Academic and Assessment Vocabulary

Academic and Assessment Vocabulary

While tests, on their own, might inspire some trepidation, much of the anxiety surrounding exams, placement tests, and evaluations comes not only from the content of the test, but the terms used within an exam. After all, tests rarely employ the language used in everyday settings, instead communicating in a manner far closer to that of an elderly professor than that of a colleague or friend. Nevertheless, many of the most common words used in exams and evaluations are actually easy to understand with a bit of practice, and need not inspire a great deal of fear or worry.

The most common words that give people pause in exams are those that ask you to do something with a piece of information or a passage. Words like synthesize, analyze, and justify can give anyone pause, but a basic understanding of what these words indicate will go a long way in creating more comfort with testing, and a greater understanding of a test’s requests. The most common words found in testing include:


The word analyze can seem somewhat vague; after all, if you analyze a cricket lying in a dusty corner, you are simply inspecting the creature in question. In an exam question, however, the term involves some critical thought. An exam might, for instance, say, “Analyze the argument below. What is the author’s intent?” Analyzing is typically done in conjunction with another action. If you are taking a test in math or science, you may be asked to analyze an equation, or analyze a piece of evidence. In these cases, analyze often means to simply determine whether or not the equation is correct, or what the piece of evidence might mean.


A question with compare/contrast might use these words together (“Compare and contrast the following traits”), or may use them separately (“Compare the passages below” or “Contrast the findings of the two research teams”). Although both involve taking two disparate pieces and evaluating them together, one encourages you to find the similarities (comparing two things), while the other encourages you to find the differences (contrasting two things).


Although the word describe is hardly unusual or odd to come across, it can seem out of place in an exam. While describing something may seem to be limited to a poetry or art class, there are other ways the word is used to assess an individual’s understanding. “Describe the relationship between Endocrine and Exocrine glands,” for instance, is asking you to explain how the two systems are linked, whether that means describing both as a part of the endocrine system, or as secretory glands. When you see the word describe, you are being tested on your understanding of a given subject. (The word demonstrate may be used interchangeably.)


When you are asked to determine something, you are being asked to further analyze or evaluate it. Determine can be seen in literary questions, mathematical questions, and scientific questions alike, though the exact usage might differ. In a literary-based question, for instance, you may be instructed to “Determine the purpose of the passage below.” In a scientific evaluation, you may be told to “Determine the primary function of the respiratory system.”


When you are asked to explain something, you are being asked to give a more detailed peek into the subject. “Explain the stages of a caterpillar’s life cycle,” for instance, is instructing you to not merely list the cycles, but to detail what each cycle involves and results in. Explaining never involves a single-word answer. Instead, it requires a more involved description, analysis, or instruction on a given subject. When you come across explain, treat the matter as though you were trying to teach it to someone else.


Infer is among the most fear-inducing words seen on a test, as many people struggle to differentiate between infer and imply. Although they may initially seem the same, few (if any) exams will ask you to imply something, as an implication is a hidden or vague statement. Tests want you to demonstrate your knowledge, not further confuse a subject. To infer, then, is not to suggest vaguely, but to come to a conclusion based on available evidence or suggestion. A reading assessment, for instance, might ask you to infer the position of an author, based on the tone of a piece. A medical evaluation may ask you to infer the likely condition a patient is facing, based on presenting symptoms.


To interpret is to identify and explain a piece of information. Think of it this way: when someone translates something from one language to another, they are called an interpreter. Why? Because they are taking information in one format, and transferring it into another, based on both precise wording and context clues. Interpreting in an academic setting is no different. If an exam asks you to interpret a graph or a piece of information, it is asking you to identify what the graph or passage is conveying to its audience. In a graph identifying recent realty trends, for instance, you might be asked to “Interpret the graph’s depiction of current home selling trends.”


When you are asked to summarize something, you are being asked to provide the basic idea of a passage, piece of information, or graph. A summary is basically a rundown of information, or a brief description of the main points of a passage or graph. If you are presented with a graph depicting the vaccination rates over the past 20 years, for instance, a summary might be, “Vaccination rates are consistently high among individuals in this population, but trend downward in members of that population.” If you are being asked to summarize a passage discussing the merits of the oxford comma, a summary might sound similar to, “The oxford comma continues to be a source of division and humor among writers and readers of the English language, with both sides adamantly arguing it is either essential to effective communication, or useless and outdated.”


If a question instructs you to support something, it is simply asking you to provide evidence of your point, or the author’s point. If a passage asserts that a species is endangered, for instance, you may want to be on the lookout for statistics identifying the species’ decline. If a question asks you to work out an equation and support your work, you must provide the steps you used to arrive at your conclusion. In academic settings, support is typically synonymous with evidence.

Although the language used in exams and evaluations can initially seem overwhelming, there is a great deal of crossover with all types of professional and academic assessments, many of them easy to understand with a bit of investigation and practice.

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