Developing Essay Items

Essay items are utilized to measure a student's ability to understand a concept as an integrated whole, demonstrate higher order learning objectives, and express original, creative, thinking.  Because essays require students to generate their response, they are considered recall or supply items.  Depending on the nature of the learning objective being assessed, essays may either require extended or restricted responses.  An extended-response essay generally targets synthesis or evaluation levels of understanding and allows for extensive freedom in the content and format of the response; a restricted-response item is more specific and provides narrow guidelines for responding to the item.  In addition to this distinction, essay items are classified as subjective assessment as there may be a range of variability in correct responses.  One of the benefits of essays are that they go beyond simple measurement of content knowledge and offer students the opportunity to demonstrate judgment, writing style, vocabulary, and insight.  The comprehensive nature of essay items makes them ideal for assessing how students select, organize and evaluate ideas.  The main drawback of essay items is the time and effort required for consistent scoring.  With this restraint in mind, instructors should selectively utilize essays to measure learning goals that cannot be effectively assessed via objective items.

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Tips for Writing Essay Items:

Only use essay questions to assess learning outcomes that are difficult to measure with objective items (such as true-false, multiple-choice, or matching).  This promotes the effective utilization of time and resources by ensuring that essay questions target a higher order understanding rather than focusing on individual concepts or details.

Try to reduce ambiguity of the requested information by ensuring that each essay question is focused sufficiently that students know exactly what is expected of them.  It is better to make each item relatively short and increase the number of items rather than have a few broad essays.  For each essay item, clearly define the expected response by giving students a definite task (compare, analyze, evaluate, summarize, critique, etc.).

Provide students with specific guidelines concerning time limits, amount of information expected, weighting of each question, and criteria for evaluating the answers.  If answers will be graded on technical issues (grammar, spelling, punctuation, organization, etc.) as well as content, be sure to specify this in the instructions.

Avoid the use of optional essay items. While students may prefer this approach, it limits the ability to accurately assess students' understanding of designated learning objectives.  In addition, it introduces a variety of factors (cognitive ability in selecting items, equality of the difficulty level of various items, different assessment for different students, wasted time spent choosing an item, etc.) that may hinder the educational value of the assessment.

Ideas to Enhance the Effectiveness of Essay Items:

Increase the cognitive demands required to answer the essay by using novel problems or material that expand upon relevant information.  This prevents the simple regurgitation of factual knowledge and encourages a more active synthesis of knowledge.

Provide adequate information within the essay item to direct the student toward the desired knowledge.  If necessary, use two or three sentences to introduce the topic or issue of investigation.

Require students to demonstrate complete understanding of information by specifying that answers include supporting evidence for claims and assertions.  Avoid wording essay items in a manner that they can be answered with non-substantiated opinions or personal ideas.

Essay Tasks that Promote Demonstration of Higher Order Learning Objectives:

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Guidelines for Grading Essay Items:

When writing each essay item, simultaneously develop a scoring guide or rubric.  The creation of a scoring rubric at this time will ensure that each question clearly targets the designated learning objective and can be clearly answered.  A good rubric should include a checklist point system specifying the relative weight of essential content and technical considerations.  Be sure the assessment directions include the criteria for evaluating each essay.

To maintain a consistent scoring system and ensure same criteria are applied to all assessments, score one essay across all tests prior to scoring the next essay.  In addition to creating a more reliable scoring system, this strategy increases the efficiency of grading as the instructor has only one set of criteria to keep in mind.

Before scoring essays, review the material students were expected to learn and skim through a few essays to get a sense of what a typical response might be.  This will promote a realistic match between student knowledge, grading expectations, and learning objectives.

To reduce the influence of the halo effect, bias, and other subconscious factors, all essay questions should be graded blind to the identity of the student.  Folding over the corner of the front page or implementing a coding system can effectively conceal students' names.  In addition, if there is concern over recognition of handwriting, older students can use a computer lab to type responses.

Due to the subjective nature of grading essays, the score on one essay may be influenced by the quality of previous essays.  To prevent this type of bias, reshuffle the order of assessments after reading through each item.

Essay items that require students to defend a position, draw a judgment, or formulate an opinion should be evaluated based on the strength and relevance of arguments, not on whether or not they agree with the instructor's position.

Review Checklist:

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Resource Links:

Creating Effective Classroom Tests

Writing Test Items (Michigan State University)


Aiken, L. R. (2000). Psychological testing and assessment (10th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Chatterji, M. (2003). Designing and using tools for educational assessment. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Gronlund, N. E. (2003). Assessment of student achievement (7th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (2002). Meaningful assessment: A manageable and cooperative process. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

McKeachie, W. J. (1999). Teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers (10th ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Popham, W. J. (2000). Modern educational measurement: Practical guidelines for educational leaders (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Trice, A. D. (2000). A handbook of classroom assessment. New York, NY: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc.



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