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When To Use Essay Test Assessment Method

Examinations are a very common assessment and evaluation tool in universities and there are many types of examination questions. This tips sheet contains a brief description of seven types of examination questions, as well as tips for using each of them: 1) multiple choice, 2) true/false, 3) matching, 4) short answer, 5) essay, 6) oral, and 7) computational. Remember that some exams can be conducted effectively in a secure online environment in a proctored computer lab or assigned as paper based or online “take home” exams.

Multiple choice

Multiple choice questions are composed of one question (stem) with multiple possible answers (choices), including the correct answer and several incorrect answers (distractors). Typically, students select the correct answer by circling the associated number or letter, or filling in the associated circle on the machine-readable response sheet.

Example: Distractors are:

A) Elements of the exam layout that distract attention from the questions
B) Incorrect but plausible choices used in multiple choice questions
C) Unnecessary clauses included in the stem of multiple choice questions

Answer: B

Students can generally respond to these type of questions quite quickly. As a result, they are often used to test student’s knowledge of a broad range of content. Creating these questions can be time consuming because it is often difficult to generate several plausible distractors. However, they can be marked very quickly.

Tips for writing good multiple choice items:

AvoidDo use

In the stem:

  • Long / complex sentences
  • Trivial statements
  • Negatives and double-negatives
  • Ambiguity or indefinite terms, absolute statements, and broad generalization
  • Extraneous material
  • Item characteristics that provide a clue to the answer misconceptions

In the choices:

  • Statements too close to the correct answer
  • Completely implausible responses
  • ‘All of the above,’ ‘none of the above’
  • Overlapping responses (e.g., if ‘A’ is true)

In the stem:

  • Your own words – not statements straight out of the textbook
  • Single, clearly formulated problems

In the choices:

  • Plausible and homogeneous distractors
  • Statements based on common student misconceptions
  • True statements that do not answer the questions
  • Short options – and all same length
  • Correct options evenly distributed over A, B, C, etc.
  • Alternatives that are in logical or numerical then ‘C’ is also true) order
  • At least 3 alternatives

Suggestion: After each lecture during the term, jot down two or three multiple choice questions based on the material for that lecture. Regularly taking a few minutes to compose questions, while the material is fresh in your mind, will allow you to develop a question bank that you can use to construct tests and exams quickly and easily.

True/false

True/false questions are only composed of a statement. Students respond to the questions by indicating whether the statement is true or false. For example: True/false questions have only two possible answers (Answer: True).

Like multiple choice questions, true/false questions:

  • Are most often used to assess familiarity with course content and to check for popular misconceptions
  • Allow students to respond quickly so exams can use a large number of them to test knowledge of a broad range of content
  • Are easy and quick to grade but time consuming to create

True/false questions provide students with a 50% chance of guessing the right answer. For this reason, multiple choice questions are often used instead of true/false questions.

Tips for writing good true/false items:

AvoidDo use
  • Negatives and double-negatives
  • Long / complex sentences
  • Trivial material
  • Broad generalizations
  • Ambiguous or indefinite terms
  • Your own words
  • The same number of true and false statements (50 / 50) or slightly more false statements than true (60/40) – students are more likely to answer true
  • One central idea in each item

Suggestion: You can increase the usefulness of true/false questions by asking students to correct false statements.

Matching

Students respond to matching questions by pairing each of a set of stems (e.g., definitions) with one of the choices provided on the exam. These questions are often used to assess recognition and recall and so are most often used in courses where acquisition of detailed knowledge is an important goal. They are generally quick and easy to create and mark, but students require more time to respond to these questions than a similar number of multiple choice or true/false items.

Example: Match each question type with one attribute:

  1. Multiple Choice a) Only two possible answers
  2. True/False b) Equal number of stems and choices
  3. Matching c) Only one correct answer but at least three choices

Tips for writing good matching items:

AvoidDo use
  • Long stems and options
  • Heterogeneous content (e.g., dates mixed with people)
  • Implausible responses
  • Short responses 10-15 items on only one page
  • Clear directions
  • Logically ordered choices (chronological, alphabetical, etc.)

Suggestion: You can use some choices more than once in the same matching exercise. It reduces the effects of guessing.

Short answer

Short answer questions are typically composed of a brief prompt that demands a written answer that varies in length from one or two words to a few sentences. They are most often used to test basic knowledge of key facts and terms. An example this kind of short answer question follows:

“What do you call an exam format in which students must uniquely associate a set of prompts with a set of options?” Answer: Matching questions

Alternatively, this could be written as a fill-in-the-blank short answer question:

“An exam question in which students must uniquely associate prompts and options is called a
___________ question.” Answer: Matching.

Short answer questions can also be used to test higher thinking skills, including analysis or
evaluation. For example:

“Will you include short answer questions on your next exam? Please justify your decision with
two to three sentences explaining the factors that have influenced your decision.”

