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).
Writing an In-depth Essay Question
Example 1: List the stages of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from the most immediate to the least immediate.
The above example does not meet the criteria for effective essay questions. This is because it only requires students to give a list – no original or critical thinking is required here as students will basically regurgitate information.
Example 2: Explain the influence Maslow’s hierarchy of needs had on existing psychological and physiological ideas…
The example above is an effective essay question – not only do students need to compose a response with their knowledge, but they also need to write several sentences to sufficiently answer the question. Moreover, students have room for originality, with the ability to provide a wide variety of examples to support their argument, and their response can be structured in various ways.
Writing an Essay Question to Test Critical Thinking Skills
Example 1: What are the advantages and limitations of raising free range livestock for food?
The example above does not test critical thinking skills as a candidate only needs to recall the knowledge they have learnt.
Example 2: Given the advantages and limitations of raising free range livestock for food, how far should British farmers consider free range farming? In answering this question you will need to consider issues of space, weather conditions and farming economics in Britain.
This is an essay question that would test critical thinking skills – the candidate is being asked to consider a variety of factors. They need to make an evaluative judgement and explain their reasoning for the judgement which will then be assessed by examiners.
Making an Essay Question Focused
Writing an overly general essay question can be confusing to the candidate – they will not know whether or not to focus on one area of knowledge or to write a general overview. Furthermore, ensuring your question is focused allows you to see how well the candidate understands one particular area.
Be sure that your question is appropriately focused.
Example 1: Describe the impact of alcohol on the body.
Example 2: Describe the impact of alcohol on the functioning of the brain. Give three examples.
You can see above the focus of the question is becoming clearer. Providing more focused exam questions allows an examiner to better gauge a student’s knowledge – with a vague question, the student has scope to write down anything they know, whereas with a focused question they are asked to draw on and explain/describe specific knowledge. A focused question also means less confusion for students when deciding how to answer.
Note: The purpose of these articles is to provide you with general advice in the fields of assessment and testing. These articles are not intended to replace any regulations or instructions provided by your organisation, but may be used in conjunction with these materials to support the assessment process.
To learn how to set up an Essay Question, visit the Essay section of the Surpass online Help.