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How Should Essay Questions Be Constructed?

04 May 2017

After they have read an essay item, students should have a clear idea of how they should tailor their responses. Below are specific guidelines that can help to improve existing essay questions and create new ones.

1. Clearly define the intended learning outcome to be assessed by the item.

Decide which of the following intended learning outcomes lends itself better to be assessed by an essay question.

  • Example A
  • Example B

Example B is more useful for guiding the development of an essay question. Specific intended learning outcomes are crucial to designing effective essay questions. If the expected outcome to be assessed lacks clarity and specificity, the essay question meant to assess students’ achievement of the outcome will likely assess something other than what is intended. Example A is too general to provide clear guidance in writing an essay question. The directive verb, “appreciate” is vague and difficult to assess. It is especially difficult to judge or assign a grade to students’ “appreciation”.

In specifying the intended learning outcome, teachers should clarify the performance that students should be able to demonstrate as a result of what they have learned. Intended learning outcomes meant to guide the development of test items will typically begin with a specific directive verb. The outcome statement will describe the observable behavior, action or outcome that students should demonstrate. The focus is on what students should be able to do rather than on the learning or teaching process. Reviewing a list of directive verbs to determine which verbs most closely match the ability

Students will appreciate the process of cell division.

Given a chart illustrating the process of cell division, students will compare and contrast each major step in the process.

students should demonstrate is helpful. Appendix B contains a sample list of directive verbs and their definitions.

Again, intended learning outcomes meant to guide assessment of student learning

should be as specific as possible. Objectives written broadly or generally are adequate for guiding an entire course or for describing the goals of an entire program, but are not as useful for determining which type of assessment item should be used.

2. Avoid using essay questions for intended learning outcomes that are better assessed with other kinds of assessment.

Some types of learning outcomes can be more efficiently and more reliably assessed with selected-response questions than with essay questions. In addition, some complex learning outcomes can be more directly assessed with other types of assessment (e.g., performance assessment, simulations, internships) than with essay questions. Since essay questions typically sample a limited range of content, are time consuming to score, and involve greater subjectivity in scoring than objectively scored items, the use of essay questions should be reserved for learning outcomes that cannot be better assessed by some other means.

3. Clearly define and situate the task within a problem situation.

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.

Thus, effective essay questions provide a well-defined task for students. That task should provide students with an indication of the types of thinking they will use to respond to the essay question and the content they should reason with.

In essence, an effective essay question produces valid evidence of the degree to which students have achieved the intended learning outcome. The process of writing effective essay questions requires educators to carefully select one or more verbs that elicit the desired thought processes in the minds of the students. The following example demonstrates the importance of carefully choosing directive verbs to align the essay question with the intended learning outcome.

Example C

Intended learning outcome:

Analyze the impact of America at war on the American economy.

Less effective essay question:

Describe the impact of America at war on the American economy.

More effective essay question:

Analyze the impact of America at war on the American economy by describing how different effects of the war work together to influence the economy.

According to the definition provided in Appendix B, “analyze” means to break material into its constituent parts and to determine how the parts relate to one another and to an overall structure or purpose. In the less effective example, students are asked to describe the impact. To describe requires students to give an account of the impact of America at war on the American economy, but it does not require students to make an analysis based on the different effects of the war and how they work together to affect the economy. The more effective question does make this distinction for students, thereby providing guidance concerning the task of analyzing. Thus, directive verbs must be carefully selected to clearly reflect the task required of students and to be aligned to intended outcomes.

Similarly, the object of the directive verb must be carefully written. Just as it is important to select the right verb, it is important to delimit the scope of the object of that verb. Delimiting the scope of the task helps to avoid student responses containing ideas unrelated to the essay question and extreme subjectivity when scoring responses.

