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
Examinations are a very common assessment and evaluation tool in universities and there are many types of examination questions. This tips sheet contains a brief description of seven types of examination questions, as well as tips for using each of them: 1) multiple choice, 2) true/false, 3) matching, 4) short answer, 5) essay, 6) oral, and 7) computational. Remember that some exams can be conducted effectively in a secure online environment in a proctored computer lab or assigned as paper based or online “take home” exams.
Multiple choice questions are composed of one question (stem) with multiple possible answers (choices), including the correct answer and several incorrect answers (distractors). Typically, students select the correct answer by circling the associated number or letter, or filling in the associated circle on the machine-readable response sheet.
Example: Distractors are:
A) Elements of the exam layout that distract attention from the questions
B) Incorrect but plausible choices used in multiple choice questions
C) Unnecessary clauses included in the stem of multiple choice questions
Students can generally respond to these type of questions quite quickly. As a result, they are often used to test student’s knowledge of a broad range of content. Creating these questions can be time consuming because it is often difficult to generate several plausible distractors. However, they can be marked very quickly.
Tips for writing good multiple choice items:
In the stem:
In the choices:
In the stem:
In the choices:
Suggestion: After each lecture during the term, jot down two or three multiple choice questions based on the material for that lecture. Regularly taking a few minutes to compose questions, while the material is fresh in your mind, will allow you to develop a question bank that you can use to construct tests and exams quickly and easily.
True/false questions are only composed of a statement. Students respond to the questions by indicating whether the statement is true or false. For example: True/false questions have only two possible answers (Answer: True).
Like multiple choice questions, true/false questions:
- Are most often used to assess familiarity with course content and to check for popular misconceptions
- Allow students to respond quickly so exams can use a large number of them to test knowledge of a broad range of content
- Are easy and quick to grade but time consuming to create
True/false questions provide students with a 50% chance of guessing the right answer. For this reason, multiple choice questions are often used instead of true/false questions.
Tips for writing good true/false items:
Suggestion: You can increase the usefulness of true/false questions by asking students to correct false statements.
Students respond to matching questions by pairing each of a set of stems (e.g., definitions) with one of the choices provided on the exam. These questions are often used to assess recognition and recall and so are most often used in courses where acquisition of detailed knowledge is an important goal. They are generally quick and easy to create and mark, but students require more time to respond to these questions than a similar number of multiple choice or true/false items.
Example: Match each question type with one attribute:
- Multiple Choice a) Only two possible answers
- True/False b) Equal number of stems and choices
- Matching c) Only one correct answer but at least three choices
Tips for writing good matching items:
Suggestion: You can use some choices more than once in the same matching exercise. It reduces the effects of guessing.
Short answer questions are typically composed of a brief prompt that demands a written answer that varies in length from one or two words to a few sentences. They are most often used to test basic knowledge of key facts and terms. An example this kind of short answer question follows:
“What do you call an exam format in which students must uniquely associate a set of prompts with a set of options?” Answer: Matching questions
Alternatively, this could be written as a fill-in-the-blank short answer question:
“An exam question in which students must uniquely associate prompts and options is called a
___________ question.” Answer: Matching.
Short answer questions can also be used to test higher thinking skills, including analysis or
evaluation. For example:
“Will you include short answer questions on your next exam? Please justify your decision with
two to three sentences explaining the factors that have influenced your decision.”
Short answer questions have many advantages. Many instructors report that they are relatively easy to construct and can be constructed faster than multiple choice questions. Unlike matching, true/false, and multiple choice questions, short answer questions make it difficult for students to
guess the answer. Short answer questions provide students with more flexibility to explain their understanding and demonstrate creativity than they would have with multiple choice questions; this also means that scoring is relatively laborious and can be quite subjective. Short answer
questions provide more structure than essay questions and thus are often easy and faster to mark and often test a broader range of the course content than full essay questions.
