Command Words in Exams

Command words are the words usually used at the start of a question in an exam. Examples include identify, describe and explain. They are supposed to inform students how to answer a question.

However, did you know that for GCSE Computer Science, AQA use 28 different command words, OCR use 30 different command words and Edexcel use 15 different command words? In total, there are 53 different command words used in GCSE Computer Science. This makes the whole process of understanding how to answer exam questions very difficult and therefore requires the learning of examination technique (learning how to answer questions in an exam). I don’t agree with students having to learn exam techniques, but it is what we are currently stuck with. I personally believe that questions should be explicitly clear about what type of answer is required.

To make things worse, every subject for every exam board uses different command word sets and they can have different meanings for different subjects and for different levels (e.g. GCSE and A Level). So learning what a command word means for one subject, does not help to answer a question using the same command word in a different subject.

One of my bugbears for many years has been the inconsistent use of command words between different exam boards, between different subjects in the same exam board, and worse of all between different levels of qualification within the same exam board. Here are a couple of examples:

Compare means

“Identify similarities.”


“Give an account of the similarities and differences between two (or more) items or situations, referring to both (all) of them throughout.”


AQA rightly uses the word contrast for differences. Unless a student is taught that for OCR compare includes differences, then the student would not know to do this and will get very confused when other subjects use compare and contrast correctly.

Discuss means:

“Present key points.”


“Offer a considered and balanced review that includes a range of arguments, factors or hypotheses. Opinions or conclusions should be presented clearly and supported by appropriate evidence.”


Identify the issue / situation / problem / argument that is being assessed within the question. Explore all aspects of an issue / situation / problem / argument. Investigate the issue / situation by reasoning or argument.


So for AQA, discuss is a knowledge / recall / understanding style of question whereas for OCR and Edexcel it is an analytical / reasoning style of question. Students are also expected to know that they must include a conclusion for OCR.

Describe means:

“Set out characteristics.”


“Give a detailed account or picture of a situation, event, pattern or process.”


To give an account of something. Statements in the response need to be developed, as they are often linked, but do not need to include a justification or reason.


So what does “Describe the CPU” mean? Are students expected to simply set out characteristics of the CPU, or give a detailed account of how the CPU works, and how far do they need to develop their responses?

There are some examples of where command words are used consistently across exam boards such as calculate, define, outline and justify, but these are fewer than the inconsistencies.

In October 2010 a document called “Fair access by design” was created by Ofqual, CEA (Northern Ireland) and the Welsh Assembly Government which gave guidance for qualifications regulators and awarding bodies on deisgning inclusive qualifications. On pages 50 and 51, they gave a clear set of definitions for command words that awarding bodies were advised to use. This document was updated in July 2019 and awarding bodies were specifically told:

“Command words (see ‘Annex 5: Glossary’) should be used with consistency throughout an awarding organisation’s suite of qualifications, as far as is practicable. Consistent use of language makes it easier for learners, teachers and examiners alike to understand the requirements of the assessment.

Fair Access by Design, July 2019

The key point made was that “consistent use of language makes it easier for learners . . . to understand the requirements of the assessment.” While this was advice for awarding bodies to adopt within their own specifications, it did not go as far to suggest that this consistency should apply across awarding bodies. Further still, this was only advice and was not a regulation.

On a positive note, AQA follows the advice given by Ofqual and all of their definitions for command words for GCSE Computer Science are an exact match for the definitions recommended by Ofqual. I would like to see Edexcel and OCR doing the same in the future.

I intend to conduct further research into command words and how they are used across different subjects within awarding bodies. Ultimately I would like to persuade Ofqual to commission a study into this important matter and to provide a single set of command words that must be used consistently by all awarding bodies across all qualifications. Watch out for future blog posts.

In the meantime, we are stuck with the non-ideal situation of inconsitencies which sadly means that we have to teach examination technique in different ways for different subjects, different awarding bodies, and different levels. If you would like to book a revision session for GCSE Computer Science, then please see where you can find details of what I offer and how I explore the use of command words specifically for AQA, Edexcel and OCR.