Charles Champlin (2006), a journalist for Time and Life magazines, describes his experience of taking essay tests as a student at Harvard:
“The worst were the essay questions (which seemed only distantly related to whatever you’d read or heard in lectures). They made a statement and then simply said, ‘Discuss.’ O terrifying word, ‘Discuss.’ Nothing so simple as tossing in a few facts retained from all-night cramming. It was meaning that was sought – which was, as I’d already begun to appreciate, the way it should be. But it was a strained step up from the exams I’d known before, when memory, regurgitated, would get you around almost any corner.”
Champlin’s reminiscence reveals some of the strengths and dangers associated with essay questions. They are a wonderful way to test higher-level learning, but they require careful construction to maximize their assessment effectiveness.
I. Strengths Associated with Essay Examinations
Among the strengths of essay examinations, faculty who use them find they are a valuable means to measure higher-order learning and a wonderful way, when scored properly, to further student learning. Given these strengths, essay tests require careful preparation and scoring.
1. Essay Questions Test Higher-Level Learning Objectives
Unlike objective test items that are ideally suited for testing students’ broad knowledge of course content in a relatively short amount of time, essay questions are best suited for testing higher-level learning. By nature, they require longer time for students to think, organize and compose their answers.
In the table below, appropriate testing strategies are associated with Bloom’s hierarchy of learning. The action verbs under each domain illustrate the kinds of activities that a test item might assess. Use the verbs when constructing your essay questions so that students know what you expect as they write. While essay questions can assess all the cognitive domains, most educators suggest that due to the time required to answer them, essay questions should not be used if the same material can be assessed through a multiple-choice or objective item. Reserve your use of essay questions for testing higher-level learning that requires students to synthesize or evaluate information.
2. Essay Questions When Scored Properly Can Further Learning
Teachers score essay exams by either the holistic approach or the analytic approach.
The holistic approach involves the teacher reading all the responses to a given essay question and assigning a grade based on the overall quality of the response. Some teachers use a holistic approach by ranking students’ answers into groups of best answers, average answers and poor answers and subdividing the groups to assign grades.
Holistic scoring works best for essay questions that are open-ended and can produce a variety of acceptable answers.
Analytic scoring involves reading the essays for the essential parts of an ideal answer. In this case, you will need to make a list of the major elements that students should include in an answer. You will grade the essays based on how well students’ answers match the components of the model answer.
Whichever method, holistic or analytic, that you use to score the exam, you should write comments on the students’ papers to enhance their learning. Your comments will help students write better essays for future classes and reinforce what students know and need to learn. Your comments are also a good reminder for yourself if students come to you with questions about their grades.
II. Dangers to Consider When Giving and Grading Essay Examinations
1. Establish limits within the essay question
The example of Charles Champlin’s experience at Harvard where his teachers gave a statement and then simply said, ‘Discuss,’ shows a danger in using essay questions. Instructors should build limits into questions in order to save needless writing due to vague questions: “With some essay questions, students can feel like they have an infinite supply of lead to write a response on an indefinite number of pages about whatever they feel happy to write about. This can happen when the essay question is vague or open to numerous interpretations. Remember that effective essay questions provide students with an indication of the types of thinking and content to use in responding to the essay question” (Reiner, 2002).
Another good way to prevent students from spending excessive time on essays is to give them testing instructions on how long they should spend on test items. McKeachie (2002) gives the following advice: “As a rule of thumb I allow about 1 minute per item for multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank items, 2 minutes per short-answer question requiring more than a sentence answer, 10 to 15 minutes for a limited essay question, and half-hour to an hour for a broader question requiring more than a page or two to answer.”
2. Remember that essays require more time to score
While essay exams are quicker to prepare than multiple-choice exams, essay exams take much longer to score. You should plan sufficient time for scoring the essays to prevent finding yourself crunched to report final grades.
3. Avoid scoring prejudices
Essay exams are subject to scoring prejudices. Reading all of an individual’s essays at the same time can cause either a positive or a negative bias on the part of the reader. If a student’s first essay is strong, the examiner might read the student’s remaining essays with a predisposition that they are also going to be strong. The reverse is also true. To prevent this scoring prejudice, educators suggest reading all the answers to a single essay question at one time.
Champlin, C. (2006). A life in writing: the story of an American journalist. Syracuse: Syracuse University.
