Exam technique command words

One of the many problems faced by students is trying to understand what the question actually requires for an answer. In other words, what are examiners looking for? The examiners spend a considerable amount of time deciding what is the best way to phrase a question to elicit the response required by the mark scheme. They are not trying to be awkward or difficult!

All questions have a command word and an indication of the subject content. Consider the simple question: ‘State the colour of blood.’

In this question the command word is ‘state’ and the subject content is ‘the colour of blood’. Hopefully students would be able to answer this question with a simplistic response – ‘red’.

If the examiners changed the command word, then the whole question (and answer!) changes.

‘Explain the colour of blood.’ requires a very different answer. Now the colour ‘red’ is expected to be known and the answer instead is more concerned with the cause of that red colour – ‘haemoglobin’.

Another change of command word, this time to ‘Discuss the colour of blood.’ would again change the response demanded by the examiners. Now they would want the student to talk about ‘oxygenated bright red blood’ and deoxygenated dull red blood’

Occasionally questions will additionally contain a ‘qualifier’, which is designed to tell the students exactly what is required in their response e.g. ‘Name two bones found in the arm’ – command word – ‘name’, subject – ‘bones in the arm’ and the qualifier – ‘two’. This means that they cannot simply write a list of bones and hope that two of them are correct. The examiners will only accept the students’ first two answers.

Whatever type of question are being answered, it is important that candidates respond in a suitable way. Examiners use instructions to help candidates decide the length and depth of their answer.

The most common words used are given below, together with a brief description of what each word is asking for.


Define/What do you understand by the term?


This requires a formal statement. Often the phrase ‘what do you understand by the term…..’ is used instead. Some definitions are easy to recall.

Define the term stamina (1 mark). This is the ability to delay the onset of fatigue.

Other definitions are more complex. Often it is helpful to give an example. Some complex definitions (hard to define) are worth two marks.

Define the term balance (2 marks). This is the idea of remaining stable or in equilibrium. It depends on the ability to keep your centre of gravity over your base of support.




This command word is used extensively at A-level and can have two different meanings. The word explain may require a reason. The amount of detail needed is shown by the number of marks allocated.

Explain the causes of the Bohr shift and how it increases oxygen delivery to the working muscles (3 marks). The reasons for the Bohr shift are an increase in carbon dioxide levels and an increase in body temperature. These cause the oxyhaemoglobin curve to shift to the right and this results in oxygen dissociating from haemoglobin and entering the muscle.

Another way of using this command word is to ask for extra detail in an answer.

Explain the roles of tropomyosin and troponin during muscle contraction (4 marks). Tropomyosin prevents myosin attaching to actin filaments. When an action potential arrives at the muscle fibre, calcium ions are released from the sarcoplasmic reticulum and attach to troponin on the actin filaments, causing shape of troponin to alter. Tropomyosin then binds to actin, exposing the myosin binding site on the actin filament.



This requires a brief answer without any reason.

State two ways that carbon dioxide is transported in blood (2 marks). Carbon dioxide is transported as bicarbonate ions, or dissolved in the plasma.



This requires a sequence of points with no explanation. The number of points in the list should reflect the mark allocation.

List the benefits of military drill (2 marks). Military drill developed obedience and discipline. It also prepared the children for the army in case of war.



This requires a piece of prose which gives key points. Diagrams should be used where possible.

Describe how running affects the venous return mechanism (3 marks). Running increases the venous return mechanism. The muscles in the legs contract more frequently and they will compress veins and force blood back towards the heart. These veins have valves that prevent the backflow of blood. The breathing rate also increases during running. As the pressure in the chest changes, the veins are compressed and this again forces blood back to the heart.



This requires points both for and against, together with a criticism of each point. (Compare is a similar command word).

Discuss the suggestion that the increased media coverage of elite sport has had a positive impact on coaches (4 marks). Increased media coverage has given an increased awareness of their role and has probably increased their salary. Use of the media has made it easier to learn from other coaches. However the increased media coverage has also led to greater pressure because of the need to produce results. There is also an expectation to deal with media, and that may mean an invasion of privacy. Greater media attention also makes it easier for coaches to lose their jobs when results don’t go their way.



This means that there is no single correct answer.

Suggest strategies that a coach could use to develop the assertive behaviour of a performer (7 marks). The coach could punish aggressive acts by dropping the player for next match . They could promote fair play and highlight non-aggressive role models. They could reduce the importance of the event or substitute the player.



This requires that you work out a numerical answer. Remember to give the units and to show your working, marks are usually available for a partially correct answer.

Using the information in Table 2, how would the cardiac output at rest be calculated (2 marks). Cardiac output is stroke volume x heart rate. This would be 70 x 70 = 4900 mls/min.



This requires that you give only the main points. The marks allocated will guide you on the number of points which you need to make.
Outline possible strategies that can be used to reduce the negative impact of faulty processes on performance (7 marks). Faulty processes are either due to a lack of motivation or due to a lack of co-ordination. Groups should practice to ensure all understand the tactics. Practices should be varied to maintain motivation. Individuals should be given specific roles that should be explained to the rest of the team. They should be given feedback by video analysis of performance. Fitness levels could be improved and team bonding plans developed to improve self-confidence.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *