Tools for TAs and Instructors
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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)
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.
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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Examinations are a very common assessment and evaluation tool in universities and there are many types of examination questions. This tips sheet contains a brief description of seven types of examination questions, as well as tips for using each of them: 1) multiple choice, 2) true/false, 3) matching, 4) short answer, 5) essay, 6) oral, and 7) computational. Remember that some exams can be conducted effectively in a secure online environment in a proctored computer lab or assigned as paper based or online “take home” exams.
Multiple choice questions are composed of one question (stem) with multiple possible answers (choices), including the correct answer and several incorrect answers (distractors). Typically, students select the correct answer by circling the associated number or letter, or filling in the associated circle on the machine-readable response sheet.
Example: Distractors are:
A) Elements of the exam layout that distract attention from the questions
B) Incorrect but plausible choices used in multiple choice questions
C) Unnecessary clauses included in the stem of multiple choice questions
Students can generally respond to these type of questions quite quickly. As a result, they are often used to test student’s knowledge of a broad range of content. Creating these questions can be time consuming because it is often difficult to generate several plausible distractors. However, they can be marked very quickly.
Tips for writing good multiple choice items:
In the stem:
In the choices:
In the stem:
In the choices:
Suggestion: After each lecture during the term, jot down two or three multiple choice questions based on the material for that lecture. Regularly taking a few minutes to compose questions, while the material is fresh in your mind, will allow you to develop a question bank that you can use to construct tests and exams quickly and easily.
True/false questions are only composed of a statement. Students respond to the questions by indicating whether the statement is true or false. For example: True/false questions have only two possible answers (Answer: True).
Like multiple choice questions, true/false questions:
- Are most often used to assess familiarity with course content and to check for popular misconceptions
- Allow students to respond quickly so exams can use a large number of them to test knowledge of a broad range of content
- Are easy and quick to grade but time consuming to create
True/false questions provide students with a 50% chance of guessing the right answer. For this reason, multiple choice questions are often used instead of true/false questions.
Tips for writing good true/false items:
Suggestion: You can increase the usefulness of true/false questions by asking students to correct false statements.
Students respond to matching questions by pairing each of a set of stems (e.g., definitions) with one of the choices provided on the exam. These questions are often used to assess recognition and recall and so are most often used in courses where acquisition of detailed knowledge is an important goal. They are generally quick and easy to create and mark, but students require more time to respond to these questions than a similar number of multiple choice or true/false items.
Example: Match each question type with one attribute:
- Multiple Choice a) Only two possible answers
- True/False b) Equal number of stems and choices
- Matching c) Only one correct answer but at least three choices
Tips for writing good matching items:
Suggestion: You can use some choices more than once in the same matching exercise. It reduces the effects of guessing.
Short answer questions are typically composed of a brief prompt that demands a written answer that varies in length from one or two words to a few sentences. They are most often used to test basic knowledge of key facts and terms. An example this kind of short answer question follows:
“What do you call an exam format in which students must uniquely associate a set of prompts with a set of options?” Answer: Matching questions
Alternatively, this could be written as a fill-in-the-blank short answer question:
“An exam question in which students must uniquely associate prompts and options is called a
___________ question.” Answer: Matching.
Short answer questions can also be used to test higher thinking skills, including analysis or
evaluation. For example:
“Will you include short answer questions on your next exam? Please justify your decision with
two to three sentences explaining the factors that have influenced your decision.”
Short answer questions have many advantages. Many instructors report that they are relatively easy to construct and can be constructed faster than multiple choice questions. Unlike matching, true/false, and multiple choice questions, short answer questions make it difficult for students to
guess the answer. Short answer questions provide students with more flexibility to explain their understanding and demonstrate creativity than they would have with multiple choice questions; this also means that scoring is relatively laborious and can be quite subjective. Short answer
questions provide more structure than essay questions and thus are often easy and faster to mark and often test a broader range of the course content than full essay questions.
