Strengths & Limitations of Short Answer & Essay Questions

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  • 0:03 The Basics of Test Taking
  • 1:23 Short Answer & Essay Questions
  • 2:45 Limitations of Short…
  • 4:16 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Dr. Douglas Hawks

Douglas has two master's degrees (MPA & MBA) and a PhD in Higher Education Administration.

Requiring written answers is often the best way to assess students' understanding of a concept. However, there are strengths and limitations to short answer and essay questions, which we'll examine in this lesson.

The Basics of Test Taking

We've probably all felt that sensation of dread in the pit in our stomach. After 20 or so multiple-choice or true/false questions that we are feeling pretty good about, we turn to the last page of our test, and it's the dreaded essay question!

Whether you are the student taking the test or the instructor writing the test, there are some important things to understand about short-answer and essay questions. Short-answer and essay questions are based on a predetermined rubric developed by the instructor that require the test taker to write their answer in complete sentences.

In the mid-1900s, an educator named Benjamin Bloom developed what is now called Bloom's Taxonomy. Basically, Bloom identified different types of learning, and since then, other educators have realized that many of his types of learning are most effectively assessed using different types of questions. His types of learning included classifications like knowing, comprehending, applying, analyzing, and evaluation.

Bloom's first classifications, like 'knowing,' are best tested with multiple choice questions that simply test the retention of facts. But, we're headed for the heavy testing - the 'analyzing' and 'evaluation' classifications that require some explanation from the student to demonstrate their understanding.

Short Answer & Essay Questions

Short answer and essay questions certainly have their strengths. Most of all, students can't guess the right answer when they have to explain their answer. Writing out an answer also solidifies the learning of a concept. Reading about something or hearing about it and even discussing it can help students retain and understand information, but having to process that information in a way that then requires them to articulate it in writing gives them another chance to think through it and explain, in their own words, what they've learned.

Short answer and essay questions also have another important benefit: they can serve as a feedback mechanism for the instructor. This can be true of all test questions, but short answer and essay questions can provide the instructor with insight into possible misunderstandings students' have of the material. This helps the instructor improve the material for future lessons. Another benefit for the student and the instructor is that, unlike multiple-choice questions, a student can receive partial credit since the answer isn't as simple as a strict, predefined choice.

The instructor can also learn from the students. Ask any teacher that's written and graded short-answer or essay questions, and they will tell you at some point, they read something that gave them ideas on how to improve their teaching of the material.

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