Exam hints: The art of interpretation and analysis: Part One


I AM cognisant of the fact that your exams are knocking at the door and that you have to answer and answer convincingly. That is why I present to you Session 6 of the just published book, An Introduction to Advanced Level Comment and Appreciation: A Student’s Guide. It provides the key to interpretation and execution of both “seens” or “unseens”.
The process of analysis is indeed a scientific one in that it is systematic and logical. It follows particular route to be effective. I have deliberately chosen the Trinity Approach [also called the Tirivangana Key] as the central approach to both interpretation and analysis of both “seens” and “unseens”. It is a generic approach based on the African philosophical Trinity represented by the triangle.
The choice of the triangle is by no means accidental. In African philosophy it represents the strongest and most enduring bond between the Father, Mother and the Child as illustrated below:

Mother Child

The triangle represents the smallest social unit in African worldview. In Shona cosmology it is symbolised by mapfihwa (hearthstones). The fireplace is where life is cooked and the person responsible for the fireplace is the mother. That is why women are holy in African worldview. Any tampering with mapfihwa amounts to extreme violation of taboo and may result in metaphysical reprisals on the perpetrator. This is how important this Trinity is which explains why I have chosen it as a key to interpretation and analysis of any text.


Instruction words
Content Word Special conditions
The process of interpretation is predicated on this fundamental tool, the Trinity Approach. The triangle below illustrates the three pillars of interpretation: instruction word(s), content/subject word(s) and special condition(s).

Instruction words
All examinations require candidates to answer questions or carry out certain activities. The word which commands or directs the candidate is the instruction word. If we take the question below as an example,
Discuss with examples why the concept of national sovereignty is becoming increasingly problematic in our times we identify the term “discuss” as the instruction word. The instruction word tells you what to do, and unpacking it reveals the scope, parameters as well as thematic boundaries of your answer. In this case ‘discuss’ means you focus on arguments for and arguments against. To this end any answer which does not treat these two sides equitably does not do justice to the question.

Bloom’s Taxonomy of cognitive objectives (instruction words)
Benjamin Bloom was an educational psychologist. Bloom’s Taxonomy was created in 1956 under the leadership of educational psychologist Dr Benjamin Bloom in order to promote higher forms of thinking in education, such as analyzing and evaluating, rather than just remembering facts (rote learning). He identified three domains of educational activities or learning (Bloom, 1956), namely; cognitive: mental skills (Knowledge); affective: growth in feelings or emotional areas (Attitude or self) and psychomotor: manual or physical skills (Skills)
His taxonomy of cognitive objectives is helpful in shedding light on levels of intellectual engagement sought for by the different types of instruction words. Although the instruction words above are arranged alphabetically for ease of reference, care has been taken in the explication of each to indicate whether the level of intellectual engagement is low, medium or higher order. This information is useful in guiding you to determine the pitch of your answer.
Bloom believes in the following hierarchical order of pitching an essay:
1. Knowledge level – which requires simple recall of facts as in listing.
2. Comprehension level – which requires demonstrating clear understanding of concepts involved. The best way to demonstrate this skill is to paraphrase or to say the same in your own words.
3. Application level – which requires you to contextualise or to demonstrate how a concept which works in one instance can (or fail to) apply in another.
4. Analysis level – which requires you demonstrate your knowledge of the constituent parts (elements) of a concept/poem or text including determining the function of each element of a whole. The exercise of analysing involves some kind of dissection.
5. Synthesis level – which requires you to compile or put together discrete elements of a larger whole back into meaningful wholeness. To do so you need to know the place of each minute detail the way a motor mechanic rebuilds the engine parts back into life. In synthesis there is also a silent instruction to avoid verbosity (wordiness) but to stick to essentials with deftness and dexterity.
6. Evaluation level – which requires you to go beyond identifying essential elements of a larger concept but to proceed and weigh each against a set of criteria such as applicability (i.e. how applicable is this element in a different scenario) and fitness for purpose (i.e. how appropriate is that element for that purpose). Evaluation also silently invites you to give a personal opinion but of course with some justification.
In Bloom’s categorisation above, 1 and 2 are generally considered lower level; 3 and 4 medium level; and 5 and 6 higher level. These three levels tell you about the intellectual faculties you have to marshal. Every instruction word tells you something about the level of intellectual engagement expected of you. In other words the instruction word tells you more than just the boundaries of its meaning; it also tells you about the intellectual pitch as well as the depth of coverage expected.
I am sure this discussion has helped you understand the limits of discussion provided by instruction words. Need I reiterate that knowledge of such boundaries is important in guiding you against redundancy or going off topic? This has serious implications for organisation of essays.


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