Choosing the Right Question Type - Essay Questions

Essay Questions will usually require the largest amount of a candidate’s time and effort in an exam, and consequently will be worth the most marks. It is therefore important that a lot of thought is given when deciding to include them in an exam. This guide will detail the pros and cons of using this question type and general advice for anyone creating or implementing essay questions to consider.

  • Examiners can analyse the student’s understanding more accurately as the student is required to provide their own response rather than selecting an answer
  • The precise level of a student’s understanding and where they have gaps in knowledge can be seen in much more detail
  • Students are expected to express their thoughts in grammatical, well crafted sentences and paragraphs – a valuable skill   
  • Essays take a long time for students to write and for teachers to mark. As a result, for a fixed amount of examination time or grading effort, fewer items can be administered, an exam may not be able to cover all of the topic as a result.
  • Personal biases or other extraneous factors such as tiredness may affect marking accuracy
  • Grades are unreliable as markers can disagree over what mark an essay should receive, as a result students may not receive accurate marks
  • The question type can focus more on a student’s ability to structure an answer well and communicate effectively than their knowledge of the subject   

Things to think about with essay style questions  

1) Determine whether an essay question is the best type to use. Essay questions should be used when you want to assess students’ ability to interpret, evaluate or apply knowledge to a problem or situation.
2) Cover as much of the topic as possible. In order for an exam to reflect how well a student has mastered a topic, question items should cover as much of the course content as possible.
3) Write questions clearly so students know what kind of answer is expected, with key words such as "explain" or "consider".
4) Do not allow students to choose which questions to answer. Students will choose the items they know most about, making it harder to work out which students know all of the topic and which only know particular sections.
5) Avoid marking bias. Try to make sure examiners do not know which student’s exams are which when marking. On-screen assessment is useful for reducing bias as candidates will be typing and selecting answers, so there will be no potential for recognising handwriting. 
6) .You may wish to specify how long, roughly, the candidate should spend answering each question. E.g. “It is recommended that you spend approximately 30 minutes answering this question.” This helps candidates to manage time effectively and get an idea of how much depth they need to go into with their answer. 

Note: The purpose of these articles is to provide you with general advice in the fields of assessment and testing. These articles are not intended to replace any regulations or instructions provided by your organisation, but may be used in conjunction with these materials to support the assessment process.

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