Tips for Writing Excellent Essay Items

In the last post, there was a discussion on developing essay items. This post will provide ideas on when to use essay items, how to write essay items, and ways to mark essay items.

When to Use Essays

Here are several reasons to know when essays may be appropriate. Of Course, this is not an exhaustive list but it will provide a framework for you to make your own decision.

  • Class size–Even the most ambitious teacher does not want to read 50 essays. Keep in mind the size of the class when deciding if essay items work for you. Generally, classes under 20 can use long response or limited response, classes of 20-40 can use limited response, and above 40 maybe another form of assessment is best but it is your personal decision.
  • Cheating–Normally, it much more difficult for students to copy from one another when using essay items. Although I once caught my middle school students attempting to do this. Each answer for essay items must be unique, which is not possible with objective items.
  • Objectives–If your objectives are from the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy essays are one way to assess if the students have met the objectives. However, sophisticated multiple choice can also do this as well.

How to Write Essay Items

One of clearest way to write essay items is to approach them the same way as writing objectives. This means that for the most part essay items should include.

  • an action (what they will do) such as explain, predict, organize, evaluate, etc.
  • a condition (the context)
  • Proficiency (criteria for grading) such as content, clarity, thinking, consistency, etc.

Below is an example

Within Southeast Asia, predict which country will have the strongest economic growth over the next 20 years. You will be assessed upon the clarity, content, organization, and depth of thinking of your response. Your response should be 1,000-1,500 words.

Here are the three components in parentheses

Within Southeast Asia (condition), predict which country will have the strongest economic growth over the next 20 years (action). You will be assessed upon the clarity, content, organization, and depth of thinking of your response (proficiency). Your response should be 1,000-1,500 words.

Here are some other tips

  • Define the task or action for the students. See the previous example
  • Avoid using optional items. This leads to students being evaluated based on different items which make comparison difficult from a statistical point. It is recommended that all students answer the same items for this reason.
  • Establish limits in words (see example above). This relates again to comparison. If one student writes 5,000 words and another writes 500, it is hard to compare since there was no standard set.
  • Make sure the essay item relates to your objectives. This happens by developing a test blueprint.

Marking Essay Items

The criteria for grading should be a part of the essay item and falls under the proficiency component. These same traits in the proficiency component should be a part of a rubric the teacher uses to mark the assignment. Rubrics help with grading consistently. The details of making rubrics are the topic of another post.

The ideas here are just an introduction to making essay items. There is always other and better ways to approach a problem. If you have other ideas please share in the comments section.

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