A clearly defined task will specify the performance students should exhibit when responding to the essay question. A clearly defined task is composed of a directive verb and the object of that verb. For example, consider the following tasks:

  • Task = Justify
  • Directive Verb
  • Task = Defend
  • Directive Verb
  • Object of the Verb
  • Object of the Verb
  • the view you prefer the theory as the most suitable for the situation

Limiting the subject matter for a given essay question depends on different factors that require the teacher’s subject matter expertise and the teacher’s knowledge of what material was introduced to the students in the course. Among other things, how to restrict the task can depend on the hierarchy of knowledge related to the essay question and what parts of the knowledge were emphasized in class. The following example illustrates the process of limiting the scope of the task for a given essay question.

Example of an Evolving Essay Question that Becomes More Focused

1. Less focused essay question:

Evaluate the impact of the Industrial Revolution on England.

2. More focused essay question:

Evaluate the impact of the Industrial Revolution on the family in England.

3. More focused essay question:

Evaluate the impact of the Industrial Revolution on the role of fathers in poor communities of England.

4. More focused essay question:

Evaluate the impact of the Industrial Revolution on the role of fathers in poor communities of England based on whether or not the Industrial Revolution improved fathers’ abilities to provide the material necessities of life and education and training for their children.

5. More focused essay question:

Evaluate the impact of the Industrial Revolution on the role of fathers in poor communities of England based on whether or not the Industrial Revolution improved fathers’ abilities to provide the material necessities of life and education and training for their children. Explain how the role of a father as provider changed with the Industrial Revolution and whether or not the changes were an improvement for fathers striving to provide for their children.

In the examples above, five essay questions are provided. Example 1 has little structure. The directive verb is “evaluate” and the object of the verb is “the impact of the Industrial Revolution on England.” Very little guidance is given to students about the task of evaluating and the scope of the task. A student reading Example 1 may ask the following:

  1. The impact on what in England? The economy? Foreign trade? A particular group of people?
  2. Evaluate? Based on what criteria? The significance of the Revolution? The quality of life in England? Progress in technological advancements?
  3. What exactly do you want me to do in my evaluation?

Example 2 delimits the task for students by specifying a particular unit of society in England affected by the Industrial Revolution (family). Example 3 is even more focused than Example 2 because students are asked to focus on a subunit of the family (fathers) and a specific community of families in England (poor communities).

With Example 4, the task is further delimited by giving students a criterion for evaluating the impact of the Industrial Revolution (whether or not fathers’ abilities to provide for their children in two different ways improved because of the Industrial Revolution).

The last example provides more structure for students than all the other examples. In Example 5, the task is focused and delimited by clarifying for students what must be done to “evaluate.” Students must explain how the role of fathers as providers changed and judge whether or not the changes were an improvement for fathers and their children.

Although the examples differ in the degree of structure and focus provided for students, it is not necessarily true that more structure and more focus are better than less

structure and less focus. As mentioned previously, when using more structure in essay questions, teachers are trying to avoid at least two problems: bluffing and grading difficulty. More structure helps to avoid student responses containing ideas unrelated to the essay question and extreme subjectivity when scoring responses. Of the five examples, the one that would be best to use, depends on the intended learning outcome that is to be assessed by the essay question and the purpose for which the essay question is to be used.

Failure to establish adequate and effective limits for the student response to the essay question allows students to set their own boundaries for their
response, meaning that students might provide responses that are outside of the intended task, that are too long, or that only address a part of the intended task. If students’ failure to answer within the
intended limits of the essay question can be ascribed to poor or ineffective wording of the task, the teacher is left with unreliable and invalid information about the students’ achievement of the intended learning outcome and has little or no basis for grading the student responses. Therefore, teachers are responsible for writing essay questions in such a way that they provide students with clear boundaries for responses. In short, educators should avoid indeterminate questions.

A question is indeterminate if it is so unstructured that students can redefine the problem and focus on some aspect of it with which they are thoroughly familiar, or if experts in the subject matter cannot agree that one answer is better than another. One way to avoid indeterminate questions is to stay away from vocabulary that is ambiguous. For example, teachers should avoid using the verb “discuss” in an essay question. This verb is simply too broad and vague and therefore fails to provide adequate guidance for students as to how to respond to the essay question. Moreover, teachers should also avoid including vocabulary that is too advanced for students.

