Writing Essay Questions

Candidates will dedicate a large portion of their time to answering essay questions. This means that a lot of time will need to be spent ensuring that questions have been structured in a clear, concise manner. It is recommended that you have the topic learning outcomes in mind when coming up with essay questions, to ensure that these are reflected in the questions. Below you can read some tips on writing good essay questions. You can create essay questions in Surpass.  

Writing an In-depth Essay Question   

Example 1: List the stages of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from the most immediate to the least immediate.

The above example does not meet the criteria for effective essay questions. This is because it only requires students to give a list – no original or critical thinking is required here as students will basically regurgitate information.

 Example 2: Explain the influence Maslow’s hierarchy of needs had on existing psychological and physiological ideas…

The example above is an effective essay question – not only do students need to compose a response with their knowledge, but they also need to write several sentences to sufficiently answer the question. Moreover, students have room for originality, with the ability to provide a wide variety of examples to support their argument, and their response can be structured in various ways.

Writing an Essay Question to Test Critical Thinking Skills 


Example 1: What are the advantages and limitations of raising free range livestock for food?

The example above does not test critical thinking skills as a candidate only needs to recall the knowledge they have learnt.

Example 2: Given the advantages and limitations of raising free range livestock for food, how far should British farmers consider free range farming? In answering this question you will need to consider issues of space, weather conditions and farming economics in Britain.

This is an essay question that would test critical thinking skills – the candidate is being asked to consider a variety of factors. They need to make an evaluative judgement and explain their reasoning for the judgement which will then be assessed by examiners.

Making an Essay Question Focused  

Writing an overly general essay question can be confusing to the candidate – they will not know whether or not to focus on one area of knowledge or to write a general overview. Furthermore, ensuring your question is focused allows you to see how well the candidate understands one particular area.  

Be sure that your question is appropriately focused.

Example 1: Describe the impact of alcohol on the body.

Example 2: Describe the impact of alcohol on the functioning of the brain. Give three examples.

You can see above the focus of the question is becoming clearer. Providing more focused exam questions allows an examiner to better gauge a student’s knowledge – with a vague question, the student has scope to write down anything they know, whereas with a focused question they are asked to draw on and explain/describe specific knowledge. A focused question also means less confusion for students when deciding how to 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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To learn how to set up an Essay Question, visit the Essay section of the Surpass online Help.

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