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Standard forms of essays require students to:

Discuss a quotation;or,

Write an essay on .........; or,

Describe, Give an account of, Compare, Contrast, Explain...; or,

Assess, Analyse, Evaluate .........

While these types of questions give students the freedom to choose what they will concentrate on and to structure their work themselves, they may also leave the weaker students in some dilemma as to what is required. In addition to these types of questions there are a range of alternatives which, can be employed to fulfil certain roles or suit different objectives. Three of these are briefly outlined below. These, and other variations appear in Gibbs et al (1986).


Variations to suit different subject objectives

Role Play Essays

In role-play essays, students respond to an essay question from the perspective of a position given in the essay question.


Role-play essays help students see the relevance of the task and take an interest in it. Their writing often becomes more fluent and natural. Even small elements of simulation or role-play can dramatically change students' approach to questions.


There is a danger of encouraging too flippant an approach, but this can be kept in check by careful phrasing of the question. For example ask students to write to someone in an official position, such as the Minister for Higher Education, or a superior, such as their Managing Director.


Write a letter to the Minister for Higher Education protesting about the lack of university places in Australia, giving economic arguments and emphasising evidence in Government Reports. Advise Weybridge Electrical Ltd. (by whom you have been employed as a consultant) on the suitability of the circuit designs in Appendix I given the performance specifications in Appendix II.

Structured Essays

Structured essays require students to respond to an essay question which contains specific areas or parts of the questions which, require an answer. For example: Undertake a stylistic analysis of the following passage. Select, arrange and comment on features of syntax, lexis, semantics and (where relevant) phonology. Relate the artistic effects of the passage to the writer's choice of language.


By specifying the content required in an essay it is possible, when marking, to be clearer whether students know about and understand the specific things which you think matter.


It is difficult to know whether students would know which things matter without prompting. However, this type of essay is useful when you are testing specific knowledge and techniques.


Identify and discuss some of the determinants of urban land values and their impact on urban development. In your answer you should:

  1. define the following terms; property rights in land; zoning; site value rating,
  2. explain the influence of these terms in determining land values,
  3. select one activity of Local Government and one market factor which, affects market values and explain how each might influence urban development.


Interpretations of Evidence Students are supplied with data or evidence.

Using that evidence (which in many subjects with mini-projects or laboratory exercises students may have collected themselves) students are asked to write an essay in which they address a question on that evidence.


The question and the data can relate directly to an exercise previously conducted by the students in which they collected, analysed and interpreted data. Interpretation questions require the students to undertake the analysis "live" and this can avoid regurgitation.


You own a house in a developing suburban area but are considering selling your property and moving closer to the city centre. Given the following demographic data . . .  What economic and social factors would you consider in coming to a decision?


Grading essays

Grading of essays is a notoriously unreliable activity. If we read an essay at two different times, the chances are good that we will give the essay a different grade each time. Grading essays is a subjective activity in which grades are likely to differ person to person. We all like to think we are exceptions, but study after study of well meaning and conscientious teachers shows that essay grading is unreliable (Ebel, 1972; Hills, 1976; McKeachie, 1986; White, 1985). Eliminating the problem is unlikely, but we can take steps to improve grading reliability. First, using a scoring guide helps control the shifting of standards that inevitably take place as we read a collection of essays and papers.

The two most common forms of scoring guides reflect the two approaches to grading most widely used in universities: analytic and holistic.

Those who use analytic scoring guides identify important components of the essay and assign marks to each component. As they read the essay, they award marks up to the limit specified by the scoring guide and then total the points to determine the essay's grade. An analytic scoring guide is included as the first example at the end of this section. A variation on the analytic method used in the subject Securities Market Regulation in UTS's School of Finance and Economics, is included as the second example in the sidebar.

The essay provides examples or other evidence that render the alternatives false or less persuasive.

Analytic Essay Scoring Guide (Erickson and Strommer, 1991)

Total marks possible: 6

Statement of position: 1 mark

The essay clearly states the students' position. One does not have to read between the lines.

Support for the position: 2 marks

The essay cites examples or evidence in support of the position. The quality or persuasiveness of the evidence is worth one mark. Originality is worth one mark.

Statement of an alternative position: 1 mark

The essay raises a reasonably significant objection, counterargument, or alternative to the position taken.

Refutation of the alternative: 2 marks


Holistic grading

Holistic grading methods assume that an essay is other than a sum of particular parts so we read the essay as a whole. Whereas the analytic scoring guide designated marks for particular aspects of the essay, the holistic scoring guide describes the characteristics of excellent, good and not-so-good essays.

Holistic essay scoring guide (Erickson and Strommer, 1991)

Highest possible score: 6

6: The essay clearly states a position, provides support for the position, raises a counterargument or objection, and refutes it. The evidence, both in support of the position and in refutation of counter positions, is persuasive and original (that is, drawn from the student's own observations, not borrowed). The essay tackles a significant objection or counterargument, not a trivial one. The relationships between position, evidence, counterargument, and refutation are clear, and the essay does not contain extraneous or irrelevant information.

5: The essay states a position, supports it, raises an objection or counterargument, and refutes it. The essay may, however, contain one or more of the following ragged edges: evidence is not uniformly persuasive or original; the counter-argument is not a very serious threat to the position; one has to read between the lines to see relationships between ideas and some ideas seem out of place or irrelevant.


4: The essay states a position and raises a counterargument, but there is well developed. The objection or counterargument considered may lean toward the trivial. The essay may also seem disorganised. Nonetheless, the essay should receive a 4 in acknowledgement of the cognitive complexity of the task. It is more difficult to address arguments and counterarguments than it is simply to support one line of argument.

3: The essay states a position, provides strong and original evidence supporting the position, and is well organised. However, the essay does not address possible objections or counterarguments. Thus, even though the support seems stronger and the essay may be better organised than the 4 essays, it should not receive more than a 3.

2: The essay states a position and provides some support, but it doesn't do it very well. Evidence is scanty, general, trivial or not original. The essay achieves its length largely through repetition of ideas and inclusion of irrelevant information. The overall impression is that the essay has been dashed off at the last minute.

1: The essay does not state the student's position on the issue. Instead, it restates the position presented in the assignment and summarizes the evidence discussed in the text or in class. The essay may include an occasional I agree with, but it provides nothing beyond what was said in class or in the readings. The essay receives a 1 rather than a 0 because there may be some merit to being able to summarise what the author of the text said.


Gibbs, G., Habeshaw, S. and Habeshaw, T, (1986). 53 Interesting Ways to Assess Your Students. Technical and Educational Services:Bristo, pp. 11-26.

Erickson, B.L. and Strommer, D.W. (1991).Teaching College Freshmen. Oxford: Jossey-Bass, pp 145-148. References

Ebel, R.L. (1972). Essentials of Education Measurement. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall

Hills, J.R. (1976). Measurement and Evaluation in the Classroom.

McKeachie, W.J. (1986). Teaching Tips: A guide for the beginning teacher. Lexington, Mass.: Heath.

White, E.M. (1985). Teaching and Assessing Writing: Recent Advances in Understanding, Evaluating and Improving Student Performance. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.



(Originally published in Trigwell, K. (1992). Information for UTS staff on Assessment. Sydney: UTS Working Party on Assessment).