Short answer questions have many advantages. Many instructors report that they are relatively easy to construct and can be constructed faster than multiple choice questions. Unlike matching, true/false, and multiple choice questions, short answer questions make it difficult for students to
guess the answer. Short answer questions provide students with more flexibility to explain their understanding and demonstrate creativity than they would have with multiple choice questions; this also means that scoring is relatively laborious and can be quite subjective. Short answer
questions provide more structure than essay questions and thus are often easy and faster to mark and often test a broader range of the course content than full essay questions.

Tips for writing good short answer items:

Type of questionAvoidDo use
All short-answer
  • Trivia
  • Long / complex sentences
  • Your own words
  • Specific problems
  • Direct questions
Fill-in-the-blank
  • Taking out so many words that the sentence is meaningless
  • Prompts that omit only one or two key words at the end of the sentence

Suggestion: When using short answer questions to test student knowledge of definitions consider having a mix of questions, some that supply the term and require the students to provide the definition, and other questions that supply the definition and require that students provide the term. The latter sort of questions can be structured as fill-in-the-blank questions. This mix of formats will better test student knowledge because it doesn’t rely solely on recognition or recall of the term.

Essays

Essay questions provide a complex prompt that requires written responses, which can vary in length from a couple of paragraphs to many pages. Like short answer questions, they provide students with an opportunity to explain their understanding and demonstrate creativity, but make it hard for students to arrive at an acceptable answer by bluffing. They can be constructed reasonably quickly and easily but marking these questions can be time-consuming and grader agreement can be difficult.

Essay questions differ from short answer questions in that the essay questions are less structured. This openness allows students to demonstrate that they can integrate the course material in creative ways. As a result, essays are a favoured approach to test higher levels of cognition including analysis, synthesis and evaluation. However, the requirement that the students provide most of the structure increases the amount of work required to respond effectively. Students often take longer to compose a five paragraph essay than they would take to compose five one paragraph answers to short answer questions. This increased workload limits the number of essay questions that can be posed on a single exam and thus can restrict the overall scope of an exam to a few topics or areas. To ensure that this doesn’t cause students to panic or blank out, consider giving the option of answering one of two or more questions.

Tips for writing good essay items:

AvoidDo use
  • Complex, ambiguous wording
  • Questions that are too broad to allow time for an in-depth response
  • Your own words
  • Words like ‘compare’ or ‘contrast’ at the beginning of the question
  • Clear and unambiguous wording
  • A breakdown of marks to make expectations clear
  • Time limits for thinking and writing

Suggestions: Distribute possible essay questions before the exam and make your marking criteria slightly stricter. This gives all students an equal chance to prepare and should improve the quality of the answers – and the quality of learning – without making the exam any easier.

Oral Exams

Oral examinations allow students to respond directly to the instructor’s questions and/or to present prepared statements. These exams are especially popular in language courses that demand ‘speaking’ but they can be used to assess understanding in almost any course by following the guidelines for the composition of short answer questions. Some of the principle advantages to oral exams are that they provide nearly immediate feedback and so allow the student to learn as they are tested. There are two main drawbacks to oral exams: the amount of time required and the problem of record-keeping. Oral exams typically take at least ten to fifteen minutes per student, even for a midterm exam. As a result, they are rarely used for large classes. Furthermore, unlike written exams, oral exams don’t automatically generate a written record. To ensure that students have access to written feedback, it is recommended that instructors take notes during oral exams using a rubric and/or checklist and provide a photocopy of the notes to the students.

In many departments, oral exams are rare. Students may have difficulty adapting to this new style of assessment. In this situation, consider making the oral exam optional. While it can take more time to prepare two tests, having both options allows students to choose the one which suits them and their learning style best.

Computational

Computational questions require that students perform calculations in order to solve for an answer. Computational questions can be used to assess student’s memory of solution techniques and their ability to apply those techniques to solve both questions they have attempted before and questions that stretch their abilities by requiring that they combine and use solution techniques in novel ways.

Effective computational questions should:

  • Be solvable using knowledge of the key concepts and techniques from the course. Before the exam solve them yourself or get a teaching assistant to attempt the questions.
  • Indicate the mark breakdown to reinforce the expectations developed in in-class examples for the amount of detail, etc. required for the solution.

To prepare students to do computational questions on exams, make sure to describe and model in class the correct format for the calculations and answer including:

  • How students should report their assumptions and justify their choices
  • The units and degree of precision expected in the answer

Suggestion: Have students divide their answer sheets into two columns: calculations in one, and a list of assumptions, description of process and justification of choices in the other. This ensures that the marker can distinguish between a simple mathematical mistake and a profound conceptual error and give feedback accordingly.

Selected references:

Cunningham, G.K. (1998). Assessment in the Classroom. Bristol, PA: Falmer Press.
Ward, A.W., & Murray-Ward, M. (1999). Assessment in the Classroom. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co.

