Teacher with a group of high school students in the classroom:

“Discuss three ways Roosevelt’s New Deal changed the role of the federal government in America.”

“Should George have taken Lenny’s life at the end of the book? Justify your answer by citing specific material from Of Mice and Men.”

“Identify the various stages of the water cycle and describe what happens at each of these stages.”

The dreaded essay question! That looming empty space on the test page, waiting malevolently for evidence that you can actually talk about what you have learned.

Some students will take a quick glance at what the question seems to be about, and then quickly and incoherently unload whatever stray facts come to mind. Others will ponder painfully, start, stop, and start again.

Activities that help them analyze questions and understand how to approach writing essay answers will give them a better handle on succeeding on these test items.

See also this video:

Teaching/Learning Activities

Initially, students need help in dissecting essay questions so they can verbalize to themselves exactly what is being asked of them. Then they can take stock of what they know and determine how they can organize that knowledge into an appropriate answer. Dissecting essay questions involves the following steps.

Step 1: Start by brainstorming with students about what makes essay questions difficult. Have them work with partners for a couple of minutes to jot down problems and frustrations they experience when writing essay answers. You’ll likely hear that essay answers take more work, students aren’t sure what to write, they have trouble getting started, the questions sap a lot of time during the test, and essay questions require a lot of thinking. Some students will probably express a general concern about their abilities to express themselves through writing.

Step 2: Next introduce the Question Dissection protocol. Emphasize that essay questions contain considerable direction about how to structure an acceptable answer, but students often overlook some of these clues. The QD protocol leads students through a rapid step-by-step analysis of an essay question. As you present the protocol, model using an essay question that relates to material which students are currently studying (see box).

Verb – Introduce typical test verbs that you plan on using on your exams. Discuss, compare, contrast, describe, explain, criticize, evaluate, summarize: all are commonly occurring test verbs that are often taken for granted. Yet students may not be at all clear as to what type of essay each of these verbs implies.

Topic – Once students realize the type of answer that is mandated by the question, they need to zero in on the knowledge domain that is being tested. What segment of their learning needs to be recalled and showcased in this question?

List – Every essay question requires the listing, and elaboration, of some type of information. It might be the causes for something, the reasons why something happened, the ways something influenced, the steps to, and so on. Identifying the list helps students narrow their focus within the topic being tested.

Number – Does the question specify or imply a certain number of things that should be listed in your answer? Would a single reason, cause, method, etc., be sufficient, or does the question request or imply multiple items in the listing? If multiple, is a set number given (“three reasons”) or is it open (“the causes” or “some ways”)?

Order – In what order do you need to talk about the things you are listing in your answer? Some questions will allow you to talk about the information in whatever order you choose (random), but others imply a sequence (“describe the steps you would follow to determine if a substance is an acid or a base”).

First Sentence – Once you have dissected the question so that you clearly understand your task, begin your essay by rewriting the question so that it becomes the first sentence of your answer. This gives students momentum to begin writing and helps them deal with structuring an organized response to the question.

Step 3: Students will need a great deal of modeling of Question Dissections so that this activity becomes an automatic response to tackling essay questions. When this protocol is first introduced, it would be helpful to include a prompt box on the exam so that students could quickly fill in the information in the prompt box for the first five steps of the protocol before they start writing their answer.

Question dissection protocol model

“Evaluate the effectiveness of three of the tactics used by the civil rights movement to improve conditions for African-Americans in the 1950’s and 1960’s.”

Verb – What is the test verb that you must use to organize your answer? evaluate
Topic – In what topic area are you asked to demonstrate your knowledge? civil rights movement
List – What things are you asked to list and talk about in your answer? tactics used to improve conditions
Number – How many things are you asked to list in your answer?
single or multiple? multiple
set number or open number? set number: three
Order – In what order do you need to list information in your answer?
random or sequential? random
First Sentence – Rewrite the test question so it is the first sentence of your essay.