A Well-Planned Strategy for Essay Exam Questions

A Well-Planned Strategy for Essay Exam Questions

Most online platforms have built-in features for instructors and curriculum designers to develop and integrate tests into the course design, and many online schools have incorporated auto-graded quizzes to supplement the assessment process. But as online learning continues to evolve, educators recognize the importance of addressing multiple learning styles through a variety of assessments, so instead of only utilizing forced-choice responses like multiple choice and true/false questions, students are finding that online tests now often include short answer essay questions as well.

The essay question format allows instructors to assess student learning from another perspective – they can review their students’ level of knowledge about a subject and assess the thought process used to develop their response. As a student, you can increase your chances of getting the most out of these essay questions if you understand the purpose of an essay question, determine what’s expected for the response, and develop a well-planned strategy for crafting your answer.

1. The purpose

Any of type of written essay involves a focused form of writing that is designed to demonstrate what you know and how effectively you can utilize critical thinking skills to summarize your knowledge of a topic. It isn't similar to a research paper in that it doesn't require the use of sources to support the development of your response. However, careful explanation of your conclusions in an essay still must be included.

In addition, a distinguishing feature between an essay question and other types of assessment questions is that an essay requires students to write about what they know, instead of choosing an answer to demonstrate what they have learned. For example, a multiple choice or true/false question requires knowledge recall and doesn’t fully indicate your level of cognitive processing because you are selecting from a list of choices instead of writing a response.

2. The expectation

It is expected that you will present a logical analysis and demonstrate an ability to take the facts, scenario, information, or concepts and develop a well-formatted and highly organized response. The inclusion of relevant examples will further illustrate your ability to process and synthesize the information. It is a quick assessment of your present knowledge, designed for you write it at the time the exam question is delivered, and should not be based upon prior papers or existing sources. In other words, plagiarism is not allowed. You’ll find that your instructors have already developed an insight into your writing ability and thought development through your current postings and written assignments, so they can easily determine if this is your original work

It may seem to you that grading an essay exam question will be a subjective process; however, most instructors can quickly assess your ability to develop a well-informed response based upon your approach to writing. For example, if you are talking about a subject rather than discussing what you know in depth and providing an analysis, you are likely to receive a lower score. In addition, your instructors are familiar with the subject matter and potential range of responses, which allows them to assess the response based upon your ability to demonstrate mastery of the content.

3. A strategy for answering

To complete any exam successfully, you must be prepared ahead of time. Prior to the exam, organize your notes according to themes and topics. If you have an assigned course textbook, take the chapter headings and turn them into a list of potential exam topics and assess what you know about each one. The more time you devote to writing out your thoughts about a topic, the more prepared you will feel because you'll be familiar with the process of developing a short and concise response. This will also reduce the possibility of experiencing tension or anxiety when you take the exam.

Once you are ready to begin the exam, you should note the time limit and allocate a specific amount of time for each question because you need to work quickly and efficiently. Develop an outline or working structure for the organization of your thoughts, and include an introduction, body (with headings and sub-headings), and a conclusion. Remember that the introduction is your thesis statement or description of the main point you will develop with your response. One important note: be careful not to simply restate the question or instructions within the introduction, as it weakens your overall response. 

As you read each question, break it down into components. Carefully examine the key action words provided because that is your guide for the development of a response. Each question's action words will often align with cognitive processes, and higher levels of cognitive functions require you to do more than simply state facts or knowledge; you must do something with that information. The following list provides examples of action words that follow the stages of cognitive processing:

Explain: A question that includes this action word requires you to state what you know. It is a knowledge-based question that may include a definition or background information about the topic.
Discuss: Any time a question includes this word, it is designed for you to add details and expand upon the facts and general knowledge. This is an opportunity to summarize what you’ve learned about the topic throughout the class.

Demonstrate: This key word is used to prompt your interpretation of a specific concept, and you may include relevant examples to further illustrate your response. 

Analyze: This is a common essay exam action word and is designed to prompt further critical reflection about a subject. When you analyze a topic, your response should examine it from a theoretical and practical perspective. Ask yourself these questions: why is this topic important, necessary, or relevant to your field of study?

Synthesize: As you synthesize a subject, you are taking the information or knowledge you have and developing new strategies, solutions, or alternatives. It is a form of problem-solving that demonstrates higher cognitive functioning.

Evaluate: When an essay question uses this action word, you need to make a determination of the possible outcome or result of your newly proposed strategy or solution, along with any potential consequences – positive or negative.

The final step for the development of your essay question response is to revise and edit it. The editing process is necessary because you need to conduct an overall check of the mechanics of your response, such as proper spelling and grammar. Revision will help you check your writing for clarity and ensure that it is concise and clearly focused on the topic.

4. Current developments in online classes

Online schools that utilize the Blackboard classroom platform have a feature available for students to download called Respondus Lockdown Browser. When students utilize this software during an exam, it prevents them from accessing information through other sources such as websites, search engines, and instant messaging. There is a sample demonstration video available through YouTube.

Another service that some schools are using is called CriterionSM Online Essay Evaluation Service, which is an automated system that provides feedback for instructors. It is intended to make the evaluation process more effective. There is a set of linguistic models designed from samples essays that are used for analyzing the structure of the content (Criterion: e-rater) and a series of programs (Critique) that analyzes the mechanics of the response. However, your instructor is still required to review the content and make a final determination of the points earned.

An essay exam question may seem intimidating at first because you are required to write about something specific within a short period of time. However, this is an opportunity to demonstrate what you’ve learned and the skills you’ve acquired – which is also a reflection of the amount of time you’ve invested in the class. The key to answering an exam essay question effectively is to prepare ahead of time by reflecting on the course concepts and themes, and then developing a well-planned strategy to finish those questions. Remember that an essay question is not research-based; it is an overall summary of what you know and how you process that information to formulate a response.

By Dr. Bruce Johnson

Photo © Eric Audras/Onoky/Corbis

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