Tips for writing good short answer items:
|Type of question||Avoid||Do use|
Suggestion: When using short answer questions to test student knowledge of definitions consider having a mix of questions, some that supply the term and require the students to provide the definition, and other questions that supply the definition and require that students provide the term. The latter sort of questions can be structured as fill-in-the-blank questions. This mix of formats will better test student knowledge because it doesn’t rely solely on recognition or recall of the term.
Essay questions provide a complex prompt that requires written responses, which can vary in length from a couple of paragraphs to many pages. Like short answer questions, they provide students with an opportunity to explain their understanding and demonstrate creativity, but make it hard for students to arrive at an acceptable answer by bluffing. They can be constructed reasonably quickly and easily but marking these questions can be time-consuming and grader agreement can be difficult.
Essay questions differ from short answer questions in that the essay questions are less structured. This openness allows students to demonstrate that they can integrate the course material in creative ways. As a result, essays are a favoured approach to test higher levels of cognition including analysis, synthesis and evaluation. However, the requirement that the students provide most of the structure increases the amount of work required to respond effectively. Students often take longer to compose a five paragraph essay than they would take to compose five one paragraph answers to short answer questions. This increased workload limits the number of essay questions that can be posed on a single exam and thus can restrict the overall scope of an exam to a few topics or areas. To ensure that this doesn’t cause students to panic or blank out, consider giving the option of answering one of two or more questions.
Tips for writing good essay items:
Suggestions: Distribute possible essay questions before the exam and make your marking criteria slightly stricter. This gives all students an equal chance to prepare and should improve the quality of the answers – and the quality of learning – without making the exam any easier.
Oral examinations allow students to respond directly to the instructor’s questions and/or to present prepared statements. These exams are especially popular in language courses that demand ‘speaking’ but they can be used to assess understanding in almost any course by following the guidelines for the composition of short answer questions. Some of the principle advantages to oral exams are that they provide nearly immediate feedback and so allow the student to learn as they are tested. There are two main drawbacks to oral exams: the amount of time required and the problem of record-keeping. Oral exams typically take at least ten to fifteen minutes per student, even for a midterm exam. As a result, they are rarely used for large classes. Furthermore, unlike written exams, oral exams don’t automatically generate a written record. To ensure that students have access to written feedback, it is recommended that instructors take notes during oral exams using a rubric and/or checklist and provide a photocopy of the notes to the students.
In many departments, oral exams are rare. Students may have difficulty adapting to this new style of assessment. In this situation, consider making the oral exam optional. While it can take more time to prepare two tests, having both options allows students to choose the one which suits them and their learning style best.
Computational questions require that students perform calculations in order to solve for an answer. Computational questions can be used to assess student’s memory of solution techniques and their ability to apply those techniques to solve both questions they have attempted before and questions that stretch their abilities by requiring that they combine and use solution techniques in novel ways.
Effective computational questions should:
- Be solvable using knowledge of the key concepts and techniques from the course. Before the exam solve them yourself or get a teaching assistant to attempt the questions.
- Indicate the mark breakdown to reinforce the expectations developed in in-class examples for the amount of detail, etc. required for the solution.
To prepare students to do computational questions on exams, make sure to describe and model in class the correct format for the calculations and answer including:
- How students should report their assumptions and justify their choices
- The units and degree of precision expected in the answer
Suggestion: Have students divide their answer sheets into two columns: calculations in one, and a list of assumptions, description of process and justification of choices in the other. This ensures that the marker can distinguish between a simple mathematical mistake and a profound conceptual error and give feedback accordingly.
Cunningham, G.K. (1998). Assessment in the Classroom. Bristol, PA: Falmer Press.
Ward, A.W., & Murray-Ward, M. (1999). Assessment in the Classroom. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co.
This Creative Commons license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon our work non-commercially, as long as they credit us and indicate if changes were made. Use this citation format: Exam questions: types, characteristics and suggestions. Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo.