How to Write Effective Essay Prompts

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Katie Surber

Katie has a Master's degree in English and has taught college level classes for ten years.

To help your students develop stronger essays, you should develop effective essay prompts. In this lesson, we will discuss the steps to take to create an essay prompt that will inspire critical analysis and reasoning.

What is a Writing Prompt?

You are standing in front of your class, the students watch you, waiting to hear what the next essay will be. They are eager and ready to write. You, however, struggle as you try to explain the next essay pattern to them. You feel like you are asking the right questions, giving the right definitions, but what's missing? Why is the assignment not clicking? As a writing instructor, it is important that you have clear essay prompts for your students. A writing prompt is a statement that will focus the essay topic and then ask questions. A good writing prompt will help the students understand the type of essay assigned and what topic they are to focus on in their writing. In this lesson, we will discuss how to write effective essay prompts by identifying the type of essay required through key words and questions.

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  • 0:01 What Is a Writing Prompt?
  • 0:49 How to Write a Writing Prompt
  • 3:04 Example Writing Prompt
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How to Write a Writing Prompt

When writing an essay prompt, it is important to remember that these are essay questions. That means you want to be sure that your students will have to provide a detailed answer and that answer may vary. In other words, you do not want to write questions that could result in yes or no answers. Next, an effective essay prompt should identify the type of essay you want your student to write. You can do this by including signal words to guide your students towards a certain pattern. For instance, when writing a narrative essay prompt, you would want signal words that indicate a personal experience. Take this example: What is a moment in your life that challenged or changed a belief you have? In this example, your students would know that this was a personal essay because of the signal words, 'your life.' For other types of essays there are many different key words you could include. With a descriptive essay, you could use 'describe.' In a persuasive essay, you would want to use words like 'convince,' 'persuade,' or 'argue.' You could ask your students to compare or contrast. These key words would direct your students to write a certain pattern. Third, your essay prompt should encourage critical thinking, which means analysis and evaluation. You want your students to not just restate facts, but to develop an opinion based on their analysis and evaluation of these facts. To do this, develop questions that ask your students to summarize a topic but then explain its meaning. For example, if you were discussing historical events in your course, you would not want to present a simple question that asks the students to retell an event. Rather, you would ask something like, 'What events led up to the start of the Civil War? Why are these events important?' By asking about the importance, you are asking your students to explain and evaluate the events. In addition to critical thinking skills, you want to write a question that lets the students demonstrate their reasoning. Make sure that the students have to show their thought process and reasoning through examples, personal stories, and evidence. Finally, ask questions that let your students share personal experiences with you. Skills like critical thinking, analysis, and reasoning are all life skills. By sharing a personal experience, your students will be able to see how these skills are important to them.

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