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London Metropolitan University

Preparing for your coursework: Understanding your question or topic

Preparing for your coursework

Define your research topic by looking for clues!

Your first step in understanding your question or topic is to define your research topic or assignment title. To do this, think about:
1. What are the directional or instructional words in the title?
2. What are the main concepts in the subject or assignment? What are the relationships between the concepts?
3. What would be the most useful keywords to use when searching for information on the topic?
These are all addressed in the sections below.

What are directional words?

Signpost with signs pointing to different facilities in different directions in a coastal location.
Directional words or instructional words are:
  • words that tell you what to do in your essay;
  • action words;
  • NOT words you use to search for information.
The directional word is highlighted in this example essay topic:
"Discuss the impact of advertising on young people's purchasing decisions"
What are you being asked to do in the essay for this example?
To discuss: to examine the key points or arguments, to debate and to explore solutions regarding the impact of advertising on young people's purchasing decisions.
Other directional words you may find in your assignment titles include:
To explain the reasons for, giving an indication of all relevant circumstances. Different from "Give an account of" which is more like "Describe in detail".
To examine the main issues.
To give reasons for and against.
To make a judgement on the merits and significance of an argument or theory.
To look at and identify similarities.
To consider differences.
 Critically reflect 
To take a challenging attitude to what you read, hear and observe, and be able to develop robust and cogent arguments of your own, either in writing, speaking or in decision making contexts, and to be willing to act on this, not just academically, but in the ‘real’ world.
To make clear, mark distinctly, specify limits.
To give an account of.
To consider or examine by argument and explore solutions; to debate; to examine key points, and arguments for and against.
 To determine the significance or worth. 
To study carefully or critically; to test knowledge.
 Focus on
 To centre on or describe specifics or aspects only.
 To ascertain the origin, nature or definitive characteristics of.
To present a clarification, example, or explanation.
To provide the meaning of; to give an explanation.
 To demonstrate or prove to be just, right or valid.
To give the main features or various aspects of.
To examine and look at, or look over again.
To express in concise terms.
This is not an exhaustive list. You may need to look some words up in a dictionary.
Recommended reading
Cambridge University (2011) Cambridge Essential English Dictionary. 2nd edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Available at:
Norton, L. and Pitt, E. (2009) Writing essays at university: a guide for students, by students. London: Write Now CETL, London Metropolitan University. Available at:

Quick test

Take a look at the document above giving examples of essay topics and see if you can pick out the directional or instructional words, and then check if you've got them right by looking at the answers document.

Think about your question

Which stage are you at?  View these slides to help you decide what you have to do next:

What are key concepts?

Once you have identified the directional / instructional words, it is time to move on to the heart of the question.
Image of old Key
    Key concepts or keywords:
  • These are words that are the main focus or subject matter of your essay.
  • They are the words you will use to search for information for your topic.
"Key 3" by ~Brenda-Starr~ is licensed under CC BY 2.0.


The key concepts are highlighted in this example essay topic: 

"Discuss the impact of advertising on young people's purchasing decisions".


To identify key concepts, think beyond the specific words mentioned in your essay title. You will also need to:

  1. Ask searching questions to gain an understanding of the topic.
  2. Think of related concepts and alternative keywords.
  3. Identify relationship words.

These are discussed in detail below.

Ask searching questions

To define your topic and identify a range of key concepts it is best to state it as a question.
Ask questions such as:  
  • How?
  • What?
  • Where?
  • Who?
  • When?
  • Why?
This helps you assess whether you have enough background information on your topic.
Here are examples of searching questions you can ask to find out more about your topic “Discuss the impact of advertising on young people's purchasing decisions”:
Who? Young people
How? How does advertising impact young people's purchasing decisions?  
What? What do advertisers understand regarding consumer behaviour?  What are the known impacts or influences of advertising on this section of the population?

Think of alternative keywords

alternative keywords image You should also think of  keyword variations or alternative concepts for the keywords you have selected.
  • Think of synonyms or words that mean the same thing as your keyword.  For example:
young people teenagers, tweens, adolescents, youth 
purchasing decisions buying decisions, purchasing behaviour, buying behaviour                         
advertising marketing 
  • Is there alternative or American spelling for your key words?  For example:
behaviour behavior
advertising advertizing                                                       
  • Could your keyword have alternative endings? For example:
advertising advertise, advertisers, advertisments      
  • Do your key phrases have any abbreviations?  For example: USP (Unique Selling Point).

Identify relationship words

What are relationship or identification words?  They:
  • help you 'drill down' from a general topic to more specific areas. 
  • tell you what part of the subject matter you should be concentrating on.
  • indicate the relationship between your key concepts. 
  • place limits on your topic by asking you to research within a time period.  
These words inform you as to what type of information your topic requires, for example whether it is:                                                                                       
  • factual
  • statistical
  • historical 

'Puppies playing together' by Rebeca Medeiros is licensed under Pexels.

The relationship word is highlighted in the example essay topic:.
"Discuss the impact of advertising on young people's purchasing decisions"
In this example, the word 'impact' helps you relate your two key concepts (advertising and young people) together.  In your essay you need to focus your discussion on how advertising impacts young people and influences their purchasing decisions.  
As with directional words, you usually don't search for information on relationship words.  Rather, they tell you what you need to focus on in your essay.
Here is another example of a question from a Social Policy module with the relational words highlighted:   
"Describe and account for changes in policy for the care of infirm older people over the past two decades".

Find the key concepts in your essay title

Now think about an essay topic that you have been assigned.   Fill in the boxes below to help you separate the concepts and work out the keywords.  
Write down your essay or assignment topic:lkdfl
Step 1 - Divide your topic into key concepts:
Step 2 - For each of the key concepts above think of possible keyword variations:
1.   or   or   
2.   or   or   
3.   or   or   
4.   or   or
Step 3 - Now put it all together: 

Concept 1:   or   or   

Concept 2:   or   or   

Concept 3:   or   or   

Concept 4:   or   or


Now that you have selected your key concepts you are ready to start looking for information on the topic.  The next unit will explain how you can use these key concepts to find academic information using the library's resources.  It will explain how you can enter your key words into electronic resources such as databases and the library catalogue to find journal articles and other relevant information on your topic.