Essay questions

Essay questions often form part of examinations, for instance in take-home exams. In order to succeed with such an assignment, it is vital to understand it.

Essay questions generally consist of three elements: an informative part, providing the essay writer with some kind of background; a directive part, which tells the writer how to approach the task; and an instructional part, which supplies instructions regarding the text that is to be written.

Depending on the teacher's instructions, exam questions may or may not require the use of external sources.

It should be noted that exam questions are often accompanied by general instructions that are valid for all questions within the exam. 

Example: Understanding the essay question (click to expand/contract)

The following question comes from a take home exam given at the Department of Economic History:

The expansion of Europe saw great changes in the world economy. It also had a great impact on societies across the world. Discuss the impact of colonialism on the developing world. Give examples from all three regions of the world. (800 words)

(Axelsson, 2010)

Below, this essay question has been deconstructed into the three parts:

Informative part

The expansion of Europe saw great changes in the world economy. It also had a great impact on societies across the world.

Comment: The informative part of the essay question provides background and positions the question that is to be examined in writing.

Directive part

Discuss the impact of colonialism on the developing world.

Comment: The directive verb of this essay question is 'discuss'. In order to answer this question correctly, the student must thus discuss - that is, to bring in various aspects of the issue at hand - the topic.

Instructional part

Give examples from all three regions of the world. (800 words)

Comment: Here, the student is told to include examples from a stated number of regions. This may serve as an idea of an outline for the essay that is to be written. The student may wish to structure his or her writing according to the differences or similarities that are brought up, for instance.

Furthermore, the word count is stated in this part of the essay question. The number of words mentioned in writing instructions is not to be seen as a recommendation but as a requirement; writing a text of a specified length is part of the assignment.

It should be noted that exam questions are often accompanied by general instructions that are valid for all questions within the exam. In the exam from which this example was taken, the following information was provided: "References need to be clearly stated throughout the paper. Course literature must be used. Failing to do so will result in failure of the assignment" (Axelsson, 2010).