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Writing Essay Items

Essay questions can be effective measures of your students’ ability to perform higher order thinking processes: in particular, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. When writing essay questions….

  • Keep in mind which type of knowledge you intend to assess. This will help you with the wording of the question.
  • Define the desired task clearly for your students, so that the question asks students to demonstrate the specific skill you desire..
  • Consider asking students to apply their knowledge to novel situations or cases, rather than simply having them list or recall text or class materials. Keep in mind, however, that application is a skill in itself, which often requires practice prior to testing.
  • Phrase questions to encourage use of higher-level cognitive processes. Helpful terms include: compare, give reasons for, give original examples of, explain how, explain in terms of, apply, predict what would happen if, criticize, illustrate, differentiate, read the attached and evaluate.
  • For questions dealing with a controversial issue, indicate that evaluation will be based upon logic, presentation of evidence, and other skills practiced in the course, rather than the actual position taken.
  • Adapt the length and complexity of the question to the level of the students.
  • Provide an indication of how questions will be weighted by giving the number of points for each question. This allows students to plan their time.
  • Provide an indication of the criteria you will use to evaluate student answers. A formal rubric may help.


Essay Item Scoring Methods

Analytic Method of Scoring:

The analytic method entails listing the major elements which students should include in an ideal answer. Ideally, this is done before printing the test, so that item point values can be determined. At the very least, it is best to make such a list prior to beginning grading, though it is always possible to modify this list—additions, subtractions, revisions—once you have begun grading.  It will be helpful if you write specific missing or erroneous elements on the exam (rather than simple “X’s” or point deductions), so that students can identify their mistakes. This practice is also helpful when dealing with grade disputes.

Holistic Method of Scoring:

The holistic approach to scoring essay items involves your reading an entire response and assigning it a grade based upon your overall impression of the work. Here, the emphasis is less upon asking whether the student included particular content items x, y, and z, but rather broader concerns, such as how effectively they articulated an argument, whether they followed a logical chain in their reasoning, whether they produced a coherent thesis, or if they consistently supported claims with appeals to evidence. Grading in this manner tends to produce less specific feedback for students, so it is helpful to provide at least a few specific, practical comments.


Guidelines to Grading Essay Items:

Regardless of whether you decide to use an analytic or holistic method of scoring, there are several guidelines to consider when scoring essay questions:

  • Develop scoring criteria or model answers.
  • Scoring all students responses to one question, before grading other questions, can improve consistency and reduce “carryover” effects (the bias to score a question higher or lower based upon prior performance).
  • Decide whether you are going to score factors other than content, such as spelling, language usage, and organization. Make sure that your students are aware if you are, and give a separate score for these factors.
  • Score essay responses anonymously to avoid bias. One idea is to have students write their names on the backs of the answer sheets or booklets.
  • Periodically check to see whether you have applied the criteria in the same way to later-scored answers as to earlier-scored ones.
  • Stop grading when you get tired to maintain consistency. When you start again, read over the last few papers you scored to check for objectivity, as well as to remind yourself of how you have been grading.
  • Provide students with feedback so that the test provides an opportunity for students to learn their strengths and weaknesses. You can provide short written comments or verbal feedback to students in a brief conference.

Test Length and Time Allotted:

In writing test items, you must consider the question of test length. Consider both the length of the class and the level of your students. You do not want students to feel rushed and frustrated because they were not able to demonstrate their knowledge of the material in the allotted time. One mistake often made by first-time teachers is having too many questions for the time allowed. Some general guidelines regarding time requirements for high school student test takers (as reported by Nitko in 1996) are as follows:

  • Short Essays: 15 – 20 minutes
  • Extended Essays: 35 – 50 minutes