Topic Analysis: How to Read an Essay Question

When you are starting an assessment, you first need to analyse your assessment question. This will help you to understand what you are supposed to be doing and help you to find the relevant information.

Your assessment task will generally give you three pieces of information; instruction words, key concepts and limiters.

Let’s use the following as an example.

Q. Evaluate the contribution of liberation theology to Christology.

Instruction words tell you what you need to do, or how to shape your response. In this example ‘evaluate’ is our instruction word. Evaluate means to present a judgement of an issue by weighing up its strengths and weaknesses. There are other instruction words, like compare, discuss, analyse, and explore. For a list of these and their definitions, check out the link below.

Key concepts tell you what you need to research. The key concepts here are ‘liberation theology’ and ‘Christology’. Use the library’s theological dictionaries and encyclopaedias to better understand the terms and find synonyms to expand your searches. Brainstorm a list of additional keywords. Other keywords relating to liberation theology could be ‘preferential option for the poor’ and political theology. A definition for the word ‘Christology’ could be ‘how we understand the person, nature, and role of Christ’.

Limiters tell you the restrictions of your concept. In theological scholarship, limiters often specify a context, movement, time period, or theologian to focus on. In this task, ‘Christology’ is the limiter. Therefore, the evaluation of liberation theology must be focussed on the area of Christology.

After you analyse the question, it can be helpful to re-write it in your own words to make sure you really understand what you need to do. In this case:

'Evaluate                                                                  'presenting its strengths and weaknesses, assess the value of

the contribution of liberation theology                 liberation theology’s contribution

to Christology.’                                                        to how we understand the person, nature, and role of Christ.’

Often the instruction word is clear, as it is in our example here, but sometimes it is implied, or not directly stated. You will need to work backwards to figure out what the instruction is. Here’s an example:

Q. How is the church understood by feminist theologians?

There is no clear instruction word here, but the ‘how?’ implies the need to clarify and interpret a topic (in this case, the view point of feminist theologians). The instruction word could be, then, ‘explain’, which means ‘to make clear the topic’. So, to re-write the question first:

Q. Explain how the church is understood by feminist theologians.

And then into your own language so that you make sure you know what you are being asked:

Q. Clarify and interpret feminist theologians’ understanding of the church.

Now you’ve re-written your question you are ready for research.

You can use your list of keywords to perform searches using a variety of combinations to locate relevant resources. Remember to keep within the limits.

And as you write your essay, be sure to keep the instruction word in mind so that you answer the question that is being asked of you.

If you are having difficulty analysing your topic, please speak to the Camden Theological Library staff, or visit the study skills tutor.  


For additional keywords that are commonly used in essay questions, see this guide.

PDF iconTopic Analysis - Common Essay Question Words.pdf

Sources of Information

When writing an essay at Uniting Theological College, you will need to support your work with a range of information sources. It’s important to consider whether your references are scholarly and suitable for inclusion.

Here are some common sources of information that you might be drawn to as you research:

  • Dictionaries and encyclopaedias
  • Books and ebooks
  • Scholarly journal articles
  • Media resources
  • Web content
  • Devotional material

Let’s briefly assess these sources and discuss when you might use them in your essay.

DICTIONARIES AND ENCYCLOPAEDIAS:  As we mentioned in the ‘Topic Analysis’ video linked to in the notes below, the library’s theological dictionaries and encyclopaedias are excellent sources to go to when starting your research. They help you to understand the terms, find synonyms, and brainstorm additional keywords—this will help you to further your research as you approach other sources. 

Camden Theological Library has a useful webpage where you can find a list of helpful reference books for key subject areas. You can find a link to that in the notes below.

BOOKS AND E-BOOKS:  Books and e-books are written for a range of audiences, so you will need to evaluate whether they are appropriate for inclusion in your essays.

  • Novels and popular non-fiction are usually written for a general audience;
  • Textbooks have an academic focus, provide good background information about a topic, and are another good place to begin research;
  • Academic books can be used for in-depth study as well background research;
  • As you are studying theology, you will often refer to The Bible, church doctrine, and perhaps the sacred texts of religions other than Christianity. 

SCHOLARLY JOURNAL ARTICLES:  These are articles written by academics for an academic audience, presenting new and original research. They will usually be narrow in scope and focussed on a particular aspect of a topic within a discipline—in your case, theology. Scholarly articles are great for going in-depth into the latest research and seeing different perspectives on a topic. They also usually have extensive reference lists that you can use to further your research.

MEDIA RESOURCES:  These resources include broadcasts on television and radio as well as newspaper articles. They have been written by journalists for the general public and are not considered to be scholarly sources. They can be useful, however, for getting public attitudes on your topic. Online social media, like Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, is also helpful for this purpose, but they are also not scholarly resources.

WEB CONTENT:  The internet has an extremely wide range of resources. The domains .edu and .gov are the most credible websites, whereas .org, .com, and .net can be purchased by anyone for publishing anything so will vary in credibility. Governments, academic organisations, and professional associations often publish reports, documents, and statistics online, and these may be useful for your research. They will also cite their references so can be helpful for furthering your research. Other websites, depending on their credibility, might be helpful for background knowledge.

DEVOTIONAL MATERIAL:  Sometimes in your theological studies you might be tempted to use devotional materials like Bible reflections or studies, or sermon transcripts. These are not scholarly materials and are often biased in one way or another. However, they may contain references to academic sources or church doctrine, for example, that you might find helpful for further research.

Regardless of the sources you’ve come across, you will need to evaluate them. If you want to know more about how to evaluate whether a particular resource is suitable for your essay, take a look at our ‘CRAP test’ video, linked to in the notes below. 

And as always, please speak to the Camden Theological Library staff, or visit the study skills tutor if you need help with deciding how to use different sources of information.

To find useful reference books for particular subjects click here.