Writing Essay Exams

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Writing Essay Exams

Many students believe that essay tests are more difficult than objective, multiple choice or true/false tests. For a typical student with basic writing skills, this is not necessarily the case. Not everything about objective exams works to the student’s advantage. In objective tests, answers are either right or wrong; there is no middle ground. Essay exams, however, provide the student with some latitude in answering the question. There is rarely a “right” answer. Two students could write essays that have very different opinions but both get full credit. Most teachers try to measure students’ abilities to make valid judgments about the focus of the question and then support those judgments with specific material from the course. As long as the answer uses a sound line of reasoning and offers fairly specific support, a student can get at least partial credit for essays that are somewhat off the mark.
Essay answers won’t be polished compositions. Instructors want and expect you to do the best writing you are capable of, but the constraints of the testing situation make what you produce in an exam much different from what you are expected to produce for an out-of-class assignment. You are expected to strive for clear, to-the-point writing. In most cases, content takes precedence over mechanics and style.
In most cases, there is a variety of possible “correct” answers. Students sometimes think that teachers are looking for very specific answers for essay exams. Although an instructor may ask essay question on narrow, specific concepts, many instructors reserve essay questions for more open-ended responses. The true test of a student’s knowledge is the ability to narrow options, make decisions, and then discuss the concept intelligently. Most instructors allow a fair amount of latitude provided students satisfy the task.
To get full credit, students will have to demonstrate knowledge gained in the course. An instructor might require students to complete the following task: “Show me what you have learned about this topic. State a belief, use valid support, and draw from what you have learned in the course to you answer the question.” Remember that students and teachers draw from the same “data pool” and the information you use in your exam, should be linked clearly to the expectations of the course.
Tips to Improve Your Performance on Essay Exams:

  1. Determine whether the question is prescriptive or open-ended.

Examine the test item. Does it request specific information or is it an open-ended question that allows you some flexibility? Prescriptive essay items typically refer to a specific concept and responses to such questions are more easily classified as “right” or “wrong.” Below are some examples of prescriptive questions. Notice that the phrasing suggests that a specific answer is required.

  • Discuss the three main categories of non-verbal communication.

  • Describe the three elements of the psyche as outlined by Freud.

Open-ended questions typically cover a larger scope and allow some leeway in deciding just how to answer the item. Such questions allow for a variety of interpretations and answers. It is clear that the teacher does not have a “golden answer” in mind. Your responsibility is to state a proposition that fits the question then develop ideas to support the proposition. Below are some examples of open-ended questions:

  • What is meant by “non-verbal” communication?

  • Discuss the most significant effects Freud had on the field of psychoanalysis.

  1. Examine the questions to determine if they contain “pointer” words.

If a teacher expects students to take a particular approach to a question, they usually use a word that points the student in a particular direction. Below are some examples of pointer words:

  • Discuss – This word implies an open-ended treatment of the topic. Discuss implies that more than just a superficial treatment of the topic is required.

  • List – This term suggests that your answer need not be as detailed as an answer to a “discuss” question. Focus on making as complete of a list as possible.

  • Describe – This pointer word implies a focus on features and detail.

  • Analyze – Analysis is the process of breaking something down into its component parts. When answering a question like this, you should focus on how the component parts work together to make up the whole.

  • Prove –This term always directs you to argumentative writing. You should present one side of an issue or idea, and use a persuasive tone.

  • Trace – This is a popular pointer term for history questions. It suggests that you should answer the question by examining distinct phases that occurred in a time sequence.

  • Compare/contrast – These words direct you to consider the characteristics of two or more things. It is usually best to discuss each characteristic in turn rather than all the characteristics of the first item followed by all the characteristics of the second.

  1. Outline your response before you begin writing.

Before you attempt to answer the question, take a few minutes to make an informal outline to determine what your main points will be and the order in which you will present them. A few moments planning your essay questions can save you a great deal of time once you actually begin writing. Students who rush into answering an essay item often find themselves lost in the middle of it and unsure of what to discuss next. Likewise, students can find writing in exams stressful and so an outline can serve as a valuable tool to keep focus.

  1. Monitor your time.

Time has a tendency to race along when you are working on essay questions. Be sure you have a watch or clock nearby and determine how much time you have to devote to each essay. Monitor the time, and discipline yourself to stick to the schedule. Don’t overdevelop the first essay and then rush to write a few skimpy paragraphs on the other two. And, by all means, use up all the time you’re allowed!

Adapted from:
Walther, Daniel R. (1994). Toolkit for College Success. California: Wadsworth Inc.

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