Tips for writing good short answer items:
|Type of question||Avoid||Do use|
Suggestion: When using short answer questions to test student knowledge of definitions consider having a mix of questions, some that supply the term and require the students to provide the definition, and other questions that supply the definition and require that students provide the term. The latter sort of questions can be structured as fill-in-the-blank questions. This mix of formats will better test student knowledge because it doesn’t rely solely on recognition or recall of the term.
Essay questions provide a complex prompt that requires written responses, which can vary in length from a couple of paragraphs to many pages. Like short answer questions, they provide students with an opportunity to explain their understanding and demonstrate creativity, but make it hard for students to arrive at an acceptable answer by bluffing. They can be constructed reasonably quickly and easily but marking these questions can be time-consuming and grader agreement can be difficult.
Essay questions differ from short answer questions in that the essay questions are less structured. This openness allows students to demonstrate that they can integrate the course material in creative ways. As a result, essays are a favoured approach to test higher levels of cognition including analysis, synthesis and evaluation. However, the requirement that the students provide most of the structure increases the amount of work required to respond effectively. Students often take longer to compose a five paragraph essay than they would take to compose five one paragraph answers to short answer questions. This increased workload limits the number of essay questions that can be posed on a single exam and thus can restrict the overall scope of an exam to a few topics or areas. To ensure that this doesn’t cause students to panic or blank out, consider giving the option of answering one of two or more questions.
Tips for writing good essay items:
Suggestions: Distribute possible essay questions before the exam and make your marking criteria slightly stricter. This gives all students an equal chance to prepare and should improve the quality of the answers – and the quality of learning – without making the exam any easier.
Oral examinations allow students to respond directly to the instructor’s questions and/or to present prepared statements. These exams are especially popular in language courses that demand ‘speaking’ but they can be used to assess understanding in almost any course by following the guidelines for the composition of short answer questions. Some of the principle advantages to oral exams are that they provide nearly immediate feedback and so allow the student to learn as they are tested. There are two main drawbacks to oral exams: the amount of time required and the problem of record-keeping. Oral exams typically take at least ten to fifteen minutes per student, even for a midterm exam. As a result, they are rarely used for large classes. Furthermore, unlike written exams, oral exams don’t automatically generate a written record. To ensure that students have access to written feedback, it is recommended that instructors take notes during oral exams using a rubric and/or checklist and provide a photocopy of the notes to the students.
In many departments, oral exams are rare. Students may have difficulty adapting to this new style of assessment. In this situation, consider making the oral exam optional. While it can take more time to prepare two tests, having both options allows students to choose the one which suits them and their learning style best.
Computational questions require that students perform calculations in order to solve for an answer. Computational questions can be used to assess student’s memory of solution techniques and their ability to apply those techniques to solve both questions they have attempted before and questions that stretch their abilities by requiring that they combine and use solution techniques in novel ways.
Effective computational questions should:
- Be solvable using knowledge of the key concepts and techniques from the course. Before the exam solve them yourself or get a teaching assistant to attempt the questions.
- Indicate the mark breakdown to reinforce the expectations developed in in-class examples for the amount of detail, etc. required for the solution.
To prepare students to do computational questions on exams, make sure to describe and model in class the correct format for the calculations and answer including:
- How students should report their assumptions and justify their choices
- The units and degree of precision expected in the answer
Suggestion: Have students divide their answer sheets into two columns: calculations in one, and a list of assumptions, description of process and justification of choices in the other. This ensures that the marker can distinguish between a simple mathematical mistake and a profound conceptual error and give feedback accordingly.
Cunningham, G.K. (1998). Assessment in the Classroom. Bristol, PA: Falmer Press.
Ward, A.W., & Murray-Ward, M. (1999). Assessment in the Classroom. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co.
This Creative Commons license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon our work non-commercially, as long as they credit us and indicate if changes were made. Use this citation format: Exam questions: types, characteristics and suggestions. Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo.