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Write A Good Essay Question

Candidates will dedicate a large portion of their time to answering essay questions. This means that a lot of time will need to be spent ensuring that questions have been structured in a clear, concise manner. It is recommended that you have the topic learning outcomes in mind when coming up with essay questions, to ensure that these are reflected in the questions. Below you can read some tips on writing good essay questions. You can create essay questions in Surpass.  

Writing an In-depth Essay Question  

Example 1: List the stages of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from the most immediate to the least immediate.

The above example does not meet the criteria for effective essay questions. This is because it only requires students to give a list – no original or critical thinking is required here as students will basically regurgitate information.

 Example 2: Explain the influence Maslow’s hierarchy of needs had on existing psychological and physiological ideas…

The example above is an effective essay question – not only do students need to compose a response with their knowledge, but they also need to write several sentences to sufficiently answer the question. Moreover, students have room for originality, with the ability to provide a wide variety of examples to support their argument, and their response can be structured in various ways.

Writing an Essay Question to Test Critical Thinking Skills 

Example 1: What are the advantages and limitations of raising free range livestock for food?

The example above does not test critical thinking skills as a candidate only needs to recall the knowledge they have learnt.

Example 2: Given the advantages and limitations of raising free range livestock for food, how far should British farmers consider free range farming? In answering this question you will need to consider issues of space, weather conditions and farming economics in Britain.

This is an essay question that would test critical thinking skills – the candidate is being asked to consider a variety of factors. They need to make an evaluative judgement and explain their reasoning for the judgement which will then be assessed by examiners.

Making an Essay Question Focused

Writing an overly general essay question can be confusing to the candidate – they will not know whether or not to focus on one area of knowledge or to write a general overview. Furthermore, ensuring your question is focused allows you to see how well the candidate understands one particular area.  

Be sure that your question is appropriately focused.

Example 1: Describe the impact of alcohol on the body.

Example 2: Describe the impact of alcohol on the functioning of the brain. Give three examples.

You can see above the focus of the question is becoming clearer. Providing more focused exam questions allows an examiner to better gauge a student’s knowledge – with a vague question, the student has scope to write down anything they know, whereas with a focused question they are asked to draw on and explain/describe specific knowledge. A focused question also means less confusion for students when deciding how to answer.    

Note: The purpose of these articles is to provide you with general advice in the fields of assessment and testing. These articles are not intended to replace any regulations or instructions provided by your organisation, but may be used in conjunction with these materials to support the assessment process.

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To learn how to set up an Essay Question, visit the Essay section of the Surpass online Help.

Political Science/JSIS/LSJ Writing Center
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Tips for Writing Essay Exams

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Before the Exam: Prepare and Practice

Writing a good essay requires synthesis of material that cannot be done in the 20-30 minutes you have during the exam. In the days before the exam, you should:
  • Anticipate test questions. Look at the question from the last exam. Did the question ask you to apply a theory to historical or contemporary events? Did you have to compare/contrast theories? Did you have to prove an argument? Imagine yourself in the role of the instructor--what did the instructor emphasize? What are the big ideas in the course?
  • Practice writing. You may decide to write a summary of each theory you have been discussing, or a short description of the historical or contemporary events you've been studying. Focus on clarity, conciseness, and understanding the differences between the theories.
  • Memorize key events, facts, and names. You will have to support your argument with evidence, and this may involve memorizing some key events, or the names of theorists, etc.
  • Organize your ideas. Knowledge of the subject matter is only part of the preparation process. You need to spend some time thinking about how to organize your ideas. Let's say the question asks you to compare and contrast what regime theory and hegemonic stability theory would predict about post-cold war nuclear proliferation. The key components of an answer to this question must include:
  • A definition of the theories
  • A brief description of the issue
  • A comparison of the two theories' predictions
  • A clear and logical contrasting of the theories (noting how and why they are different)
In the exam

Many students start writing furiously after scanning the essay question. Do not do this! Instead, try the following:
  • Perform a "memory dump." Write down all the information you have had to memorize for the exam in note form.
  • Read the questions and instructions carefully. Read over all the questions on the exam. If you simply answer each question as you encounter it, you may give certain information or evidence to one question that is more suitable for another. Be sure to identify all parts of the question.
  • Formulate a thesis that answers the question. You can use the wording from the question. There is not time for an elaborate introduction, but be sure to introduce the topic, your argument, and how you will support your thesis (do this in your first paragraph).
  • Organize your supporting points. Before you proceed with the body of the essay, write an outline that summarizes your main supporting points. Check to make sure you are answering all parts of the question. Coherent organization is one of the most important characteristics of a good essay.
  • Make a persuasive argument. Most essays in political science ask you to make some kind of argument. While there are no right answers, there are more and less persuasive answers. What makes an argument persuasive?
  • A clear point that is being argued (a thesis)
  • Sufficient evidenct to support that thesis
  • Logical progression of ideas throughout the essay
  • Review your essay. Take a few minutes to re-read your essay. Correct grammatical mistakes, check to see that you have answered all parts of the question.
Things to Avoid

Essay exams can be stressful. You may draw a blank, run out of time, or find that you neglected an important part of the course in studying for the test. Of course, good preparation and time management can help you avoid these negative experiences. Some things to keep in mind as you write your essay include the following:
  • Avoid excuses. Don't write at the end that you ran out of time, or did not have time to study because you were sick. Make an appointment with your TA to discuss these things after the exam.
  • Don't "pad" your answer. Instructors are usually quite adept at detecting student bluffing. They give no credit for elaboration of the obvious. If you are stuck, you can elaborate on what you do know, as long as it relates to the question.
  • Avoid the "kitchen sink" approach. Many students simply write down everything they know about a particular topic, without relating the information to the question. Everything you include in your answer should help to answer the question and support your thesis. You need to show how/why the information is relevant -- don't leave it up to your instructor to figure this out!

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