Constructing Essay Exams
What happens: Learner
- Hears and reads instructions
- Interprets the question
- Recalls relevant information
- Prepares a response according to the verbal directive,
either mentally or written, either outlined or "mapped",
- Writes response
- Reviews and edits if time permits
Essay tests can evaluate more complex cognitive or thinking skills
assuming that rote memory and recall tasks are assessed more appropriately through objectives tests as true-false and multiple choice questions. These cognitive challenges are reflected in the verbs of the questions themselves, from simple to complex (c.f. lists of verbs in objects...)
- Knowledge: recall, define, arrange, list, label, identify, match, reproduce
- Comprehension: describe, explain, recognize, restate, review, translate, classify; give examples; (re)state in own words
- Application: apply, illustrate, interpret, operate, solve, predict, utilize
- Analysis: analyze, compare, contrast, distinguish, examine, experiment, diagram; outline
- Synthesis: design, develop, formulate, propose, construct, create, reorganize, integrate, model, incorporate, plan
- Evaluation: evaluate, argue, assess, compare, contrast, conclude, defend, judge, support, interpret, justify
(for a complete listing of verbs in these categories, see Essay terms and directives)
- Require students to demonstrate critical thinking
in organizing and producing an answer beyond rote recall and memory
- Empower students to demonstrate their knowledge
within broad limits beyond the restraint of objective tests (true false, multiple choice)
- Allows learners to demonstrate originality and creativity
- Reduces preparation time in developing,
as well as distributing, a test, especially for small number of students
- Presents more possibilities for diagnosis
- Grading is often subjective and not consistent, colored by
preconceptions of student, prior performance, time of day, neatness and handwriting, spelling and grammar, and where the actual test falls in
- Can be a limited sampling of content
- Good writing requires time to think,
organize, write and revise
- Time consuming to correct
- Advantageous for students with good writing and verbal skills
as opposed to those who have alternative learning styles (visual and kinesthetic)
- Essay questions are not always properly developed
to assess higher thinking skills (often only test for recall and style)
- Advantageous for students who are quick,
as opposed to those who take time to develop an argument or may suffer from writers block
- Clearly state questions
not only to make essay tests easier for students to answer,
but also to make the responses easier to evaluate
- Include a relatively larger number of questions
requiring shorter answers in order to cover more content
- Guard against having too many test items
for the time allowed
- Indicate an appropriate response length
for each question
- Set time limits if necessary
- Note graded weights to questions
Ideal test items:
- Integrate course objectives into the essay items
- Specify and define what mental process you want the students to perform
(e.g., analyze, synthesize, compare, contrast, etc.).
Does not assume learner is practiced with the process
- Start questions with an active verb
such as "compare", "contrast", "explain why";
Offer definitions of the active verb, and even practice beforehand.
- Avoid writing essay questions that require factual knowledge,
as those beginning questions with interrogative pronouns
(who, when, why, where)
- Avoid vague, ambiguous, or non-specific verbs
(consider, examine, discuss, explain)
unless you include specific instructions in developing responses
- Have each student answer all the questions
Do not offer options for questions
- Structure the question to minimize subjective interpretations
- Present the assignment both verbally and in writing.
The initial oral plus written presentation to promote and inspire thought;
written for reference within the test
- Provide evaluation criteria
- Focus on the mental activity to avoid rote answers,
and/or repeating examples from the text
- Teach students how to write an essay (test)
explaining definitions of cognitive verbs
- Teach the difference
between presenting a position as opposed to presenting an opinion
- Define requirements clearly
State the number of points each question is worth
- Warn students of possible pitfalls
especially if you have strong ideas of what you do and do not want
- Inform the students about how you evaluate
misspelled words, neatness, handwriting, grammar, irrelevant material (bluffing)
- Develop a model answer
that contains all necessary points
- Note additional content for extra points
- Conceal or ignore students' names in the correcting process
- Read through the answers to one test item at a time
- Sequence best through worst responses
for verification if time permits
- Write comments on the students’ answers,
both affirming and correcting
- Do not give credit for irrelevant material
- Mix or shuffle papers to vary subject's location
before assessing the next test item
Curricular guides and resources:
Using feedback in the classroom | Teaching critical thinking | Bloom's taxonomy |
Teaching with questioning | Preparing guided notes |
A curricular idea! | Curricular resources and guides |
Learning Exercises & Games | Exploring learning styles |
Constructing true/false tests | Constructing multiple choice tests |
Constructing essay exams | Cross language resources including digital translators |
Online Learning/eLearning books and resources for teachers
The well-organized, neat-appearing individual will usually get the nod over another equally capable person who is disorganized and careless in appearance. Although other factors are involved, the analogy to examination writing is a skill. This skill can be improved by instruction. The student would be advised to follow certain steps in writing an essay exam.