Once the task of the essay question is clearly defined and the content that students are to use in accomplishing the task has been delimited, the essay question is ready to be situated in a problem. The ability to situate well-written tasks within problems is what makes educators effective at writing essay questions. Both the tasks and the problems are key elements of essay questions.

We have defined the task, now we want to define the problem. The problem in essay questions includes the unsettled matter or undesirable state of affairs that needs to be resolved. The purpose of the problem is to provide the students with a context within which they can demonstrate the performance to be assessed. Ideally, students would not have previously encountered the specific problem.

Depending on the intended learning outcome to be assessed, teachers may take different approaches to develop the problem in which the task will be situated. In cases where the intended outcome to be assessed requires complex or critical thinking, often a unique or novel problem situation is developed. In this case, the problem situation consists of a context that students have not previously encountered and that presents some unresolved matter or uncertain situation. The purpose of making a novel problem situation part of the essay question is to confront students with a new context requiring them to assess the situation and derive an acceptable solution by using knowledge of the relevant subject matter, and reasoning skills.

Writing novel problem situations requires creativity.

Essentially, teachers should try to embed the problem in new and particular circumstances. The circumstances should be strikingly different from those previously encountered in class or in teaching materials. At the same time, the novel problem situation should not be completely foreign to the students’ experience. Novelty is a matter of degree. Hence, the test maker must be cautious to avoid creating too large of a gap between what students should have learned directly with the teachers help and what they should be able to conclude by reasoning.

A developed problem situation in an essay question should assess the same intended learning outcome that guided the instruction, but should be embedded in a new context that requires students to transfer to this new setting the knowledge, understanding, and cognitive abilities they previously learned. In other words, the task of the essay question requires students to reason with their knowledge based on a novel context.

When using a novel problem situation, it is often described before the actual essay question is given. For example, consider the following essay question meant to assess complex levels of thinking. In the example, the novel problem situation is given first, followed by the essay question.

Example:

Intended Learning Outcome:

Create a hypothesis concerning how a particular program may affect the quality of education for students

A national service entitled “Pick a Prof” makes teacher evaluation data public. “Pick a Prof” gives students the ability to take control of their education by using grade histories, student reviews and course schedules to choose a
course and professor of their liking. Currently, professionals are uncertain about the effect of this service on the quality of education for students.

Create a hypothesis about the effect the service may have on the quality of education for students using the service. Support your hypothesis with reasons and examples.

Problem Situation

Essay Question

Presenting the students with a situation they have not previously encountered so they must reason with their knowledge provides an authentic assessment of complex thinking. If a problem that has been previously discussed and solved in class is used on an exam, the essay question merely assesses students’ recall or memory of the class discussion.

In summary, the task and problem are the key elements of essay questions. The complexity of the task and problem depends on the intended learning outcome to be assessed. Accurately developing the task and problem of an essay question requires practice and training. In addition, there are other considerations that are important when developing the task and problem of the essay question.

4. Present a reasonable task to students.

When defining the task for the essay question, teachers need to make sure that they present a reasonable task to their students. One of the challenges that teachers face in composing essay questions is that because of their extensive experience with the subject matter they may be tempted to demand unreasonable content expertise from the students. Hence, teachers need to make sure that their students can “be expected to have adequate

material with which to answer the question” (Stalnaker, 1952, p.520). In addition, teachers should ask themselves if students can be reasonably expected to adequately perform the thought processes which are required of them in the task. For assessment to be fair, teachers need to provide their students with sufficient instruction and practice in the subject matter and thought processes to be assessed.

Identifying an audience for students to write their essay responses to may also be helpful. This would make the task more authentic. A key element in writing communication is to clearly identify and write to a specific audience. Often, this key element is removed from the task given to students in essay questions.

5. The task can be written as a statement or question.

In essay questions, the task can be presented either in the form of a direct question or an imperative statement. If written as a question, then it must be readily translatable into the form of an imperative statement. For example, the following illustrates the same essay item twice, once as a question and once as an imperative statement.

