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Assessment Guidelines for Setting up Essay Questions

This document has been developed to help teaching staff designing their assessment if they are using essay questions. It is guidance for the best practice of using essay questions in assessed exams. If you have any questions or issues about how to design essay questions or specifically about this document, please feel free to contact Learning and Teaching Enhancement Office ( ).

1. What is an essay question?

As essay question is a type of assessment which requires response ‘composed’ by the student in the form of sentences rather than ‘selecting’ or ‘listing’ the response. Answers to an essay question require more systematic and in-depth thinking which can be subjectively assessed by the module examiner (Bloxham and Boyd, 2007).

2. What are advantages of using essay questions for assessment?

2.1 Essay questions provide an effective way to assess the learning outcomes (such as higherorder or critical thinking skills) which cannot be done by other type of assessments.

2.2 The essay type assessments increase students understanding, critical thinking and writing skills.

2.3 Some of the topics can be effectively assessed via essay questions than other type of assessments.

2.4 The essay questions can be used for both formative (assessment for learning) and summative (assessment of learning) assessments.

2.5 The module examiner can detect the problem of reasoning, thinking and written skills through this type of assessment.

2.6 Essay questions could be short answer questions as well as long essay writings.

3. What are limitations of essay questions?

3.1 The topics covered are generally less as compared to other type of assessments.

3.2 Poorly constructed questions may not test the learning outcome.

3.3 The students who lack written communication skills may not perform very well. The marking focused on written skills might be a disadvantage to such students.

3.4 Marking Essay questions could be time consuming especially with a large number of students.

4. What are good essay questions?

4.1 Good essay questions should assess intended learning outcomes that cannot be better assessed by other kinds of assessment.

4.2 Good essay questions should test students understanding of the subject content and the abilities to reason their knowledge of the subject.

4.3 Good essay questions focusing on understanding and critical thinking should be included rather questions testing simple ‘memorization’.

4.4 Good essay questions should give opportunities for students with different levels of understanding to express themselves, as well as allow the better students to distinguish themselves.

4.5 A combination of short essay questions perhaps better as compared to one long essay question. This also allows the examiner to test students’ knowledge in related subject content.

4.6 Good essay questions in examination should avoid questions that could be answered with similar contents.

5. A check list for preparing essay questions

5.1 The intended learning outcome to be assessed should be clearly defined, and check if each question has aligned with intended learning outcome.

5.2 An essay question should have criteria for marking and perhaps expected response (e.g. Model answers to each question including what subject content/topics should be covered in the answers). The marking criteria should be communicated to both students and markers (including external examiners).

  • Expectations of length of answers;
  • Expectations of writing;
  • Expectation of content delivery/problem solving;
  • Expectation of critical reasoning

5.3 Clearly define the task and situate the task in a problem situation: - clearly define the task

  • delimit the scope of the task
  • clearly develop the problem or problem situation

5.4 Before the exam, students should be informed and prepared for the format of essay questions.

5.5 On the exam paper, specify weighting to each essay question and approximant length of answers or suggest expected time spend on each question, so that the students can allocate their time. It is suggested better avoid too many optional questions (maybe no more than five questions) for students to choose.

5.6 Teaching staff should make sure that essay questions are not repeated from previous years.

5.7 The essay questions setting should be checked through internal moderation.

5.8 After the exam, feedback of student performance on essay questions should be provided.

Bloxham, S. and Boyd, P. (2007) Developing Effective Assessment in Higher Education: A Practical Guide. New York: Open University Press

Reiner, C.; Bothell, T.; Sudweeks, R.; and Wood, B. (2002) Writing Effective Essay Questions: A Self-directed Workbook for Educators. New Forms Press

XJTLU External Examiners’ Reports (2011-2012)

XJTLU Marking Descriptors for Master Programmes (2012)

(Last review date: 9-Apr-14)

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