Rules and Regulations Governing Essay Tests

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By Hu Wo (Cuckoo’s Song)


Education and tests go hand in hand very often. As always, tests play an essential role in formulating the education system of a nation. There are many types of tests in exam papers, such as placement tests, and the question items of these tests usually include at least one essay question. The essay tests represent a very flexible format that can potentially measure any skill that is accessible using other written test formats. This test is directly able to determine higher cognitive skills with the ability to communicate ideas in writing. The most notable characteristic of essay tests is the freedom of response they provide, that is to say, creating, organizing, integrating, and expressing the behaviours which call for the production and synthesis of ideas. The freedom of the response permitted by essay tests varies considerably from the range of giving a brief and precise response to determining the form and scope of the answer. Hence, essay tests are subdivided into two types:

a) Restricted-response questions
For example,
Describe the reading strategies of a book.
b) Extended-response questions
For instance,
Write an essay on “Books for All’.
In the restricted-response item of the essay question, the student is more limited and told specifically the context that his answer is to take. The boundaries of the subject matter to be considered are commonly narrowly defined by the problem, also indicated by such words as `List’, `Define’, and `Give reasons’. Such questions can be prepared more easily, related more directly to specific learning outcomes at the comprehension, application or analysis levels and scored very quickly. However, they provide little opportunity for the student to show his ability to organize, integrate and develop essentially new patterns of response. These are of relatively little value for measuring outcomes at the synthesis and evaluation levels.
However, in the extended-response item of the essay question, virtually no bounds are placed on the student as to the points for discussion and the type of organization in use. The student must be given sufficient freedom to demonstrate the skills of synthesis and evaluation. Those questions allow the student to express his ability to call upon and evaluate factual knowledge as well as organize and present his ideas in a logical, coherent fashion. On the other hand, their biggest problem is to evaluate the answers with sufficient reliability to give a useful meaning to learning.
Essay tests have both advantages and limitations over question items written in other formats. Essay tests allow for direct measurement of more types of skills, examine the student’s ability to communicate ideas in writing and require the student to supply the response instead of selecting the responses provided by the item. In spite of this, essay tests offer a less adequate sampling of the content and limited course coverage, as usual. Their scoring is less reliable in that due to the subjective aspect of marking essay tests, scores assigned to a given set of students’ responses are often inconsistent. Essay tests are also a consuming task to score. Even if fairly detailed scoring procedures are followed, and student’s responses are graded by more than one reader, the amount of time required for scoring essay tests will increase further. Compared with objective tests, essay tests are inefficient for knowledge outcomes. The preparation of good items in essay tests is difficult. Not only their scoring but also their writing ability in one’s own ideas is no easy task, where bluffing is made possible rather than guessing.
Consequently, when constructing essay questions, use questions to measure complex learning outcomes only; relate questions as directly as possible to the learning outcomes being measured; formulate questions that present a clear task to the student; do not permit students a choice among optional questions unless the learning outcomes require it; provide ample time for answering, suggesting a time limit in each question; use a relatively large number of questions requiring short answers rather than just a few questions involving long answers; adapt the length of the response as well as the complexity of the question and answer to the maturity level of the student; use the novel type of question whenever feasible; write a model answer as well as prepare a scoring key to the question; and decide in advance what factors will be considered in evaluating an essay question.
In order to minimize the subjectivity of scoring essay tests, evaluate the answer to essay questions in terms of the learning outcomes being measured; score restricted-response answers by the point method using a model answer as a guide; grade extended-response answers by the rating method, using the defined criterion as a guide; evaluate all of the students’ answers to one question before proceeding to next question; evaluate answers to essay questions without knowing the identity of the writer; whenever possible have two or more persons to grade each other; and finally, use the analytical method or the global method for scoring essay questions.


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