1. SET UP A TIME SCHEDULE.
If six questions are to be answered in forty-five minutes, allow yourself only five minutes for each. When the time is up for one question, stop writing and begin the next one. There will be 15 minutes remaining when the last question is completed. The incomplete answers can be completed during the time. Six incomplete answers, by the way, will usually receive more credit than three completed ones. Of course, if one question is worth more points than the others you allow more time to write it.
2. READ THROUGH THE QUESTIONS ONCE.
Answers will come to mind immediately for some questions Write down key words, listings, etc. now when they're fresh in mind. Otherwise these ideas may be blocked (or be unavailable) when the time comes to write the later questions. This will reduce "clutching" or panic (Anxiety, actually fear which disrupts thoughts).
3. BEFORE ATTEMPTING TO ANSWER A QUESTION, LOOK AT THE DIRECTIVE WORDS.
Your instructor may give you specific directions how to write your answer. If he/she wants you to evaluate a philosophical theory, you won't get full credit if you describe just the theory. Make sure you know what you are being asked to do.
4. OUTLINE THE ANSWER BEFORE WRITING.
Whether the teacher realizes it or not, he/she is greatly influenced by the compactness and clarity of an organized answer. To begin writing in the hope that the right answer will somehow turn up is time consuming and usually futile. To know a little and to present that little well is, by and large, superior to knowing much and presenting it poorly--when judged by the grade it receives. Be sure to follow the directive words, and check your outline to see that it is logical.
5. TAKE TIME TO WRITE AN INTRODUCTION AND SUMMARY.
The introduction will consist of the main point to be made; the summary is simply a paraphrasing of the introduction. A neat bundle with a beginning and ending is very satisfying to the reader. Be sure that your answer is direct and really answers the question.
6. TAKE TIME AT THE END TO REREAD THE PAPER.
When writing in haste we tend to:
- Misspell words
- Omit words or parts
- Omit parts of questions
- Misstate dates and figures (1353 written as 1953; $.60 as $60)
7. QUALIFY ANSWERS WHEN IN DOUBT.
It is better to say "Toward the end of the 19th century" then to say "in 1894" when you can't remember whether it's 1884 or 1894, though approximate, may be incorrect, and will usually be marked accordingly. When possible, avoid very definite statements. A qualified statement connotes a philosophic attitude, the mark of an educated man.
FOR *ESSAY* QUESTIONS
The following words are commonly found in essay test questions. Understanding them is essential to success on these kinds of questions. Study this sheet thoroughly. Know these words backwards and forwards.
- ANALYZE: Break into separate parts and discuss, examine, or interpret each part.
- COMPARE: Examine two or more things. Identify similarities and differences. Comparisons generally ask for similarities more than differences. (See Contrast.)
- CONTRAST: Show differences. Set in opposition.
- CRITICIZE: Make judgments. Evaluate comparative worth. Criticism often involves analysis.
- DEFINE: Give the meaning; usually a meaning specific to the course of subject. Determine the precise limits of the term to be defined. Explain the exact meaning. Definitions are usually short.
- DESCRIBE: Give a detailed account. Make a picture with words. List characteristics, qualities and parts.
- DISCUSS: Consider and debate or argue the pros and cons of an issue. Write about any conflict. Compare and contrast.
- ENUMERATE: List several ideas, aspects, events, things, qualities, reasons, etc.
- EVALUATE: Give your opinion or cite the opinion of an expert. Include evidence to support the evaluation.
- ILLUSTRATE: Give concrete examples. Explain clearly by using comparisons or examples.
- INTERPRET: Comment upon, give examples, describe relationships. Explain the meaning. Describe, then evaluate.
- OUTLINE: Describe main ideas, characteristics, or events. (Does not necessarily mean *write a Roman numeral/letter outline*.)
- PROVE: Support with facts (especially facts presented in class or in the test).
- STATE: Explain precisely.
- SUMMARIZE: Give a brief, condensed account. Include conclusions. Avoid unnecessary details.
- TRACE: Show the order of events or progress of a subject or event.