Using essay questions

I want to use more essay-type questions on my unit assessments, but with 150 students I feel swamped trying to grade all of the papers and provide feedback. Any suggestions for making this a good learning process?
—Brian, Reading, Pennsylvania

I can feel your pain, sitting at the table for hours after giving a test. But from my experiences, I can offer a few suggestions.
Determine the purpose of your test questions. Making lists and writing definitions are low-level tasks that could be assessed with objective or short-answer questions. Use your time to find out how well students can describe, analyze, summarize, compare/contrast, identify advantages/disadvantages, create a graphic, interpret data, or address what if or why questions.
This means that there is not one correct response. Make a rubric in advance to describe what a satisfactory response would include. Do the same for a great response and for an incomplete one. I used a version of the rubric my state had for writing, with an emphasis on the content of the response.
It may be helpful to have students do more writing in class, where you can model and provide instant feedback. Share some sample questions and your basic rubric with the students ahead of time along with examples of responses at each of the levels. They can practice writing in their notebooks or share their work with each other.
Explain to students that you need time to read their work carefully and respond thoughtfully. I’ve tried dividing the test into two parts: objective and essay. The first I could return and discuss quickly (even the next day), but the essays I returned and discussed a little later. I also had a score for each, showing students the essay part was just as important as the objective questions.
Ask students to start each essay response at the top of a page, even if their previous response did not take up a whole side. You can then organize the papers so that you are reading all question 1s, then all question 2s, and so on. This way your rubric for each question is fresh in your mind, and after a few papers, you get the general gist of the responses.
Now that you’re streamlining the process, you should have time to provide feedback. Feedback should be more than a final grade or total score and more than a generic “good job” or “needs work.” To be effective, feedback should be focused on the task to provide comments on what was good and suggestions for improvement. I’d recommend a new book from the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development How to Give Effective Feedback to Your Students. The January 2008 issue of Science Scope had “Assessments” as a theme with ideas for feedback, too.
If you teach more than one subject, don’t give tests to all of your classes on the same day. Give yourself some breathing room.
Most importantly, don’t give up! In real life, few of us take multiple-choice tests for a living. But we do write notes, memos, summaries, letters, articles, and blogs. So anything we can do to help students become better thinkers and writers is worth the time and effort.

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