Writing Essay Questions

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Writing Essay Questions

  • A few pointers

Pointer #1: A good essay prompt asks a question that can be answered in a meaningful way, and that asks students to back up their analyses with evidence from class instruction

What is/are the causes of war?

  • (Bad Question)

Based on notes and class discussion, what would you say were the three main causes of WWII?

  • (A Better Question?)

Compare and contrast the causes of WWII in the Pacific and in Europe. What similarities do you notice? What differences?

  • (An Even Better Question?)

Another Example

  • How do you feel about war? Write 200 words.

Pointer #2: A good essay prompt asks students to process, not simply recall information

List the five causes of war that we discussed in class and name one war in world history as an example of each.

  • (A Bad Question)

How would you rewrite this to make it better?

Pointer #3: A good essay prompt provides a structure for answering the question, and directs the writer to the information they’ll need to respond successfully.

Here’s an example for English

  • Based on your reading, class discussion, and notes you have taken over the last three weeks, is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn a racist novel? In the space provided, take a stand on this issue and support your point of view. In making your argument, take into consideration at least (but not necessarily only) these issues, and not necessarily in this order:
  • The general image of African Americans presented by Twain in the book;
  • 2) The relationship between Huck and Jim;
  • 3) The use of the n-word in the book;
  • 4) What you’ve learned about Twain’s life, beliefs, and actions towards African Americans;
  • 5) What critics have said;
  • 6) Your classmates’ perspectives and the perspectives of other African Americans today.
  • Your essay will be evaluated not on the basis of the stand you take but on how well you consider each of these issues in making your argument.

And an example for Social Studies

  • Here are seven major events in the history of the Civil Rights Movement that we discussed in our unit on twentieth-century American history:
  • The publication of Souls of Black Folk, by W.E.B. DuBois, 1903
  • The formation of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters by A. Philip Randolph, 1925
  • Jackie Robinson joins the Brooklyn Dodgers, 1947
  • The desegregation of the US Armed Forces in 1948
  • Brown vs. Board of Education, 1954
  • Rosa Parks’ arrest and the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955
  • Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, 1963
  • All of these events have had lasting effects on the United States and the world. However, based on your notes, your textbook, readings, and class discussions of each of these events, which three would you argue have had the most effect on US life, culture, and politics today? Select these three, and, based on what you have learned about American history in the twentieth century, make an argument for why these three have had the greatest effect. In the space provided, explain why each has had the most effect on the US in the present. There is no “right” answer to this question. Your response will be evaluated on the basis of how well you link the three events you choose to other major events in US history that we have studied.

How would you rewrite this question?

  • Explain the influence of Henry David Thoreau’s work on American culture.

How about this one?

  • What is your opinion of The Autobiography of Malcolm X? Be sure to support your answer with quotes from the book.

Let’s try to rewrite one in groups:

  • Social Studies: Explain how physical geography relates to political geography.
  • English: What makes the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance special?

Now let’s get controversial.

Essay questions are a powerful way to teach writing in a content area.

  • But the most powerful way to use them is NOT the traditional way.

Instead, do this:

  • Tell the students you’re going to help them “cheat.”
  • Give the questions in advance of the test and help the students to “study” for them. Help them to get their notes together and their answers organized.
  • On exam day, allow them to use those notes.
  • WHAT?!!
  • You say…

No, it’s not.

  • The students will write on the day of the exam.
  • Giving them the questions in advance and allowing them to use them will reduce anxiety and help the students to do their best.
  • They’ll process the content and learn more than they ever could otherwise.

And, you can ask really complex questions…

  • The kind of questions that get to the nitty-gritty of your discipline
  • The kind of questions that really push you and the students to THINK
  • The kind of questions that make them and you feel, look, and BE really smart.
  • The kind of assessment that catches students at their best, not their worst.

Here’s a testimonial:

  • Testament, Update, and Advice for Upcoming Educators
  • David Rodgers [dirodge21@gmail.com]
  • Hello Dr. Dressman,
  • This is Dave Rodgers. I hope this email finds you well…
  • Here's the part of the email where you can start sharing things w/ your students. First, your method of giving essay tests, how to design the prompts, and giving the questions ahead time--WOWZA! All you pre-serv teachers out there, DO IT. After I gave the test, the following day, my classes and I had a debrief about the exam (it was a final exam on Beowulf, our first major text) because I wanted to receive their feedback on this method. It was universally approved of. Students, for lack of a better word, dug it. In case you're curious, I'm attaching the exam to the email. You may show this to students if you want. I also directly used much of your wording in how I phrased the prompts, to which I credit you (Thanks!), though the content of assessment derives from my classes and I. The results of the exam also speak for themselves. A's, B's, and a C every now and then. But more importantly, students wrote w/ a purpose. They wrote to learn. It was meaningful learning where students could take ownership. For YOU PRE-SERV TEACHERS, ADD "OWNERSHIP" to your vocab. This has become a major part of my praxis and pedagogy. Guided/perceived ownership adds authenticity and purpose to students' learning. In terms of scaffolding education, I've even given partnered quizzes, where students close read and compose an analytic text based on a passage w/ a partner. Soon they'll all do this by themselves, but partners allows for idea flow and is a means of scaffolding instruction and assessment. 
  • Always Strive and Prosper,
  •  Dave Rodgers

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