Assessing and Evaluating for Learning/Written Assessment module

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This module explores the construction of written assessment tools such as essays and reports and the marking considerations relating to these assessment tools.

What counts as an essay?

Consider the following questions

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Definition of an Essay

Here is a wordy definition but it does cover the essential components of an essay.

"A test item which requires a response composed by the examinee, usually in the form of one or more sentences, of a nature that no single response or pattern of responses can be listed as correct, and the accuracy and quality of which can be judged subjectively only by one skilled or informed in the subject."

(Stalnaker, (1951) cited in Reiner, Bothell, Sudweeks, & Wood, 2002, p 6)

Catherine Haines takes a much broader perspective in her book Assessing students’ written work. Marking essays and reports.

“The essay is defined here as any planned piece of written coursework which is submitted for assessment.”

(Haines, 2004, p 76)

Use of written assessment

Do you use written assessment as an assessment tool in your course/s?

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What forms of written assessment do you use?

How is it devised?

What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of using written assessment?

Compare your list with the one brainstormed by a workshop group:


  • Challenging to literacy skills
  • Valuable tool for future employment – need to write descriptive instructions
  • Important for clear communication
  • Reflect more clearly on what they have learned (time to think)
  • Information recall
  • Shows which students are learning/retaining information
  • Teaches to be more accurate in transferring information
  • Have to absorb the information and express it
  • Can file it, pull it out and recall


  • Challenging to literacy skills
  • Environmental challenge – using more paper (?electronic versions)
  • Students who can tell you but can’t get info from brain to paper
  • Does not take into account how people think – can be creative but not easy to convey
  • Takes long time to mark

Constructing an essay

The following questions are useful to consider when constructing an essay question

Why ? – purpose – learning outcome
What ? – topic
Where ? – context – location or approach (the focus of the essay)
Who ? – level at which the question/statement is pitched and the relevance
How ? – structure/format emphasis
When ? – due date

It is helpful to always start with your learning outcome and consider how your essay question helps to demonstrate your learning outcome.

When writing your question or statement keeping the what and where in mind how do you bring together the why and who? What tools do you need to link the purpose /learning outcome with the appropriate level required?

Language is the key tool here, thinking about your choice of instruction words and the level at which they are pitched.

Blooms Taxonomy and Assessment Instruction Definitions can act as useful guides to choosing how you word your essay question or statement.

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Write an essay question or statement linked to the following learning outcome:
Students will be able to demonstrate the process of producing a clean load of washing from a washing machine.

Your question or statement does not have to encompass the full learning outcome, only an aspect of this.

Critique the question or statement you have written in relation to the criteria outlined in the section below.

Does your question meet all the criteria?

Are there ways in which you could improve your question?

What makes a good essay question?

Based on Stalnaker's definition, an essay question should meet the following criteria:

  1. Requires examinees to compose rather than select their response.
  2. Elicits student responses that must consist of more than one sentence.
  3. Allows different or original responses or pattern of responses.
  4. Requires subjective judgment by a competent specialist to judge the accuracy and quality of


(Reiner et al, 2002, p 6)

Good and Bad essay questions/statements

Consider the following examples.

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Is this a good essay question and why?

"Example A

List the 7-step path to making “ethical decisions.” List them in their correct progressive order."

(Reiner et al, 2002, p 7)

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What about this example? Is this a good essay question and why?

"Example B

Explain in what ways a person’s failure to apply step 5 of the seven-step path for making ethical decisions will impact his or her ability to make ethical decisions. Provide an example that illustrates this impact."

(Reiner et al, 2002, p 8)

Good or bad?

Reiner et al (2002) considered Example A not to be an effective essay question because it did not require the student to compose a response, only list one; there was potential for identical responses and it did not require any complexity of thought. Example B was considered a much better question as it met all the required criteria.

Full information can be found in pages 7 and 8 of the handbook by Reiner et al, Preparing Effective Essay Questions.

Marking Criteria

In setting the question or statement it is also important to think about how the essay question will be marked

  • Are there clear criteria?
  • Is it shaped or open to interpretation?
  • How will marks be allocated? (Where will the emphasis be placed?)

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Decide how the question you wrote earlier will be marked.

What information will be given to the student?

Reflect on the marking information you have developed:

  • Is the information clear to the student?
  • Have you unconsciously included a hidden agenda?

Here it is useful to have someone else look at your question and marking plan to help critique your intentions.

Essay Rubrics

Very simply put, a rubric is a grid used to help define marks given to an assessment according to specific criteria. If carefully developed it has the advantages of ensuring consistency across a wide range of scripts and helps overcome potential bias; such as a marker giving more credit to someone who has focused on the markers favourite areas.

The web page What are Rubrics? From The Online Teacher Resource can provide a more detailed definition.

If you are interested in exploring further their page: How to Develop a Rubric provides a detailed guideline.

Click on the following links for examples of rubrics

Tips for Marking Essays

  • Plan your time in advance
  • Ensure you are clear about and are familiar with the marking criteria or mark allocations
  • Provide feedback on common mistakes once
  • Identify common mistakes and aim your feedback at these rather than writing the same comment on each script.

Kate Beattie & Richard James offer some useful advice on assessing essays.

Assessing Reports

A report has meaning for the people it is reporting to therefore emphasis should be on the tone, language and evidence required for the intended audience.

If used as an assessment tool, students are often asked to repeat many of these therefore it is important that the required format is initially learnt by the students.

There is also the potential to use a proforma or template to ensure that students focus on the relevant information required and don’t need to spend time on repetitive details.

Decide on the purpose of the report and what you want learner to achieve

Consider students submitting aspects of reports rather than a full report if many are required over the course.

You could also consider the potential for peer marking – then the teacher/facilitator can put time into moderation and further feedback.


Beattie, K., & James, R. (date unknown) Assessing essays. Melbourne: Centre for Higher Education. Retrieved on 29 August 2007 from

Haines, C. (2004) Assessing students’ written work. Marking essays and reports. London: RoutledgeFalmer.

Forster, F. Hounsell, D., & Thompson, S. (Eds). (1995). Tutoring and Demonstrating : A Handbook. Edinburgh: Centre for Teaching, Learning and Assessment, The University of Edinburgh.

Race, P. (Ed.). (1999). 2000 Tips for Lecturers. London: Kogan Page.

Reiner, C. M., Bothell, T. W., Sudweeks, R. R., & Wood, B. (2002). Preparing effective essay questions: A self-directed workbook for educators: New Forums Press.

Additional Resources

For more suggestions linked to Blooms taxonomy check out these useful instruction verbs

If you would like further reading on assessing essays - chapter six from Tutoring and Demonstrating : A Handbook has some good advice on marking essays from page 56 onwards.