Academic journal article Education

Asking Essay Questions: Answering Contemporary Needs

Academic journal article Education

Asking Essay Questions: Answering Contemporary Needs

Article excerpt

Essay questions have been a stable fixture of teacher assessment activity for decades. Assessment reforms of the early 90's encouraged the development and use of "newer" forms of assessment including portfolios, performance tasks, and authentic assessments. As of late, however, there appears to be a regressive emphasis toward the use of objective item formats, especially in the area of state-mandated testing (Darling-Hammond 2003). Despite shifts in assessment theory, the essay item format remained a credible and fundamental tool for assessing student achievement. Reasons for the tool's popularity derive from the question's ability to elicit richer information about student achievement than objective item formats, while at the same time, remaining easier to construct and employ than performance assessments.

Given their widespread acceptance, an opportunity exists for educators to enhance the effectiveness of essay questions for use in contemporary classrooms. Assessment in today's classrooms is characterized by accountability pressures--the competing needs of developing higher order thinking, providing increased levels of feedback, and designing accommodations for students with exceptionalities. The purpose of this article is to show how the construction, scoring, and adaptation of essay questions can help address the needs of today's student populations.


In order to use essay questions effectively, teachers must understand that not all essay questions serve the same purposes. An examination of their characteristics and purposes aids the understanding of their role in classroom assessment and, more specifically, their usefulness in developing higher order thinking

The two most commonly recognized forms of essay tests are restricted-response and extended-response formats.

Restricted-Response Essay Questions

Popham (2002) succinctly indicates that a restricted-response essay decisively limits the form and content of students' responses while Kubiszyn and Borich (2003) add that these essay formats are most likely to be used to assess knowledge, comprehension, and application types of learning outcomes. An example of a restricted-response might be posed to students in this way: "Describe three ways in which communicable diseases might be spread." In this case, the teacher is attempting to check the recall of important information through students' written communication skills. The teacher is not planning for the students' demonstration of higher level thinking but intends to gain a perspective of students' recall and the ability to translate that through written communication. The verb describe indicates that the mental activity employed by the student is a lower cognitive action. If the teacher's objective was to assess students' recall and/or their ability to compose an answer, then the use of this question is right on target. As with any assessment, there is an assumption that students are provided a high quality opportunity to learn and the assessment is aligned with those instructional actions. It is important for teachers to realize in lesson planning that committing to a restricted-response essay that includes a low-level verb severely limits the demonstration of any higher level thinking on the part of students.

Should teachers limit the use of restricted-response items because they fail to assess higher order thinking? The answer is no; the use of restricted response questions offers advantages over objective item formats in the following ways:

1. Students get an opportunity to use written expression as a means to explain their answers.

Making students respond in complete sentences can provide additional evidence of their depth of understanding. Unlike objective item formats in which teachers only see the student answer, more of the student's logic and understanding is revealed using the essay format.

2. The possibility of guessing the correct answer is removed. …

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