Making Essay Questions Work

The essay question provides an excellent opportunity for your students to develop and sharpen their writing and thinking skills. It tests not just memorization of facts, but the students' ability to use facts and ideas to form a logical conclusion. Nevertheless, many teachers shy away from using the essay question because they are not gaining enough returns for the time involved in writing and grading. Here are some ways to gain maximum benefit from the essay question. The examples used here apply to literature, but of course you can adapt these principles to any subject area.

First, be familiar with the material before writing the essay question. While you are preparing to teach, be looking for good essay questions. Notice key ideas that are pertinent to the author, era, poem, or prose selection. Be sure you understand the political and religious climate of the day, and the way they influence a particular author and his work.

Next, decide what concepts your students need to understand. These are beliefs, theories, political ideas, social ideas, and other ideologies which the students must comprehend in order to form an argument or explanation in response to an essay question.

Now, prepare the class for the essay question. As you teach, lay a foundation of principles from which the students can formulate an essay answer. Remember not to teach just facts to memorize. The essay should not be a piece of memorized work. It should be a reasoned answer which the students are able to develop during the actual test time, based on their previous knowledge.

Finally, formulate the essay question(s). A good essay question will test at least one of the following levels of learning: interpretation, evaluation, or application.

The interpretation question tests the students' ability to synthesize facts into abstract ideas. Ask a question that will get the students to recall facts studied which contribute to the development of a certain concept. For example, "How did England's political climate set the stage for the Great Awakening?" "In what ways does the rhyme scheme of this poem contribute to the tone of the poem?"

The evaluation question tests the students' ability to evaluate a work, author, or belief in light of Scripture. To write an evaluation question, choose a concept for them to defend or refute on biblical grounds or an idea based on the position of a particular author or the political or religious beliefs of a certain group. For example, "How do the values and beliefs of a certain author oppose the principles taught in a particular Scripture passage?" "How does the philosophy of a certain poem support or oppose the beliefs of a particular political group?" Give evidence to support or refute the claim that the religious climate in England helped enhance the growth of true Christianity in 18th-century England.

The application question builds on a concept the students have learned and asks them to make a personal application. This type of question can reveal the real level of their understanding of a work, author, or era. For example, "How is the advice given in lines 1-5 of a certain poem helpful to us in our daily lives?" "If you had been a particular author, how would you have responded to his adversities in a more biblical manner?" "What attitudes of the townspeople in The Scarlet Letter are important for our society to practice, and why?"

Writing essay questions based on these levels of learning ensures that you will be making your students think. One question can test more than one level of learning, of course, and your goal is to write a question that achieves one or more of these levels.

The use of effective essay questions can provide valuable returns for the time spent by both student and teacher. In the long run you will help produce students who think clearly and express themselves well - students who will gain a great sense of accomplishment in conquering a task that was once considered out of reach.

 by Priscilla Olivero. Updated October 21, 2015.

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