Strategies and Tips Regarding Essay Questions on an Examination

What is an essay question?

When we think of an essay, we tend to think of a multiple-page written response to some question, prompt or scenario. However, essay-type questions can be brought into exam situations and can be quite beneficial in assessing student understanding. Regarding the definition of an essay question, one that has been helpful in deconstructing some of the core components of this type of questioning comes from John Stalnaker (1951). In his book, he defines an essay question to be

A test item which requires a response composed by the examinee, usually in the form of one or more sentences, of a nature that no single response or pattern of responses can be listed as correct, and the accuracy and quality of which can be judged subjectively only by one skilled or informed in the subject.”

Based on this definition, there are a few criteria that inform us on the characteristics of an essay question.

  • Something in which the examinee (or student) has to compose or create, rather than select from a list of options
  • It inherently includes some form of writing, usually in the form of multiple sentences
  • Answers are not bound by a single response or pattern of responses
  • It can only be evaluated or judged by someone informed or skilled in the subject

Maybe input an example of what an essay question might look like under these different criteria

Why are some advantages for essay type questions?

Essay questions bring a lot to the table when thinking about the purpose of your assessment tools. There are many different advantages to why we should use essay type questions on a midterm or a final exam. However, keep in mind that these advantages are context specific, and are presented to help you discern whether these will aid you in the assessment of your learning outcomes

  • Essay questions can help assess higher-order thinking and critical thinking skills
  • Essay questions can also assess in-the-moment writing skills
  • Essay questions can evaluate student problem solving and reasoning skills

By understanding the advantages of an essay type question on a midterm, test or final exam, educators are then able to better assess whether these types of questions are useful for their purposes and learning objectives

What are some disadvantages towards essay type questions

  • Can assess limited sample of the range of content.
  • Can be difficult to grade and be administratively more costly to implement
  • Can lead to bad writing habits, due to the lack of feedback and editing processes

Possible misconceptions regarding essay type questions

  • Essay questions are always better than multiple choice questions when assessing higher order thinking

Just because you are providing students space to write more does not automatically mean that higher order thinking is being tested and evaluated. Poorly written essay questions can test rote memory, and can lend itself to a more factually-based answer. At the same time, well-crafted multiple choice questions can test higher order thinking (as described above). Therefore, it is important to be cautious when assuming essay questions automatically test higher order thinking.

  • Essay questions eliminate guessing

There is a large concern when constructing question types that provide answers to students (such as multiple choice, true/false, or matching) where students can come to the correct answer based on luck or guessing. There is also an assumption that when students are writing an essay question, guessing has been eliminated, which is a misnomer. Essay questions can lend itself to a new form of guessing, or what researchers call “Bluffing” (Thelin & Scott, 1928). Bluffing is when students provide vague or generalized content in order to pad or add credibility to their writing. Many times, when grading large amounts of essay questions and when time is a factor in grading, it can seem that students who write a lot have a deeper understanding of content. However, succinct writing can be just as, if not more, effective in answer an essay prompt. Therefore, instructors need to be aware not only when constructing essay questions, but also during the grading of the potential of bluffing.

  • Essays develop writing skills
  • Essays encourage students to study and prepare more deeply

Strategies on how to construct effective essay questions

  • Start with your own learning outcomes

As stated before, it is important to always think about the intentions and learning objectives of your assessment tool. Are you hoping to assess a baseline of knowledge, or is this a tool to be used to assess critical thinking and problem solving skills. Writing out explicit, clear and concise learning objectives will aid in how you create your essay questions. Understanding what you want your students to express will help you work backwards in creating your essay question.

  • Limit subject matter (create boundaries)

Many times when students are given an essay question in an examination, it can feel extremely overwhelming. If we provide too vague of an essay question, students will feel the desire to write everything they know about the topic, many times to the detriment of actually answering the question. Therefore, providing clear boundaries and limitations (in your question and scenario) will help students focus their answer. Instead of having a need to write everything down, they will be able to formulate a clear response to your question if your question is clearly stated.

  • Use verbs carefully and selectively (and make sure the verb interacts with the object of the verb)

Not all verbs are the same! Be mindful of what you want students to do. If you want students to provide an explanation, verbs like describe or explain might be useful. If you are hoping for students to provide their own interpretations with supportive evidence, verbs like analyze or evaluate.

  • Situate the intended learning objective into a problem

This is similar to the previous idea of writing out your learning objective but takes it one step further. Since you have already written out your learning objective, use the same language for the essay question. If you are hoping for students to demonstrate their own opinions on a certain topic, feel free to use that language “demonstrating personal opinion” so students know what your intended learning outcomes are.

