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How to Get Full Marks in Explain Questions in English

Do you know what "explain" means?

I'll give you 30 seconds to define it for the computer screen.

If you said anything that sounded like the following:

  • Oh, it's to just, you know, explain it, like in detail.

  • It's just when you say things in more detail like say more about it.

  • I know what it IS, just don't know how to say it.

Then you definitely need to read this.

What is "explain"?

The definition of explain is: logically link how a certain cause leads to a certain effect.

Let's consider a few cause and effect relationships:

  1. Flicking a switch --> light turns on.

  2. letting go of a ball --> it drops to the ground.

  3. Using an umbrella --> stops you from getting wet.

These are some pretty simple relationships that everyone can recognise to be true. Now, what if I asked:

Explain how a switch works.

I have to now logically link why flicking a switch will turn that light on.

Insufficient: Flicking a switch turns a light on.

Better: Flicking a switch closes the circuit, allowing electricity to flow from the power source and through the light, which turns electrical energy into heat and light energy, thus turning on the light.

Why You Can't Seem to Explain Properly

What most students miss in their responses is the explanation itself. If you find that you cannot effectively provide the logical link and progression between the cause and effect, ask the following questions:

  1. Do I know the subject matter well enough? If not, relearn it or learn more deeply. Many people have a false sense of confidence about their understanding of concepts. If you cannot explain a concept so a 5 year old can understand, you don't understand it.

  2. You don't understand what the other person might not understand. Many times "explanation" becomes the same as "use easier words". Not only does this potentially insult the intelligence of your audience, it also doesn't tackle the real issue - the lack of logical progression. The more you empathise with the marker, the better your explain responses will be.

  3. You don't care enough about the order in which you're stating important information. Remember, it is a logical progression not just a list of important elements in a random order.

Relating it back to High School English:

Sample Question: Explain the significance of the metaphor, "All the world's a stage" in expressing human helplessness.

Bad Answer: The metaphor "all the world's a stage" shows that people are helpless because the world is like a stage.

Better Answer: The metaphor "All the world's a stage" draws on connotations of a scripted performance and suggests that, as if there was an unseen director, humans are not in control of their own lives. This positions individuals to be helpless.

It's that simple!

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