Essay Exams

Essay exams are a challenge for your students; they are high-stakes and require impromptu performance. There's little time for planning, drafting, or proofreading.

James Britton (a literacy researcher) coined the term “teacher-as-examiner” to describe one kind of audience students often write for, especially in school situations. When the essay exam is written just to display to the teacher that information has been memorized, the result is usually less than we hoped for. At the college level, we usually want an essay exam to go beyond a mere recitation of facts to display critical thinking or problem-solving skills. The essay exam is, in many respects, that final bit of evidence that your students took something of value from your teaching.

Sometimes we think that impromptu writing can show knowledge best because students are caught unawares. They have to think on their feet and muster the resources we've provided through teaching. But even the best jazz musician works from a repertoire.

You can set the essay exam up to prompt the best performance. First, look carefully at your essay question—what, really, are you asking students to do? Second, provide some guidance for them, even, if possible, a practice run.

The essay question is crucial. Check out any advice on how to take an essay exam, and you’ll see that reading the prompt carefully and following it exactly is always mentioned. So make sure you ask for what you want.

Be specific. “Discuss” is notoriously vague. Do you want an analysis? An evaluation? A recommendation? A comparison? For a list of helpful verbs, see our student handout Understanding Writing Assignments.

Narrow the topic. Consider the time available to write a reasonable response, and build in time to pre-write (brainstorm) and revise at least once. A great way to test the question is to answer it yourself, or, even better, have an assistant do so. Time it, and add 10 minutes.

Don’t bury the question. While it’s fine to use the prompt to spark your students’ imagination, make sure you end it with an actual instruction about what to write. A few questions to get them thinking, an interesting scenario to set forth a problem—these can make the prompt richer. But remember that an exam is high stakes, and that provokes enough tension. There’s no need to make it hard to read. If you put your main instruction in a place of emphasis at the end of the paragraph, it's less likely to be ignored or misread.

Some guidance—some preparation for taking the exam—can go a long way toward improving the final results. There are many ways to help students prepare, such as a practice exam that you grade or that is peer reviewed, or in-class review of a model written in a previous semester. If you want something less labor-intensive, refer students to the UWC’s handout, Essay Exams.

No matter whether you spend 30 minutes or 5 minutes of class time, make sure to express your expectations. Turn that “teacher-as-examiner” audience into someone real, someone who wants to see students apply the knowledge they gained during your class, or synthesize the various ideas and theories studied. Once they know that you want more than a regurgitation of facts, they’ll have a better idea of how to study.

Also remind them that it is possible to study for an essay exam.

Finally, never grade “just for content.” If you want a readable essay, grade for content, organization, correctness, and clarity. Tell students you expect to see a thesis that makes a claim. You don’t have to mark every little comma error or go overboard with the red pen. Just clarify that complete sentences and full paragraphs are expected and that readability is important. Remind them to read through the essay one last time and make neat corrections to it before they turn it in. Better to cross out and re-write a misspelled word than to hope you won’t notice. (You’d be surprised how often students worry that a correction will make the final essay look messy.)