Essay Questions

Essay exams are good to use when trying to determine what students know about a few broad topics. Essay exams typically consist of a small number of questions to which the student is expected to demonstrate his/her ability to:

  • recall knowledge
  • organize this knowledge
  • present the knowledge in a logical, integrated answer

Students should be given the criteria used to grade the exams in advance to help them prepare for them.


  • Allows students to interpret and integrate their knowledge of course content.
  • Easier and less time consuming to create than other question types.
  • Provides a more realistic task for the student.
  • Allows students to express individuality and creativity in their answers.
  • Reduces guessing.
  • Requires students to organize their own answers an
  • to express them in their own words.
  • Can efficiently measure higher order cognitive objectives. 


  • Time consuming to score.
  • Students may complain about subjectivity in scoring.
  • Difficult to measure a large amount of content.
  • Generally has low test and scorer reliability.
  • Can encourage bluffing.

Tips for Writing Essay Questions

  • Specify the length of the answer desired for each question (e.g., number of words or pages)
  • Require all students to answer the same questions.
  • Indicate the relative importance of each question (e.g., time to be spent or points assigned).

  • State questions precisely, clearly focusing on the desired answer.

Suggestions for Scoring

  • Test the question yourself by writing an ideal answer to it. Develop your scoring criteria from this answer.
  • Use either analytic scoring (point system) or holistic scoring rubrics (an overall score based on a set of criteria).
  • Provide students the general scoring criteria by which they will be evaluated prior to the examination.
  • Read and evaluate each student’s answer to the same question before scoring the next question.
  • The student’s identity should remain anonymous during scoring.
  • Keep scores of previously read questions out of sight.
  • Decide on a policy for dealing with incorrect, irrelevant, or illegible responses.
  • Write comments about the responses.

Additional information

Marshall, J. C., & Hales, L. W. (1971). Classroom test construction. Reading MA: Addison-Wesley, p. 56.

Learn More

Effective Grading

Peer Assessment