This Creative Commons license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon our work non-commercially, as long as they credit us and indicate if changes were made. Use this citation format: Exam questions: types, characteristics and suggestions. Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo.

Charles Champlin (2006), a journalist for Time and Life magazines, describes his experience of taking essay tests as a student at Harvard:

“The worst were the essay questions (which seemed only distantly related to whatever you’d read or heard in lectures).  They made a statement and then simply said, ‘Discuss.’  O terrifying word, ‘Discuss.’  Nothing so simple as tossing in a few facts retained from all-night cramming.  It was meaning that was sought – which was, as I’d already begun to appreciate, the way it should be.  But it was a strained step up from the exams I’d known before, when memory, regurgitated, would get you around almost any corner.”

Champlin’s reminiscence reveals some of the strengths and dangers associated with essay questions.  They are a wonderful way to test higher-level learning, but they require careful construction to maximize their assessment effectiveness.

I.  Strengths Associated with Essay Examinations

Among the strengths of essay examinations, faculty who use them find they are a valuable means to measure higher-order learning and a wonderful way, when scored properly, to further student learning.  Given these strengths, essay tests require careful preparation and scoring.

1. Essay Questions Test Higher-Level Learning Objectives

Unlike objective test items that are ideally suited for testing students’ broad knowledge of course content in a relatively short amount of time, essay questions are best suited for testing higher-level learning.  By nature, they require longer time for students to think, organize and compose their answers.

In the table below, appropriate testing strategies are associated with Bloom’s hierarchy of learning. The action verbs under each domain illustrate the kinds of activities that a test item might assess.  Use the verbs when constructing your essay questions so that students know what you expect as they write.  While essay questions can assess all the cognitive domains, most educators suggest that due to the time required to answer them, essay questions should not be used if the same material can be assessed through a multiple-choice or objective item.  Reserve your use of essay questions for testing higher-level learning that requires students to synthesize or evaluate information.

2. Essay Questions When Scored Properly Can Further Learning

Teachers score essay exams by either the holistic approach or the analytic approach.

Holistic Scoring
The holistic approach involves the teacher reading all the responses to a given essay question and assigning a grade based on the overall quality of the response. Some teachers use a holistic approach by ranking students’ answers into groups of best answers, average answers and poor answers and subdividing the groups to assign grades.

Holistic scoring works best for essay questions that are open-ended and can produce a variety of acceptable answers.

Analytic Scoring
Analytic scoring involves reading the essays for the essential parts of an ideal answer.  In this case, you will need to make a list of the major elements that students should include in an answer.  You will grade the essays based on how well students’ answers match the components of the model answer.

Whichever method, holistic or analytic, that you use to score the exam, you should write comments on the students’ papers to enhance their learning.  Your comments will help students write better essays for future classes and reinforce what students know and need to learn.  Your comments are also a good reminder for yourself if students come to you with questions about their grades.

II.  Dangers to Consider When Giving and Grading Essay Examinations

1.  Establish limits within the essay question

The example of Charles Champlin’s experience at Harvard where his teachers gave a statement and then simply said, ‘Discuss,’ shows a danger in using essay questions.  Instructors should build limits into questions in order to save needless writing due to vague questions:  “With some essay questions, students can feel like they have an infinite supply of lead to write a response on an indefinite number of pages about whatever they feel happy to write about. This can happen when the essay question is vague or open to numerous interpretations. Remember that effective essay questions provide students with an indication of the types of thinking and content to use in responding to the essay question” (Reiner, 2002).

Another good way to prevent students from spending excessive time on essays is to give them testing instructions on how long they should spend on test items.  McKeachie (2002) gives the following advice: “As a rule of thumb I allow about 1 minute per item for multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank items, 2 minutes per short-answer question requiring more than a sentence answer, 10 to 15 minutes for a limited essay question, and half-hour to an hour for a broader question requiring more than a page or two to answer.”

2. Remember that essays require more time to score

While essay exams are quicker to prepare than multiple-choice exams, essay exams take much longer to score.  You should plan sufficient time for scoring the essays to prevent finding yourself crunched to report final grades.

3. Avoid scoring prejudices

Essay exams are subject to scoring prejudices.  Reading all of an individual’s essays at the same time can cause either a positive or a negative bias on the part of the reader.  If a student’s first essay is strong, the examiner might read the student’s remaining essays with a predisposition that they are also going to be strong.  The reverse is also true.  To prevent this scoring prejudice, educators suggest reading all the answers to a single essay question at one time.

Resources:

Champlin, C. (2006). A life in writing: the story of an American journalist. Syracuse: Syracuse University.

McKeachie, W. (2002). McKeachie’s teaching tips (11th. ed.) New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Reiner, C., Bothell, T., Sudweeks, R., & Wood, B. (2002). Preparing effective essay questions. (http://testing.byu.edu/info/handbooks/WritingEffectiveEssayQuestions.pdf).

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