Essay Exams

Essay exams provide opportunities to evaluate students’ reasoning skills such as the ability to compare and contrast concepts, justify a position on a topic, interpret cases from the perspective of different theories or models, evaluate a claim or assertion with evidence, design an experiment, and other higher level cognitive skills. They can reveal if students understand the theory behind course material or how different concepts and theories relate to each other. 

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Advantages and Challenges of essay exams


  • Can be used to measure higher order cognitive skills
  • Takes relatively less time to write questions
  • Difficult for respondents to get correct answers by guessing


  • Can be time consuming to administer and to score
  • Can be challenging to identify measurable, reliable criteria for assessing student responses
  • Limited range of content can be sampled during any one testing period
  • Timed exams in general add stress unrelated to a student's mastery of the material

Creating an essay exam

  1. Limit the use of essay questions to learning aims that require learners to share their thinking processes, connect and analyze information, and communicate their understanding for a specific purpose. 
  2. Write each item so that students clearly understand the specific task and what deliverables are required for a complete answer (e.g. diagram, amount of evidence, number of examples).
  3. Indicate the relative amount of time and effort students should spend on each essay item, for example “2 – 3 sentences should suffice for this question”.
  4. Consider using several narrowly focused items rather than one broad item.
  5. Consider offering students choice among essay questions, while ensuring that all learning aims are assessed.

When designing essay exams, consider the reasoning skills you want to assess in your students. The following table lists different skills to measure with example prompts to guide assessment questions. 

Table from Piontek, 2008
Skill to Assess Possible Question Stems
  • Describe the similarities and differences between… 
  • Compare the following two methods for…
Relating Cause and Effect 
  • What are the major causes of…? 
  • What would be the mostly likely effects of…?
  • Which of the following alternatives do you favor and why? 
  • Explain why you agree or disagree with the following statement.
  • State the main points included in… 
  • Briefly summarize the contents of…
  • Formulate several valid generalizations for the following data. 
  • State a set of principles that can explain the following events.
  • In light of the information presented, what is most likely to happen when…? 
  • How would person X be likely to react to the following issue?
  • Group the following items according to…
  • What do the following items have in common…?
  • List as many ways as you can think of for/to…
  • Describe what would happen if…
  • Using the principles a guide, describe how you would solve the following problem.
  • Describe a situation that illustrates the principle of...
  • Describe the reasoning errors in the following paragraph. 
  • List and describe the main characteristics of...
  • Evaluating
  • Describe a plan for providing that... 
  • Write a well-organized report that shows...

Preparing students for an essay exam

Adapted from Piontek, 2008

Prior to the essay exam

  • Administer a formative assessment that asks students to do a brief write on a question similar to one you will use on an exam and provide them with feedback on their responses.
  • Provide students with examples of essay responses that do and do not meet your criteria and standards. 
  • Provide students with the learning aims they will be responsible for mastering to help them focus their preparation appropriately.
  • Have students apply the scoring rubric to sample essay responses and provide them with feedback on their work.

Resource video: 2-minute video description of a formative assessment that helps prepare students for an essay exam. 

Administering an essay exam

  • Provide adequate time for students to take the assessment. A strategy some instructors use is to time themselves answering the exam questions completely and then multiply that time by 3-4.
  • Endeavor to create a distraction-free environment.
  • Review the suggestions for informal accommodations for multilingual learners, which may be helpful in setting up an essay exam for all learners.

Grading an essay exam

To ensure essays are graded fairly and without bias:

  • Create a rubric to guide your grading of the assessment. 
    • Outline what constitutes an acceptable answer (criteria for knowledge and skills).
    • Select an appropriate scoring method based on the criteria.
    • Clarify the role of writing mechanics and other factors independent of the learning aims being measured.
    • Share with students ahead of time.
  • Use a systematic process for scoring each essay item.  For instance, score all responses to a single question in one setting.
  • Anonymize student work (if possible) to ensure fairer and more objective feedback. For example students could use their student ID number in place of their name.

References & Resources


  • For more information on setting criteria, preparing students, and grading essay exams read:  Boye, A. (2019) Writing Better Essay Exams, IDEA paper #76.
  • For more detailed descriptions of how to develop and score essay exams read: Piontek, M.E. (2008). Best Practices for Designing and Grading Exams, CRLT Occasional Paper # 24.

Web resources