Essay Exams

Purpose for Asking Essay Questions

By Function
To ask the student to

  • Summarize writing
  • Address a thesis presented in the question
  • Manipulate data presented in (or prior to) the question
  • Manipulate a quandary posed in the question
  • Analyze a problem

By Type of Reasoning that is Promoted
To ask the student to

  • Test knowledge
  • Test comprehension
  • Promote higher order reasoning such as application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation

Characteristics of Effective In-Class Exam Questions

Specific Topic: Vague questions promote waffling and keep students from doing their best.

Topic Appropriate for Task: Demands of question should fit time allocation and type of response required.

Succinct Questions: Better that students use time writing answers than deciphering questions.

New Information Nested in Old: New information introduced for the exam can be more effectively manipulated if the methodology being called upon is familiar.

Precise Language: Pay attention to the specific types of writing required of students.

Familiar Language: Introduce terminology prior to the exam.

Checklist for Designing and Evaluating Essay Exams

  • Does this type of essay exam fit my course goals?
  • Does the content of the questions match the purpose of the exam? To measure what students have learned? To prompt them to make new connections?
  • Are the questions specific, demanding precise knowledge?
  • Are questions brief, clear, and easy to understand?
  • Are questions worded so as to suggest strategies for answers?
  • Can the questions be answered satisfactorily in the allotted time?


Key Words in Essay Exams

(Adapted from Writers, Inc.: A Guide to Writing, Thinking & Learning)

Analyze: to break down or put together aspects of a whole in order to determine its nature.

Apply: to put information to a special purpose.

Classify: to place similar persons, things, or ideas together in a group.

Compare: to bring out points of similarity and difference, with emphasis on similarities.

Contrast: to stress differences.

Criticize: to point out the good points and the bad points of a situation or idea.

Define: to give a clear, concise identification of the category to which a term belongs and how it differs from other things in that category.

Describe: to recount or create a word picture in sequence or story form.

Diagram: to organize in a pictorial way, such as a flow chart, a map, or some other graphic.

Discuss: to examine and talk about an issue from all sides.

Enumerate: to write in list or outline form a set of related facts, ideas, or issues.

Evaluate: to make a statement of negative and/or positive worth and to back the statement with evidence.

Explain: to bring out into the open, to make clear, and to clarify.

Illustrate: to show by means of a picture, a diagram, or some other graphic aid, or to call forth specific examples or instances which create a verbal picture of a law, rule, or principle.

Interpret: to explain, translate, or show a specific application of a given fact or principle that is beyond previously cited examples or instances.

Justify: to tell, in a largely positive form, why a position or point of view is proper.

List: a formal numbering or sequencing.

Outline: to organize a set of facts or ideas in terms of main points and sub points.

Predict: to state what is likely to occur based upon the best current information or inference.

Prove: to give logical evidence as a base for clear, forthright argumentation.

Relate: to show how two or more things are connected because of similar characteristics or reasons.

Review: to examine or to summarize in chronological or in decreasing order of importance key characteristics of an overall body of facts, principles, or ideas.

State: to present a concise statement of a position, fact, or point of view.

Summarize: to present the main points of an issue in condensed form.

Synthesize: to put together parts to form a whole (possibly more complex than the sum of the parts).

Trace: to present in step-by-step sequence a series of facts which are somehow related either in terms of time, order of importance, or cause and effect.

This resource was originally authored by the Writing Consulting Program at the University of Kansas.

Revised 6/2012

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