There are generally two types of essay: argumentative essays and explanatory essays.
In an explanatory essay, you are expected to explain or describe a process or topic in answer to an essay question and support your perspective with academic sources (references).
Regardless of the type of essay you are writing, it is very important that you understand what is being asked of you before you begin researching and writing your essay.
If you are given a question:
You must be sure that you understand all parts of the question and what it is asking you to do. You must be able to recognise the ‘task words’ in the question, which tell you what you have to do (for example, ‘discuss’, ‘compare’, ‘analyse’ or ‘argue’) and the ‘key words’ in the question, which tell you what you are being asked to write about (for example, ‘critical thinking’, or ‘the roles of registered nurses’).
If you have to write your own question:
If you are writing an argumentative essay and you need to write your own question, you must write a question that invites (or allows) you to make an argument. For example, a question that would invite an argument would be: ‘Is critical thinking relevant to the role of a registered nurse?’ A question on the same subject that would not invite an argument, but rather an explanatory essay, would be ‘What are two definitions of critical thinking?’ or ‘Describe and compare two definitions of critical thinking’.
If you do not understand the question, what should you do?
First, check your course information booklet or course website for more information on the assessment. Check your lecture notes, textbook, other course information and recommended readings to see if this information helps you to understand what is being asked of you. If you still do not understand the question, ask your tutor or lecturer for help straight away. If you cannot understand the question, then you will have significant problems trying to answer it. This needs to be addressed immediately, before you begin your research and writing.