Essay questions are used to assess student knowledge of the subject content and writing ability. The question is followed by a text box. Well written essay questions require students to compose a response. Students use multiple sentences when responding to an essay question. The responses are then interrupted and manually scored by a subject-matter expert.
Types of Essay Questions
Extended Response Questions
This type of essay question allows a student to determine the content of the answer. Essay questions examine the student's ability to organize, synthesize, and evaluate to compose a response. One essay question topic could be, "How I Spent My Holiday Break." This type of question works well to judge writing skills, but does not necessarily have a right or wrong answer.
Restricted Response Questions
This type of essay question is limited in terms of content and structure. For instance, you could ask, "Tell me about a time in your life where you struggled to cope with the death of a family member." This type of question would restrict the writer to a limited time and scope enabling them to provide sufficient detail on the topic. Restricted response questions are helpful when testing students about content.
Advantages of Essay Questions
- Allow learning objectives to be assessed through complex thinking.
- Allows student reasoning skills to be assessed.
- Allows students to construct a response to a problem instead of selecting one from a list.
Disadvantages of Essay Questions
- Samples limited content challenging validity and reliability.
- Produces questionable scores due to the subjective nature of the questions.
- Scores can be influenced by factors outside the content being tested such as a predetermined notion that a student is a "poor writer."
- May put poor writers at a disadvantage.
- Takes extra time to score.
Average Response Time
10 - 15 minutes
Constructing Essay Questions
- Allow adequate time to develop essay questions. Three well written essay questions may take more time to develop than 40 multiple-choice questions.
- Write questions to test a limited number of objectives.
- Limit essay questions to outcomes that cannot be measured in objective terms.
- Never use essay questions to test facts or lower order thinking skills.
- Preference should be given to short versus the long essay questions to yield the desired results; however, the short essay can also be flawed since it may not employ complex thinking.
- Clearly write the task(s) the question is to address.
- State the time (minutes/hours) needed to complete a question.
- State the number of possible points for the question.
- Employ creativity when writing questions.
- Do not include optional questions.
- Do not provide a list of essay questions to prepare in advance of a test; rather, consider allowing students to respond to a sample essay question during class and provide examples of how their essay would be scored.
Good Example of an Essay Question
Explain in what way a person's failure to apply the smoking cessation step process will impact his or her ability to stop smoking. Provide an example to illustrate your point.
- This example requires student to compose a response. It also requires the student to use reasoning skills and an example to reinforce their argument.
Bad Example of an Essay Question
List all the steps to the smoking cessation process. Please list them in chronological order.
- This example only requires the learner to access lower level thinking skills which include memorization and recall.
Identifying Flawed Essay Questions
Essay Question References
Cashin, W. E. (1987). Idea Paper No. 17: Improving Essay Tests. Manhattan, KS
Hammer, C. (1986). Writing Better Essay Questions. The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas, 59(7), 298-298. Retrieved March 25, 2016.
Reiner, C. R., Bothell, T. W., Sudweeks, R. R., & Wood, B. (2002). How to prepare effective essay questions: Guidelines for university faculty. BYU Faculty Center, Salt Lake City.
Reiner, C. M., Bothell, T. W., Sudweeks, R. R., & Wood, B. (2002). Preparing effective essay questions. New Forums Press, Stillwater. https://testing.byu.edu/handbooks/WritingEffectiveEssayQuestions.pdf Retrieved April 21, 2016.
How to Prepare Effective Essay Questions: Guidelines for University Faculty. http://www.uwgb.edu/oira/teachlearn/bettertests/betteressays.pdf Retrieved April 21, 2016.
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