I’ve had several recent conversations with colleagues about how to set essay and examination questions. We all want to give our students the chance to write brilliant essays, so I thought I’d draw together some pointers for question-setters.
Essay questions should make students think, giving high fliers a chance to write something original and interesting. Questions should require analysis, not mere description. They should be as succinct as possible, but not so specific that they merely require students to regurgitate lecture material. University questions should be challenging, allowing a range of students to access the material. In particular, you don’t want to cater to the less-able students at the expense of boring the stronger ones.
Avoid close-ended questions
I hate questions that are too narrowly tied to remembering what has been said in lectures. You will receive boring and similar responses. It is much better to offer a question that isn’t directly addressed, but which could be addressed with the material they’ve read. Something that makes them actually think, and offers the brighter students a chance to put their own stamp on an answer.
Overly-specific and close-ended questions are better suited to classroom quizzes:
Allow students room to breathe
Instead of asking students to recall specific readings, it is often better to provide a more general steer toward a certain body of scholarly literature. Students will still need to recall specific readings as part of their answers, but they will be able to bring in other readings and contrast them more freely. The result? A wider range of answers, rather than dozens of identical literature reviews, which will help to keep you awake during long hours of marking!
But consider an alternative:
Juicy quotations can be an excellent starting point
One exception will be when your question is a direct quotation from a specific author.
Avoid prescriptive two-parters
Sometimes colleagues construct two- or three-part questions, asking students to write an essay on several questions at once.
Keep questions succinct
At school, students will have encountered writing tasks helpfully split into separate sections: Five marks for a definition. 10 marks for a basic pro-con argument, and 15 marks for an explanation task. This structured approach is fine for school pupils, but for university students it is a straitjacket. At this level, students should be given the freedom to write something more interesting.
Avoiding clod-hopping two- or three-parter questions helps signals your confidence in the students, and your belief that there are multiple pathways to brilliant essays. There are many ways to write a top grade essay, not just one. Shortening these lengthy questions can also make them more elegant.
Introduce interesting concepts or assumptions to unpack
While question-setters should aim to be as succinct as possible, it is often helpful to introduce some interesting concept or hidden assumptions that the students can unpack.
In sum, essay questions should make students think, giving them a chance to write original and interesting analysis, rather than merely describe or recall lecture material. Keep them brief, but offer core concepts or a meaty quotation to give them something to unpack.