You have probably already encountered the phrase "compare and contrast," and learned that in Teacherese, this means to write essays about the similarities and differences of two stories or articles or species of fish. Now you have graduated to more advanced confusing phrases, and the trouble is, there are many more of them now. But just like "compare and contrast," all these new phrases are, amazingly, still in English.
Take the phrase "critical analysis," for example. We know what it means to be critical of something, and when we analyze something, we pick it apart and discuss all the little pieces. So all we need to do is combine the two terms. A critical analysis, then, is when we pick apart whatever it is we are supposed to be reading, and cast a critical eye on all the little pieces. What does this part mean? Is the author's opinion valid? What do we know that can support or disprove it? Whenever you are asked to analyze, pick out each idea presented by the author and discuss it in detail. You're less likely to miss something that way.
So what are you going to do when the teacher or professor asks you to do something like "synthesize the materials" or "evaluate critically" or "cross-reference" your sources? Many students in this situation are embarrassed to ask for clarification, thinking that they are already supposed to know these terms. Perhaps they are, but they often just go straight to the essay and guess at what the instructions mean. Bad idea. Particularly when most students have a dictionary no further away than their school library. Most of the time, those difficult and confusing words in your essay instructions have a meaning from regular life. "Cross-referencing," for example, sounds like it would mean to reference across. (Many thanks to my cowriter, Captain Obvious.) The point is, that is exactly what it means. At the end of a source, you find the sources that that writer used. You then look a-cross to that other source, and reference it.
Let's try "synthesize." To synthesize is to combine things. So how do you synthesize reference materials?...That's right, you combine them. Into a coherent, whole paper. Doesn't sound so confusing anymore, does it? The same can be done with nearly every instruction you will receive in the context of an assignment. What does the professor want when she asks you to "evaluate critically" something you've read? That's right, she wants you to make a judgment based on your knowledge of the subject. This technique can be use to translate nearly all essay directions. But what if you reach one of which you can't seem to deduce the meaning?
No, you do not guess. You can ask a classmate. You can summon your courage and ask the professor. You can consult your librarian, your mother, or the fortune teller with a shop on Main Street. Granted, the fortune teller should most likely be a last resort, but there are many other resources to assist you in translating your essay directions. You can also use these methods to translate grading rubrics or other academic instructions that seem to be written in the dreaded language of Smartypantsese.