How to Write Good Essay Test Questions

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As teachers, constructing strong and solid tests can be a daunting task. Students never want to take tests, but they especially don't want to take a test that makes little sense or seems to have been thrown together. Create quality essay tests for your students by using careful consideration and planning in your essay question writing.

  • Use clear, directional verbs. Some essays ask students to "discuss" a topic, but that gives them little direction as to how they should approach that topic. Stronger verbs include words like compare, contrast or evaluate. Using words like these will help students understand what you want them to do in their essays. As Indiana University reminds teachers, "Clearly stated questions not only make essay tests easier for students to answer, but also make them easier for instructors to score."

  • Use essays to measure higher-level thinking skills. Do not ask essay questions that only ask students to remember or summarize. Rather, ask questions that require students to analyze, synthesize or explain a topic within a new context. This makes the essay worth writing, and it validates the effort you will use to grade it.

  • Utilize Bloom's Taxonomy as you write your essay questions. Focus on the higher levels of the taxonomy, such as analysis, synthesis and evaluation. Bloom's Taxonomy provides sample ideas of what students should know and be able to do at each level of understanding; take these samples and turn them into essay questions.

  • Require students to write several short essays rather than one long one. This helps the students because it gives them a chance to write on a variety of topics; if their understanding of one topic is deficient, they can still earn points for the other topics. It also helps you as a teacher, because it is easier to score a short essay than a long one. You can combine the scores of several essays to get a more objective grade for the student instead of grading them on one piece of writing alone. As the Utah State Office of Education notes, "It will be easier to prepare scoring guides for several short items and your scoring will be much more reliable than on one long item."

  • Give your students clear guidelines for how to answer the essays. When you write your questions, think about how you want your students to answer them. Use this knowledge to develop a scoring rubric, and include it with the test. This way your students will have a guideline to use as they write, and they will have a better chance of earning a good score on their essay tests.

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