Essay assessments ask students to demonstrate a point of view supported by evidence. They allow students to demonstrate what they've learned and build their writing skills.

An essay question prompts a written response, which may vary from a few paragraphs to a number of pages.

Essay questions are generally open-ended. They differ from short answer questions in that they:

  • require more time
  • are less structured
  • require students to integrate information and interpretation.

When to use an essay

Essays can be used to test students' higher order thinking.

Advantages and limitations

  • Test analysis, reasoning, synthesis and evaluation skills.
  • Are open ended. This allows students to answer the question in a variety of ways and demonstrate depth and creativity.
  • Allow for deep learning and connections.
  • Allow students to draw on research and reasoning to provide justification and show integration.
  • Opportunity to assess a student’s writing ability.
  • Can be quicker to prepare than other item/assessment types.
  • Can be structured in different ways.
  • Can limit the range of assessable content and the number of assessment items that can be used.
  • Favour students with good writing skills.
  • Questions need to be well written, i.e.:
    • not too open ended
    • align with content and learning outcomes.
  • Can allow for plagiarism.
  • Can be difficult to moderate.
  • Time consuming to assess.
  • Markers need 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 developing essay assessments

Effective essay questions provide students with a focus (types of thinking and content) to use in their response.

Make sure your essay question:

  • is aligned with the intended learning outcome
  • is an appropriate length
  • contains a clear task or a specific problem situation
  • is worded and structured in such a way that it will be clear to the students what they are expected to do
  • is not indeterminate, vague or open to numerous and/or subjective interpretations
  • contains verbs that match the intended learning outcomes (if you use verbs like discuss or explain, indicate which points should be discussed/explained)
  • defines the scope of the task to avoid students going off on an unrelated tangent
  • allows for answers at different levels, i.e. a basic, satisfactory response and an extended, high level response
  • includes differentiating aspects in the way the question is written.

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?

To ensure the assessment item aligns with learning outcomes:

  • prepare a model answer or an outline of major points that should be included in the answer
  • have a person knowledgeable in the subject:
    • critically review the essay item for clarity
    • check the question is aligned with the intended learning outcome and model answer.

Make sure your students are prepared by:

  • teaching them how to approach essays
  • scaffold learning so there are opportunities to guide and practise essay writing
  • ensuring students know the recommended time for completing their answer
  • ensuring students know the weighting of the essay.

In the table below you will find lists of verbs that are commonly used in essay questions. These words:

  • relate to learning outcomes
  • can be thought of as aligning with critical essay questions or descriptive essay questions
  • can be used as starting points for the development of essay questions.
Descriptive question wordsCritical question words
ElaborateCritically evaluate
SummariseTo what extent

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