We often speak of 'essay questions', but technically, only some of the tasks set are questions in a grammatical sense. 'Real' questions are more focussed than other types; some people prefer them as it is clearer how they should respond. A question implies an answer and the main body of the essay is structured to progress from the question (raised in your introduction) to the answer (in your conclusion).
- If you can envisage your potential answer, or even what sort of answer is required, then you may feel clearer about your approach.
- It also sets down clear limitations around the task, helping you establish what is and is not relevant in your research. If what you are reading does not help you reach the answer to the question, then it is not relevant, although it may be superficially related to the topic.
- A 'real' question might help you to avoid the pitfall of being too descriptive. 'Real' questions allow you to gauge more easily the level of learning needed to answer them.
- 'Real' questions may not be set so frequently in supervisions as other types, especially in later years, as it may be felt that they limit the students engagement with and response to the text, rather than encouraging investigation of their own interests or creative thinking. However, developing your own approach can be challenging, and working with 'real' questions is a good start.
'Real' questions: closed
There are two types of 'real' question, according to the type of answer that they require. If you can envisage the sort of answer that the question demands, it may help you to formulate your direction and approach, ensure that you are staying on track, or, if setting your ow question, check whether it is of an appropriate level.
Closed questions are posed in such a way that they imply a limited range of potential answers, between which the respondent must choose.
Identify the range of possible answers implied in these closed questions:
- In Shakespeare's dramatic works, are royal bodies different from other ones?
- How useful is the notion of rhetorical self-fashioning for understanding the literature of the Renaissance period?
- To what extent is it helpful to consider medieval texts as working by mirroring, whether real or metaphorical?
- In Shakespeare's dramatic works, are royal bodies different from other ones? [Yes / No / Yes and No}
- How useful is the notion of rhetorical self-fashioning for understanding the literature of the Renaissance period? [Very useful / Quite useful / Not very useful]
- To what extent is it helpful to consider medieval texts as working by mirroring, whether real or metaphorical? [To a great extent / to some extent / to a small extent]
Once you have identified the type of answer implied in the question, you could then consider a more in depth thesis statement of your position, which sums up the conclusion you are ultimately aiming for.
Closed questions can be very simplistic, if they are interpreted as a request for facts or information or a simple black-and-white decision, and are perhaps not the most common form of question used at university level. However, they can equally encourage a high degree of subtlety and argument. At this level, they require you to recognise the complexity of a debate and evaluate the respective positions, arguing for your own stance. This involves the higher level skills of analysis and evaluation. Despite the limited range of responses, there is wide scope for the evidence, examples and arguments you muster. In English, the response you will offer is ultimately somewhere between the implied responses, on a scale between "yes" and "no", or "useful / helpful / important in some ways, but not in others". Closed questions at this level imply an open question, exploring 'why' you have come to a particular conclusion.
'Real' questions: open
Open questions leave the range of possible answers unrestricted. Typical question words would be 'how' or 'why'. The answer is usually a way or reason, or list of ways or reasons. Examples might be:
- How and why does Shakespeare use written documents such as letters in his plays?
- What does Moll Flanders want in a gentleman?
- In what ways have poets tested the scope for lyric poetry after Auschwitz?
Open questions are more common at university level, as they are more explicitly analytical than closed questions; 'how' and 'why' prompt a more considered, deeper response. The range of potential answers is also wider, offering more scope for innovative thinking. If you are asked or set a 'how' question, it is often worth also exploring 'why'.
Identify the range of answers which are required by this open question:
How and why does Shakespeare use written documents such as letters in his plays?
[In ways X, Y, and Z, for reasons A, B, and C]