Charles Sturt University
Charles Sturt University


Essay questions provide a prompt for a longer written response, which may vary from a few paragraphs to a number of pages. Essay questions are generally open-ended and differ from short answer questions in that they require more time, are less structured and require more integration of information and interpretation.

An essay question can be delivered in the following ways during the COVID-19 situation as an alternative to a paper-based final examination:

  1. Non-time limited final assessment—often known as a ‘take-home’, the task is not performed under ‘exam-like’ time constraints and is provided to students at least several days before the due date. A common platform for submission of such a task is EASTS.
  2. Invigilated online exam—the task is undertaken online under ‘exam-like’ time constraints (typically 1-3 hours) and invigilated remotely.  This category should only be pursued if, in consultation with your Head of School, the above two categories are not viable. DSA will assist with the scheduling of this task.
  3. Time limited, non-invigilated online exam—the task is undertaken online under ‘exam-like’ time constraints (typically 1-3 hours) but is open book, allowing students to refer to any material they can access. DSA can assist with the scheduling of this task.

Pros and cons of essay questions in an examination or as an assessment task

Some advantages:

  • Essays can reveal a student’s ability to demonstrate higher level skills and knowledge.
  • Allow for testing of analysis, reasoning, synthesis and evaluation.
  • Are open ended so students can answer the question in a variety of ways, to demonstrate depth and creativity.
  • Allow for deep learning and the making of connections.
  • Allow students to elaborate on responses, drawing on research and reasoning to provide justification and support and to show integration.
  • Provide an opportunity to assess a student’s writing ability.
  • Can be less time consuming to prepare than other item/assessment types.
  • Can be structured in a range of different ways.

Some limitations:

  • Can limit the range of content that can be assessed and the number of assessment items that can be used.
  • Favours students who have good writing skills.
  • Questions need to be well written to ensure they are not too open ended and to ensure they align with content and learning outcomes.
  • Can allow for plagiarism in terms of cutting and pasting content.
  • Can be potentially difficult to moderate.
  • Time consuming to assess.
  • Markers need to ensure they are able to identify knowledge and understanding, despite levels of expression. i.e. elegant language can mask superficial thinking, while clumsy language can disguise understanding of ideas.

Guidelines for constructing essay questions

  • Effective essay questions should provide students with a focus (types of thinking and content) to use in their response.
  • Avoid indeterminate, vague questions that are open to numerous and/or subjective interpretations.
  • Select verbs that match the intended learning outcome and direct students in their thinking.
  • If you use ‘discuss’ or ‘explain’, give specific instructions as to what points should be discussed/explained.
  • Limit and define the scope of the task to avoid students going off on an unrelated tangent.
  • Know what a good response would look like and what it might include reference to.
  • Develop a draft set of points that could be included in a response- so you are clear about the scope of expected answers.
  • Ensure questions will allow for answers at different levels. i.e. a basic, satisfactory response and an extended, high level response.
  • Include differentiating aspects in the way the question is written.
  • Allocate marks based on the time required to answer.
  • Ensure you teach students how to approach essays and scaffold learning so there are opportunities to guide and practice essay writing.
  • Review the question and improve using the following questions:
    • Does the question align with the learning outcome?
    • Is the focus clear?
    • Is the scope specific and clear enough?
    • Is there enough direction to guide the student to the expected response?

Examples of essay questions

In the table below you will find lists of verbs that are commonly used in essay questions. These words relate to learning outcomes and can be thought of as aligning with critical essay questions or descriptive essay questions. These words can be used as starting points for the development of essay questions.

Descriptive question words Critical question words
Define Analyse
Demonstrate Evaluate
Describe Justify
Elaborate Critically evaluate
Explain Review
Explore Assess
Identify Discuss
Outline Examine
Summarise To what extent

A checklist for developing case study/scenario based questions:

  • Is this the best type of assessment to assess the knowledge, understanding or skill?
  • Is the essay question aligned with the intended learning outcome?
  • Is the essay question of an appropriate length? (Note: If it’s too long, it could be split up into several short response questions)
  • Does the essay question contain a clear and delimited task or a specific problem situation?
  • Is the question worded and structured in such a way that it will be clear to the students what they are expected to do?
  • Do the students know the recommended time for completing their answer?
  • Do the students know the weighting of the essay?
  • Have you written a model answer or an outline of major points that should be included in the answer? Is the model answer aligned with the intended learning outcome and the essay question?
  • Did you have a person knowledgeable in the subject critically review the essay item for clarity and for alignment with the intended learning outcome and the model answer?

Additional resources

Thinking Writing – University of London

Strengths and Dangers of Essay questions for Examinations - Duquesne University

Strategies and Tips Regarding Essay Questions on an Examination - University of Toronto