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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:

  1. Write out an "ideal" response to each question. Fine-tune that response so that you are sure that you know the material, and that you convey that knowledge effectively.
  2. Rehearse your response so that you know it "inside and out" and can reproduce it without notes.
  3. Many students find it helpful to develop mnemonic devices to help them recall concepts. If there is a list of items that you wish to include in your response, take the first letter from each item, memorize those letters, and then use this as a cue to help you recall the more complete list of items. For example, to help you memorize the stages of Piaget's theory of development, use SPCF as cues to recall the Sensori-motor, Pre-operational, Concrete operations, and Formal operations stages.
  4. It usually helps to compare answers with another student in the class. Doing so can tell you (a) if you are missing a concept or information that is important to that concept, and (b) if your response to the question is effectively stated. Be sure that you compare responses, and not simply divide responsibility for generating responses that you share. Comparing your response with someone else will help you gauge your understanding of the material; simply sharing responses with someone else will impede your understanding, and reduce your score.

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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