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.
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 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.
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).
50 Great Questions for Teacher Interviews
Whether you need to fill a teaching position or whether you're applying for one, it's worth exploring common questions asked during interviews. Here are 50 questions that help draw out applicants' knowledge, experience, and more.
The interview is an opportunity to get to know an applicant in ways that can't be gleaned from a resume. While an applicant addresses a mix of questions about background, teaching experience, and the "ideal" classroom, the interviewer learns about his or her enthusiasm for teaching and dedication to the profession. For those interviewing for a teaching position, use these questions as guidelines to prepare. See key interview questions below. (Tailor these to the level of the candidate.)
- What is your educational background? (Or I see you went to [insert school name here]. What was the most rewarding part of attending that university?)
- What are you currently reading for enjoyment?
- What do you want to be doing in five years?
- List five adjectives that describe yourself.
- What is one of your weaknesses, and how are you working to improve it?
- What interests do you pursue outside of the classroom?
- To what teams and/or clubs did you belong as a student?
- What activities might you coach or advise as a member of the teaching staff?
- When did you decide to become a teacher, and why did you choose this field?
- Why do you want to teach at the ____ level?
- What personal strengths do you find especially helpful in your teaching?
- What is your favorite subject to teach? Why?
- What is your least favorite subject, and how do you overcome your indifference toward it to teach it well?
- What do you like most about teaching as a career?
- What is your least favorite aspect of teaching?
- What is your philosophy of education?
- What role do standards play in your classroom?
- Describe your teaching style.
- How do you organize your classroom?
- How do you structure your time to manage all of the duties associated with teaching?
- What is the greatest success you have had in teaching?
- What do you think is the greatest challenge facing students today?
- What is the most difficult aspect of teaching today?
- What are the qualities of an excellent teacher?
- Describe the "worst" lesson you have taught. What did you learn from it?
- What is your approach to classroom management?
- What role have parents played in your classroom?
- How do you motivate your students to become active learners in your classroom? (Or: How do you encourage class participation?)
- Tell us about a troubling student you have taught and how you helped him or her.
- Describe your best professional development experience.
- Describe your ideal lesson.
- Describe your planning process for a major project or unit.
- Explain your experience with [insert teaching strategy here].
- What plans do you have for the integration of technology in your own classroom?
- What experience have you had with team-teaching? What is your opinion of it?
- How have and will you address your students' different learning styles?
- How do the assignments you give offer students the opportunity to express their creativity and individuality?
- How do you modify your teaching to reach students who are struggling to perform at grade level?
- How do you provide support for students with exceptional ability?
- What would you tell your incoming class in a "back-to-school" letter at the start of a new school year?
- How would you deal with a student who regularly missed school or your class?
- If most of the students in your class failed an assignment, test, or project, how would you respond?
- What would your students say they had learned after spending a year in your class? (Or: What do you want students to remember about your class?)
- How would you establish and maintain good communication with the parents of your students?
- What steps would you follow to deal with a student who displays consistent behavioral problems in your classroom?
- Under what circumstances would you refer a child to the administrator's office?
- What could a visitor to your class expect to see?
- What do you hope to learn from your mentor?
- How would you take advantage of resources within the community to enhance your teaching?
- Why should you be hired for this position?
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