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Essay Examinations

Coffman, William E.
Publication Year:
Report Number:
ETS Research Memorandum
Document Type:
Page Count:
Subject/Key Words:
Achievement Tests, Essay Tests, Grading, Test Construction, Test Reliability, Test Use, Test Validity, Testing Problems


The uses, misuses, problems, limitations, potential uses, alternatives, suggested methods of improvement, and areas of future research regarding essay questions are presented here. Essay questions are defined and considerations favoring their use--including as a performance test--are discussed. The difficulty of constructing good objective tests and the effect of exclusive use of objective tests on teaching and learning are also considered. The limitations of essay tests--including error associated with rating of essays, error associated with the sampling of essay questions, and imperfect reliability and validity of essay questions--are also presented. Suggestions for improving essay exams include limiting the use of essay questions to appropriate testing situations, combining their use with objective test questions, and adopting sound techniques for constructing and scoring essay questions. Several such techniques are listed and elaborated on. The limitations of current knowledge about essay testing is noted and areas of future research on essay tests are suggested. Limitations on the information gained from essay tests and appropriate contexts for their use and possible side effects of eliminating their use are also discussed.

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