – say why. It really is that simple. Don’t explain when you want to describe or describe when you want to explain, because you will not be answering the question correctly.

And, final piece of advice, look both ways when you are crossing the street, because there won’t always be someone there to shout STOP if you need it. All make sense? Good.

This was thinkfour, thanks for watching.