McKeachie, W. (2002). McKeachie’s teaching tips (11th. ed.) New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Reiner, C., Bothell, T., Sudweeks, R., & Wood, B. (2002). Preparing effective essay questions. (http://testing.byu.edu/info/handbooks/WritingEffectiveEssayQuestions.pdf).
Essay exams test you on “the big picture”- relationships between major concepts and themes in the course. Here are some suggestions on how to prepare for and write these exams.
Learn the material with the exam format in mind
- Find out as much information as possible about the exam – e.g., whether there will be choice – and guide your studying accordingly.
- Review the material frequently to maintain a good grasp of the content.
- Think, and make notes or concept maps, about relationships between themes, ideas and patterns that recur through the course. See the guide Listening & Note-taking and Learning & Studying for information on concept mapping.
- Practice your critical and analytical skills as you review.
- Compare/contrast and think about what you agree and disagree with, and why.
Focus your studying by finding and anticipating questions
- Find sample questions in the textbook or on previous exams, study guides, or online sources.
- Anticipate questions by:
- Looking for patterns of questions in any tests you have already written in the course;
- Looking at the course outline for major themes;
- Checking your notes for what the professor has emphasized in class;
- Asking yourself what kind of questions you would ask if you were the professor;
- Brainstorming questions with a study group.
- Formulate outline or concept map answers to your sample questions.
- Organize supporting evidence logically around a central argument.
- Memorize your outlines or key points.
- A couple of days before the exam, practice writing answers to questions under timed conditions.
If the Professor distributes questions in advance
- Make sure you have thought through each question and have at least an outline answer for each.
- Unless the professor has instructed you to work alone, divide the questions among a few people, with each responsible for a full answer to one or more questions. Review, think about, and supplement answers composed by other people.
Right before the exam
- Free write about the course for about 5 minutes as a warm-up.
- Look for instructions as to whether there is choice on the exam.
- Circle key words in questions (e.g.: discuss, compare/contrast, analyze, evaluate, main evidence for, 2 examples) for information on the meaning of certain question words.
- See information on learning and studying techniques on the SLC page for Exam Preparation.
Manage your time
- At the beginning of the exam, divide the time you have by the number of marks on the test to figure out how much time you should spend for each mark and each question. Leave time for review.
- If the exam is mixed format, do the multiple choice, true/ false or matching section first. These types of questions contain information that may help you answer the essay part.
- If you can choose which questions to answer, choose quickly and don’t change your mind.
- Start by answering the easiest question, progressing to the most difficult at the end.
- Generally write in sentences and paragraphs but switch to point form if you are running out of time.
Things to include and/or exclude in your answers
- Include general statements supported by specific details and examples.
- Discuss relationships between facts and concepts, rather than just listing facts.
- Include one item of information (concept, detail, or example) for every mark the essay is worth.
- Limit personal feelings/ anecdotes/ speculation unless specifically asked for these.
Follow a writing process
- Plan the essay first
- Use the first 1/10 to 1/5 of time for a question to make an outline or concept map.
- Organize the plan around a central thesis statement.
- Order your subtopics as logically as possible, making for easier transitions in the essay.
- To avoid going off topic, stick to the outline as you write.
- Hand in the outline. Some professors or TAs may give marks for material written on it.
- Write the essay quickly, using clear, concise sentences.
- Maintain a clear essay structure to make it easier for the professor or TA to mark:
- A 1-2 sentence introduction, including a clear thesis statement and a preview of the points.
- Include key words from the question in your thesis statement.
- Body paragraph each containing one main idea, with a topic sentence linking back to the thesis statement, and transition words (e.g.: although, however) between paragraphs.
- A short summary as a conclusion, if you have time.
- If it is easier, leave a space for the introduction and write the body first.
- A 1-2 sentence introduction, including a clear thesis statement and a preview of the points.
- Address issues of spelling, grammar, mechanics, and wording only after drafting the essay.
- As you write, leave space for corrections/additional points by double-spacing.
- Review the essay to make sure its content matches your thesis statement. If not, change the thesis.
For For more information on exam preparation and writing strategies, see our “Exams” pages.
Some suggestions in this handout were adapted from “Fastfacts – Short-Answer and Essay Exams” on the University of Guelph Library web site; “Resources – Exam Strategies” on the St. Francis Xavier University Writing Centre web site; and “Writing Tips – In-Class Essay Exams” and “Writing Tips – Standardized Test Essay Exams” on the Center for Writing Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign web site