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Testing and Assessment:
Essay Examinations

Essay exams may be impractical in a large class, but certain variations may work under some circumstances. Like any assessment technique, essay questions are useful in some situations but also present challenges that must be addressed by the instructor if they are to be utilized effectively.  Learning goals must be matched to the best form of assessment.

Advantages of essay exams:

  • allows students to sharpen critical thinking skills such as analysis, evaluation, and synthesis
  • encourages development of written communication skills related to organization, clarity, and ability to present evidence
  • requires students to go beyond recall/memorization of factual material
  • students cannot simply guess an answer correctly (though they may try to bluff their way through a written answer)
  • students receive individualized feedback through written comments from the grader

Disadvantages of essay exams :

  • depending upon the type and number of essay questions, it is often difficult to assess a broad range of material; 50-70 multiple choice questions, for example, usually cover a wider array of material than one or two essay questions
  • time consuming to grade
  • easily prone to subjective grading, especially if there are multiple teaching assistants involved and grading is spread out over several days/weeks

More information about the theoretical issues involved in using essay exams and the process of constructing and grading questions, may be found at:


(this source also provides a useful table of how certain words in essay questions require use of particular thinking skills)

I. Before the Test

  1. Prepare the Students
    Effective use of essay questions requires that the instructor prepare students prior to the exam.  Students in introductory classes may not have taken essay exams, or they may have little experience with them.  Accordingly, instructors should take class time (and  possibly utilize web resources) to give students a clear set of expectations.  Students should know the basic features of a good essay and the criteria for grading.  Expectations can be posted on web pages/Blackboard, and/or included in the course syllabus, for student reference anytime during the semester.  Useful tips for preparing students can be found at:


    Instructors should consider posting excellent answers from students who previously took the course.  Identify the exam question, and then post the answer for students to see.  Student names should be removed from any exam made available to other students.

    Emphasize the importance of time management during the exam; it is easy for them to spend too long on one part of a question and run out of time for other sections.
  1. Writing the Test
    Essay exams also require that instructors make several decisions:
    • Several short answer questions or one longer answer?
    • Take-home exam or in-class exam?
    • For in-class exams, will students be allowed to use any notes, books or other materials on the exam?
    • Will students be given a choice of questions to answer?
    • Will students be given the question(s), or clues about them, ahead of time?
    Answers will depend upon an instructor's beliefs and goals, but whatever is decided the policies need to be communicated clearly to students before the exam.

    The wording of questions and exam instructions must be explicit.  It is easy to write a broad, open-ended question that students legitimately interpret in many different ways.  For example, a question such as "Compare life in Massachusetts and Virginia during the eighteenth century" might lead one student to write about economics, another to write about religion, yet another to explore family life, etc.  How would an instructor grade such responses?  If the instructor expected answers related to economics and gave high grades only to students who wrote on that topic, students who wrote strong answers about family are likely to feel that they have been treated unfairly.  Or, if an instructor expected students to cover several topics but they only addressed one, that, too, raises problems. Students would justifiably come to the instructor and claim, " But I didn't know you wanted us to write about these other topics."  Students get very frustrated when they believe that a good grade depends upon successfully guessing what the instructor wants addressed in the essay. The instructor quickly finds him/herself in a large controversy over grading that can be avoided by specifying required parts of an essay.  The above question might be re-worked along the following lines:

Compare and contrast life in eighteenth century Massachusetts and Virginia.  Were these regions more alike than different, or vice versa?  Your answer must address:
            a. economics
            b. race relations
            c. family life
            d. the role of religion

Whereas the first example involves mostly recall of factual material, this question demands that students take and defend a position with specific evidence from each of the required areas.

Essay questions may take several forms.  Having students write an argumentative piece is probably the most frequently used method, but other possibilities include:

  • evaluating an argument in light of material explored in class
  • Interpreting data or material from a graph/chart
  • Explaining  a thought process of how and why the student would make a decision in a particular circumstance.

II. Grading and Post-Test

Broadly speaking, there are two main approaches to grading.  The "analytical" approach breaks essays down into several parts and assigns points to each component. The overall score is the sum of each section.  In contrast, the "holistic" approach involves assigning grades based on the entire work.

Essay exams enable students to receive comments on the strengths and flaws of their work.  Grading can be sped up by saving comments for the end rather than including them in the margins.  In commenting try to find something to praise, even if it is a very small part of a poorly argued essay.  Avoid belittling students or being sarcastic.  Students easily pick up on this; they may become resentful and less motivated.  Instead, identify and explain the shortcomings with specific examples of how the student did not meet the criteria discussed before the test.   

Because essay exams are easily prone to subjective grading instructors should consider taking several precautionary steps.  These might include:

  • composing a model answer before grading
  • ensuring "blind" grading, such as having students put their name on the last page of the paper/exam book, or through using a numerical identification system
  • meeting with teaching assistants to discuss grading criteria and read several sample exams that will receive high, average, and low grades; consider photocopying several exams for the TAs to read before the meeting and then ask them to arrive with a grade and a justification for it

Once the exam is over instructors might want to post a model of an excellent essay on Blackboard, or distributing a copy in class and having students discuss why it earned a high grade.  Secure permission from the student whose paper is being posted/distributed, and be sure to protect the student's anonymity.

Virginia Commonwealth University  |  Center for Teaching Excellence
Last updated: 06/20/2013
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