In the example above, both essay items elicit the same performance from the student (compare and contrast processes based on cost). Whether essay questions are written as imperative statements or questions, they should be written to align with the intended outcome and in such a way that the task is clear to the students.

6. Specify the relative point value and the approximate time limit in clear directions.

Specifying the relative point value and the approximate time limit helps students allocate their time in answering several essay questions because the directions clarify the relative merit of each essay question. Without such guidelines students may feel at a loss as to how much time to spend on a question. When deciding how much time should be spent on a question, keep the slower students and students with certain disabilities in mind. Also make sure that students can be realistically expected to provide an adequate answer in the given and/or the suggested time.

Question: How are the processes of increasing production and improving quality in a manufacturing plant similar or different based on cost?

Imperative statement: Compare and contrast the processes of increasing production and improving quality in a manufacturing plant based on cost.

7. State the criteria for grading

Students should know what criteria will be applied to grade their responses. As long as the criteria are the same for the grading of the different essay questions they don’t have to be repeated for each essay question but can rather be stated once for all essay questions. Consider the following example.

Example

If teachers intend to grade the content and the form of student responses to the essay question, they should specify the relative point value for the content and the relative point value for the form.
 

8. Use several relatively short essay questions rather than one long one.

Only a very limited number of essay questions can be included on a test because of the time required for students to respond to them and the time required for teachers to grade the responses. This creates a challenge with regards to designing valid essay questions. Focused essay questions are better suited to assess the depth of student learning within a subject whereas less-focused essay questions are better suited to assess the breadth of student learning within a subject. Hence, there is a trade-off when choosing between several short essay questions or one long one.

9. Avoid the use of optional questions

Students should not be permitted to choose one essay question to answer from two or more optional questions. The use of optional questions should be avoided for the following reasons:

  • Students may waste time deciding on an option.
  • Some questions are likely to be harder to answer than others. This could make the comparative assessment of students' abilities unfair.
  • The use of optional questions makes it difficult to evaluate if all students are equally knowledgeable about topics covered in the test.

The content of all of your responses to essay questions will be graded in terms of the accuracy, completeness, and relevance of the ideas expressed. The form of your answer will be evaluated in terms of clarity, organization, correct mechanics (spelling, punctuation, grammar, capitalization), and legibility.

10. Improve the essay question through preview and review.

The following steps can help you improve an essay item before and after you hand it out to your students making the essay question much more
effective for both you and the student.

Preview (before handing out the essay question to the students)

  1. Predict student responses.
    Try to respond to the question from the perspective of a typical student. Evaluate whether students have the content knowledge and the skills necessary to adequately respond to the question. Repair any possible weaknesses of the essay question before handing out the exam.
  2. Write a model answer.
    Before using a question, write model answer(s) or at least an outline of major points that should be included in an answer. Writing the model answer allows reflection on the clarity of the essay question. Furthermore, the model answer(s) serve as a basis for grading students’ responses.
    Once the model answer has been written compare its alignment with the essay question and the intended learning outcome and make changes as needed to assure that the intended learning outcome, the essay question, and the model answer are aligned with each other.
  3. Ask a knowledgeable colleague to critically review the essay question, the model answer, and the intended learning outcome for alignment. Before using the essay question on a test, ask a person knowledgeable in the subject (colleague, teaching assistant, etc.) to critically review the essay question, the model answer, and the intended learning outcome to determine how well they are aligned with each other. Based on the intended learning outcome, revise the question as needed. By having someone else look at the test the likelihood of creating effective test items is increased. Try asking a colleague or TA to evaluate the essay questions based on the guidelines for constructing essay questions contained in this booklet.

Review (after receiving the student responses)

d. Review student responses to the essay question.
After students complete the essay questions, carefully review the range of answers given and the manner in which students seem to have interpreted the question. Make revisions based on the findings. Writing good essay questions is a process that requires time and practice. Carefully studying the student responses can help evaluate students' understanding of the question as well as the effectiveness of the question in assessing the intended learning outcomes.

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