When to Use Essay Tests
ESSAY TESTS (as opposed to assignments) --> actually extended written response

Test Advantages and Disadvantages


  1. No guessing

    • have to generate answers rather than select them

    • students can demonstrate their knowledge within broad limits

  2. Allows divergent thinkers to demonstrate originality, creativity

    • in contrast to multiple-choice which are terrible for divergent thinkers who always chose the answer that isn't in the list of alternatives provided

    • of course, leaves open danger of diverging a bit too far...

      divergent thinking can be problem for marking in same way as for short answer

      Example: famous court case of physics student and barometer.

  3. Reduced lead time required to produce

    • less stuff to type, run-off if caught short

    • write 'em on the blackboard if you have to

  4. Less work to administer for smaller number of students

    • easier to mark ten essays than to build a multiple-choice test for ten students; advantage decreases with class size

    • but also have to consider long-term: teaching this course again next year?

  5. Can be rich in diagnostic information

    • one topic in real depth


  1. Impossible to mark objectively

    • I personally have seen scores go from 0 to 100 per cent on the same paper

        defensibly so --> creative, original response vs off topic

    • that's rare, but not uncommon to vary 35-40%

    • tons of studies on this area --> fascinating stuff

    • some markers emphasize content, some style

    • same essays, but introduced spelling mistakes, made huge difference, even when markers specifically told to disregard spelling

    • same with handwriting-
        - not valid measure of social or English if handwriting gets in the way

    • teacher expectations more important than actual performance
        eg., guy who sent lesser known stories by Dostoevsky, Hemingway, etc. into CBC short story contest...

    • so "good class" or "poor class"

    • halo effects: student's earlier work prejudices expectations

        Two students give same wrong answer:

          -"Johnny probably meant this when he wrote that"
          -"Susan got that wrong, just like I knew she would"

    • another kind of halo effect is where in the stack your paper appears:

      • if read an ok paper after five fantastic standout ones, it looks terrible by comparison; but if you just read 5 really ghastly papers, it looks pretty good

  2. even different times of day make a difference

      -late afternoon papers scored lower because tired; but bluffers may do better because too tired to catch 'em out
      one study said might make a pass/fail difference to about 10% of the papers depending on time of day marked

  3. --> first paper to be read often sets standard

      --> or if you decide later to lighten up, the first paper's in trouble

      • teachers who know content are easier graders than those who don't

      • same teacher asked to mark the same paper the next day will often give completely different scores

      • not just English either --> studies suggest math is just as bad

    • Can sample only limited range of course CONTENT

      • what you gain in depth you lose in breadth

      • it is possible to come up with questions that get the student to combine different content BUT make sure that it's YOU doing the combining here, not simply loading it on the student

    • Time consuming for student to write

      • several students have talked to me about having an essay on their exam and allowing 25 minutes --> that's long enough for one or two paragraphs, depending on grade level, not full-fledged essay

      • unlike m-c, students not only have to interpret the question, they have to:
        • recall everything they know, sort out what might be relevant
        • they have to plan their response
        • they have to think up a catchy opening sentence --> getting started writing is VERY time consuming in itself --certain inertia here
            --some teachers taught their students to restate the question in first paragraph, just to get them started, but is now a bad idea because turns markers off

        • then they have to devote time to the actual mechanics of physically writing
        • they have to stop to think about spelling, or look up words in dictionary

    • Time consuming (and mind numbing) to mark

      • after reading 42nd essay on Hamlet, your brain will explode

      • to do a proper job, often end up reading essays twice

    • Contrary to expectation, most essay questions do not get at higher thinking skills

      • mostly just ask "tell me everything you've memorized"

      • too often marked for factual content plus style, not displays of higher thinking

    • Encourages first draft approach to writing

      • good writing requires time to think, organize, write and revise

      • often, the need to 'beat the clock' discourages reflection, thoughtful answers

          --> certainly kills revision

    • Puts a heavy emphasis on student's writing skills

      • much of student's time devoted to writing not thinking

      • poor writers are slaughtered, no matter how well they know content

      • writing ability has more to do with class/social background than with mental ability

      • sociologists note it is mostly style of middle & upper class that gets rewarded, even though "ain't never" communicates equally clearly

      • Mike Hall, editor of FtMcMurray magazine wrote Writing Competency Test for university, fails because in answering paper on question "Should their be a death penalty" used the personal pronoun "I"

      • Ultimately, have to evaluate writing or students won't learn to do it,
        but term paper may be better approach to this
        • BUT term paper unlimited work, exam setting limits to two hours and then its over

      • have to use essay format for for objectives that specify write or supply information

      • if you take Bloom literally, can't really test "knowledge" because by definition their ability to incorporate into an essay takes you up a couple of steps to application -- though I suppose it would be possible to count objectives like "naming" as "knowledge" but relatively few opportunities in essay

Only use essays when essays are called for