Question answering techniques

How to understand and answer every type of exam question

Written by Samantha Griebenow

How often have you watched your child study their heart out, only to receive below average results? Has your daughter or son ever come home in tears because they thought that they had aced their exam – but instead almost failed?

It is incredibly difficult to comfort a child when you don’t actually know how to fix the problem. You might start resorting to costly extra lessons or pushing for extra study sessions. But, while these are great avenues (and considering WorksheetCloud is an even better option), it is not going to yield immediate results until the root of the issue has been addressed: understanding question techniques.

As a Subject Head and Matric National Senior Certificate Senior Marker, I can tell you with absolute certainty: most learners suffer academically simply because they have no idea what questions are actually asking. The content? Sure, most learners know that. But the insight that the specific question type requires?

That’s where things become murky.

Bear with me for a second while I get technical and a bit wordy (it is necessary – I promise).

All Subject Heads have to set exam or test papers according to what is called Barrett’s or Bloom’s Taxonomy. Both have very similar underlying principles. What these taxonomies dictate is not only the level of questions asked, but also the actual engagement that needs to occur when answering these questions. Most papers have to follow the 40-40-20 rule, which means that 40% of the paper should be straightforward content knowledge, 40% would be more making inferences based on content knowledge and the final 20% will be challenging and require more than content application. But, even the ‘basic’ 40% still needs an understanding of the types of questions. This is where many learners struggle and the frustration levels set in.

But, no need to worry.

Once you have read the following tips and explanations, you will be equipped to stop the tears, save the day and maybe learn a thing or two yourself!

Literal Recognition and Recall

Example: “List three types of study techniques mentioned in the article.”

What is known as level one on the Barrett’s taxonomy scale is all about the literal content. Has your child ever told you that they have literally just written the worst exam ever? While they might be exaggerating just a tad, at least they already know the concept of ‘literally’. These questions will start with words like: describe, suggest, name, list, provide, state etc. The idea behind these questions is understanding that the detail is either based on remembering the content or looking at the given text for the answer. It is, quite literally, the easiest part of the test or exam.


Example: “Compare the use of mind-maps to graphs as a study method.”

While this level may sound like a chore or a BBC programme about decluttering your lounge, it relies on basic synthesis and comparison. By classifying main points, questions like: compare, contrast, divide and most commonly summarise, can be dealt with effectively and easily.

Maybe it is a bit like the BBC decluttering shows: reorganise and keep the main detail and you’ve got yourself a level two answer!


Example: “Explain why the simile used in the article accurately describes a teenager’s study methods.”

Here’s where things start to get tricky. Level three on the wheel of taxonomy now needs a bit of recall and synthesis, but the marks will rely heavily on the inference you need to make about the content. In other words, explaining the content in your own words by finding the significance of the content, or seeing the figurative meaning in what seems literal. This level of comprehension is not exceptionally challenging, but learners need to understand how to interpret and explain beyond what is stated. Reading between the lines is a skill that your child can hone by, well… reading. This dreaded hobby may be a source of tension in your home, but if your child knows that reading may actually help with level three inference skills, who knows? They might become an avid reader overnight.


Example: “Comment on the effects of academic planning for future progress.”

These questions require a lot of opinion. And who has more opinions than a teenager? However, these opinions have to be rooted in the context and have to be justified with proof from the learned content. I often hear learners state that if it is an opinion based question, how on earth can it be wrong? But, when asked to discuss, evaluate, comment or give the ‘how’ of an answer, your opinion cannot be a sweeping statement or a generalised observation. If asked to discuss a character’s depth, don’t simply state that you think said character “sucks”. Evaluate this character’s level of “suckiness” by referring to a very “sucky” example of “sucky” behaviour in the novel. Opinion answers are evaluations, and evaluations require substantiation.


Example: “Critically evaluate the importance of incorporating taxonomy levels into your study methods.”

You have now reached level five! And while this taxonomy ‘stage’ is the last in the test (aptly named ‘appreciation’ owing to the sigh of relief that the torture of an exam is almost over), it is also the most challenging. This level is all about an emotional response. It is similar to your opinion, but with more feeling. Think words like disgust, sympathy, joy or instances of being motivated, inspired or horrified. These question stems often come in the form of ‘critical’ comments, discussions or evaluations. The critical element is understanding that the answer must provide an analysis, backed by a judgement.

Take a look at any exam paper on the Internet right now, and you will already recognise most of the levels and questions mentioned in this article. You will feel empowered immediately, even if you are not familiar with the content, because the actual answering of the question now seems more of a skill than a wild guess.

As Albert Einstein once said: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Answering exam questions is a skill, and expecting learners to tackle tests and exams without this skill is grossly unfair.

You are now equipped to equip your child, so that he or she no longer feels like a fish out of water, trying to climb a mountain.

The Author - Samantha Griebenow

WorksheetCloud is the most exciting way to study for exams and tests!

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