Strategies for Answering Essay Questions
by Michael Nielsen, Ph.D.
I recommend that students keep these points in mind while preparing responses to essay questions. Some of these are adapted from Drs. Ross Powell and Michael Ofsowitz's thoughts on essay questions, which were discussed on the "teaching in psychology" email list.
The main task is to answer the question. If a response rambles, wanders, or otherwise includes material that is not directly relevant to the question, it will be marked down. The key is to communicate your thoughts on the question. Don't answer a question that has not been asked!
Make your answer as thorough as time allows, without including extra information. This means that you should have a direct response to the question, you "get to the point" efficiently, and you support your point with relevant sources. You should know the material well enough to include citations to sources that we have studied, and you faithfully represent that material.
Use complete sentences in your response. Your response should demonstrate your knowledge in the best possible light, and your use of language should show that you do understand the concepts. Improper grammar, poor sentence construction, and other language problems impede communication. Write your essay using the standard format: introduction, body, and conclusion. Use paragraphs to indicate related concepts and to give your response a coherent structure.
In an exam like ours, in which you know that the exam questions will come from a certain set of questions, I recommend that you follow these steps:
Where appropriate, use examples to illustrate your points, but do not use examples that are in the text or were part of class. Remember, your task is to demonstrate that you understand the concept, and not to parrot back to me something from class.
For a different perspective regarding essay exams, we can ask ourselves what a student would need to do in order to earn partial credit or no credit on a question. In order to receive partial credit, do the following:
For no credit or for minimal credit:
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