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Writing A Good Essay Question

Political Science/JSIS/LSJ Writing Center
Tools for TAs and Instructors


Tips for Writing Essay Exams

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Before the Exam: Prepare and Practice

Writing a good essay requires synthesis of material that cannot be done in the 20-30 minutes you have during the exam. In the days before the exam, you should:
  • Anticipate test questions. Look at the question from the last exam. Did the question ask you to apply a theory to historical or contemporary events? Did you have to compare/contrast theories? Did you have to prove an argument? Imagine yourself in the role of the instructor--what did the instructor emphasize? What are the big ideas in the course?
  • Practice writing. You may decide to write a summary of each theory you have been discussing, or a short description of the historical or contemporary events you've been studying. Focus on clarity, conciseness, and understanding the differences between the theories.
  • Memorize key events, facts, and names. You will have to support your argument with evidence, and this may involve memorizing some key events, or the names of theorists, etc.
  • Organize your ideas. Knowledge of the subject matter is only part of the preparation process. You need to spend some time thinking about how to organize your ideas. Let's say the question asks you to compare and contrast what regime theory and hegemonic stability theory would predict about post-cold war nuclear proliferation. The key components of an answer to this question must include:
  • A definition of the theories
  • A brief description of the issue
  • A comparison of the two theories' predictions
  • A clear and logical contrasting of the theories (noting how and why they are different)
In the exam

Many students start writing furiously after scanning the essay question. Do not do this! Instead, try the following:
  • Perform a "memory dump." Write down all the information you have had to memorize for the exam in note form.
  • Read the questions and instructions carefully. Read over all the questions on the exam. If you simply answer each question as you encounter it, you may give certain information or evidence to one question that is more suitable for another. Be sure to identify all parts of the question.
  • Formulate a thesis that answers the question. You can use the wording from the question. There is not time for an elaborate introduction, but be sure to introduce the topic, your argument, and how you will support your thesis (do this in your first paragraph).
  • Organize your supporting points. Before you proceed with the body of the essay, write an outline that summarizes your main supporting points. Check to make sure you are answering all parts of the question. Coherent organization is one of the most important characteristics of a good essay.
  • Make a persuasive argument. Most essays in political science ask you to make some kind of argument. While there are no right answers, there are more and less persuasive answers. What makes an argument persuasive?
  • A clear point that is being argued (a thesis)
  • Sufficient evidenct to support that thesis
  • Logical progression of ideas throughout the essay
  • Review your essay. Take a few minutes to re-read your essay. Correct grammatical mistakes, check to see that you have answered all parts of the question.
Things to Avoid

Essay exams can be stressful. You may draw a blank, run out of time, or find that you neglected an important part of the course in studying for the test. Of course, good preparation and time management can help you avoid these negative experiences. Some things to keep in mind as you write your essay include the following:
  • Avoid excuses. Don't write at the end that you ran out of time, or did not have time to study because you were sick. Make an appointment with your TA to discuss these things after the exam.
  • Don't "pad" your answer. Instructors are usually quite adept at detecting student bluffing. They give no credit for elaboration of the obvious. If you are stuck, you can elaborate on what you do know, as long as it relates to the question.
  • Avoid the "kitchen sink" approach. Many students simply write down everything they know about a particular topic, without relating the information to the question. Everything you include in your answer should help to answer the question and support your thesis. You need to show how/why the information is relevant -- don't leave it up to your instructor to figure this out!



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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...)

  1. Knowledge: recall, define, arrange, list, label, identify, match, reproduce
  2. Comprehension: describe, explain, recognize, restate, review, translate, classify; give examples; (re)state in own words
  3. Application: apply, illustrate, interpret, operate, solve, predict, utilize
  4. Analysis: analyze, compare, contrast, distinguish, examine, experiment, diagram; outline
  5. Synthesis: design, develop, formulate, propose, construct, create, reorganize, integrate, model, incorporate, plan
  6. 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)

Advantages:

  • 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

Disadvantages:

  • 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

Mechanics:

  • 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

Directions:

  • 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)

Correcting:

  • 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
    without interruption
  • 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

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