  • Understanding limitations of writing in a time-based assessment

Essay questions are not essays. Essays go through a process of drafting, editing and revision. Essay questions on a test very rarely get edited, and generally do not start from a place of an outline or skeleton. Understand that your students are under considerable time pressure and many of them will start writing immediately even before drafting an outline. Therefore, be mindful of the time pressures of the writing and adjust your grading accordingly. Be clear as to your expectations on the quality of writing, the use of bullet points and short form, and other ways students can save time on the actual writing. Also be mindful of how many essay questions you can effectively put on an examination. Even if each question could be answered in 30 minutes, the more you add, the slower students will be to answer subsequent questions due to mental and physical fatigue.

  • Promote feedback and training (to avoid poor writing habits)

One possible shortcoming of essay type questions is that they can promote bad writing habits. This is mainly due to the fact that students, very rarely, concern themselves with strong writing skills when completing an essay question on an examination. Therefore, it is up to the instructor to ensure that writing quality does not degrade during essay-type questions on a test. Integrating writing support during the course is not enough, for writing an essay or an assignment might be quite different than writing an essay question in a short period of time. Some strategies that might be helpful would be to encourage students to read the feedback on their essay questions. Furthermore, options can be provided for students to re-submit their essay questions (without knowing the answer key) after getting their marks back for a small, almost insignificant bonus in order to promote the editing and reflective process that is more evident in essay writing. Moreover, providing students with practice on how to effectively write essay questions, and even allocating grades to writing style and effectiveness on the actual essay question itself will help encourage students to not neglect one large aspect of these types of questions. One of the best ways to promote strong writing is to provide quality writing and have students deconstruct the piece of work. Giving the opportunities to be reflective and to try to take something as subjective as writing and create some objective guiding principles will aid in student writing development.

  • Keep the writing of the essay as accessible as possible

One of the biggest fears of students is misunderstanding the question, which leads to providing an answer that does not represent their true understanding of the content. This becomes exaggerated with English language/Multi-language learners. When constructing your question, do your best to remove any unnecessary fillers and keep the prompt as succinct as possible. Very similarly to writing a good stem for multiple choice questions, any jargon or unnecessary information should be removed to reduce the amount of extraneous cognitive load and possible points of confusion.

  • Be clear about the criteria of grading

Students should be aware of the criteria in which they are being graded. Now, unlike essays, many times students are not given the opportunity to review the grading rubric or criteria ahead of time. Therefore, it might be beneficial for students to know ahead of time how they might be graded (on general themes such as writing style, clarity, having a strong thesis statement, etc). Furthermore, on the actual essay question itself, it may be wise to provide a breakdown of what is expected and how the grades will be allocated. If you do provide a short breakdown of the grading scheme, keep it short and succinct as many students will just glance over it due to the time pressures of the test.

What about providing the questions ahead of time

Many educators believe that one way of dealing with the time crunch is to provide students with essay questions/topics ahead of time prior to the actual examination. Furthermore, some instructors will allow students to bring in “cheat sheets”, or work that has been written prior to aid them in the creation of their written answers. However, there are many pedagogical and administrative issues that come with providing questions ahead of time.

Administratively, instructors have to ask themselves, if they are providing questions ahead of time, why they have chosen to use these essay questions on an assessment tool like a midterm or test, rather than an essay assignment. Having more time, and the opportunities to edit, re-evaluate, and even resubmit a piece of writing will be more beneficial to students’ writing abilities than a one-off essay question on a test. Furthermore, providing students with more time to write the piece of work will generally lend itself to a higher caliber of work that reflects the students’ full capabilities. Therefore, educators need to ask how their learning objectives are better accomplished with this version of an essay question on a test rather than an essay assignment.

Pedagogically, it may seem beneficial to provide students with the essay questions ahead of time. Moreover, many instructors will provide a larger sample of essay questions, and only chose a subsection of them on the midterm. This may seem useful in helping students from just memorizing a script, while still assessing their mastery of the content and their critical thinking skills. However, the research has shown that by providing students with choices (specifically in the context of essay-type questions), assessments can become less valid and less robust in measuring the overall ability of your class. Some of these reasons include the fact that some of your essay questions might be easier than others, therefore students who chose to write a “harder” question may be at a slight disadvantage. Furthermore, students may waste time choosing a topic to write on (even if the questions are given ahead of time), which provides additional cognitive strain on the student that affects the sensitivity of your assessment tool. Lastly, if students are given the option on the actual test, the assessment may suffer in its reliability to capture the performance of your class. If students answer different questions, then it becomes difficult to assess if all students are equally knowledgeable about the topics covered on the test.


Essay Questions Writing Activity Sheet (PDF)