By the end of the session, learners should be able to:

1.Understand the term ‘Short Essay Questions’

2.Know objectives of SEQs

3.Comprehend advantages & limitations of SEQs

4.Construct well written SEQs

5.Identify flaws in SEQ writing

Definition of SEQ

“A test item which requires:

A response composed by the examinee, usually in the form of one or more sentences,

Of a nature that no single response or pattern of responses can be listed as correct,

And the accuracy and quality of which can be judged subjectively only by one skilled or informed in the subject.” (John Stalnaker, 1951)


An examination or test question that requires:

An explanation or analytical answer

In a sentence, paragraph, or short composition

Other Related Terms

Short Answer Questions (SAQs)

Restricted Response Questions (RRQs)

The RRQ places strict limits on the answer to be given. The boundaries of the subject matter to be considered are usually narrowly defined by the problem, and the specific form of the answer is also commonly indicated (by word such as “list”, “define” and “give reasons”)

Extended Response Questions (ERQs)

Extended response items have traditionally been called “essay questions.” It requires students not only to give an answer but also to explain the answer.

SAQs come under RRQs and SEQs come under ERQs. However the terms SEQs and SAQs are often used interchangeably/synonymously.

Objectives of SEQs

To assess simple RECALL of facts

To assess students UNDERSTANDING of subject matter/content

To test students APPLICATION of knowledge

To assess HIGHER ORDER THINKING ability (e.g. analyzing, critical thinking)

To assess student abilities to reason and present knowledge in a logical, organized manner IN WRITING.

The last objective is one of the major point which differentiates SEQs from MCQs and Viva Voce.

These objectives are covered in the revised Bloom’s Taxonomy educational objectives:

Advantages of SEQs

Assess higher-order or critical thinking skills.

Develop good study habits

Students study more efficiently for SEQs than MCQs (according to a research study)

More depth of knowledge can be assessed

Minimize guessing

Students have to work out answer instead of choosing from a list

Minimize rote memorization

Minimize cheating

Partial credit can be given for partially correct answers

Relatively easier to construct than MCQs

Allows assessment of complex learning objectives not measured by other means

Economical (less number of pages required for questions)

Disadvantages/Limitations of SEQs

1. Assess limited number of learning objectives/content

2. Are time-consuming to grade

3. Decreased validity: The ability of an SEQ to assess what is intended to be assessed. Students may know the answer but are unable to express it in writing.

Validity refers to how well a test measures what it is purported to measure. 

4. Decreased reliability (accuracy, reproducibility, consistency)

Reliability is the degree to which an assessment tool produces stable and consistent results.

5. Can encourage ‘bluffing’

Example of ‘Bluffing’

Enlist 6 Uses of Propranolol     (3)

Answer (by ‘intelligent’ students):

1. Tachycardia

2. Arrhythmia

3. Increased heart rate

4. Atrial fibrillation

5. To decrease the heart rate

6. Atrial flutter

How many marks will you give?

Steps: Constructing Short Essay Questions

Well Constructed Short Essay Questions Improve Validity & Reliability of SEQS

1. Learning Objectives

Students should be told the Learning Objectivess of the test syllabus/content/topics beforehand

Evaluating essay questions without adequate attention to the learning objectives is just like:

“three blind men appraising an elephant”

It helps students to focus on the required educational objectives of the course instead of reading many books, information from the net etc. thoroughly.

It gives them target of studies.

Improve validity of the SEQs.

2. Examination Blueprint

This should be prepared before every paper

Time Allocated

Decide Number of Questions

Total Marks

Division of topics (TOS)

Cognitive level

Question setter of each SEQ

3. Appropriate Selection of Words

Appropriate and careful selection of words, especially the correct action verbs from Bloom’s taxonomy

A whole list of verbs for each cognitive level from REVISED Bloom’s taxonomy can be obtained from several websites:

Use Correct Action Verbs!

This is necessary for clarity of the students of:

a) What they have to write

b) How much they have to write and

c) An indication of time for the question

d) Provides for structured SEQ and structured responses

Questions should NOT be vague

Examples of Errors (Basic Science Papers)

Actual university exam questions. Inappropriate words used; often do not begin with an action verb:

What are tumor suppressor genes?

Give adverse effects and drug interactions of succinylcholine.

What is cardiac output?

What are factors affecting venous return?

A patient is hit by a car at fast speed. What type of injuries may happen to this patient?

Examples of Errors (Clinical Sciences Papers)

What are the possible causes of this condition?

Give treatment options

Which tests will help you in confirming the diagnosis?

4. Components/Parts of Question

Each question should comprise of only one component/part or at the most two

There should be breakdown of marks for every part and subpart

For enlist, enumerate & other possible tasks, specify the number of points required

This helps in making the key for the SEQ

This in turn makes paper checking much more easier

More consistency in marking

And this increases the reliability

Examples of Errors

Define and classify carbohydrates.  Enumerate reduction products of glucose, mannose and ribose and give their significance.   (5)

A patient was advised uricosuric drugs.  Name these drugs along with their mechanism of action and adverse effects  (3)

What is Niemann-Pick Disease type A and B? Briefly discuss its clinical manifestations and diagnosis.  (3)

5. Scenario-Based SEQs

Design a relevant clinical scenario

Incorporate basic/clinical science principles

Link the questions directly to the clinical scenario

Ensure the question(s) cannot be answered without the scenario

Window Dressing

‘Superficial or misleading presentation of something, designed to create a favorable impression.’

Verbosity: ‘ the fact or quality of using more words than needed’

There is no link between the scenario and lead question

Examples of Errors

A 50 year old man has developed shortness of breath with exertion several weeks after experiencing a viral illness. This is accompanied by swelling of the feet and ankles and some increasing fatigue.  On physical examination, he is found to be mildly short of breath lying down, but feels better sitting upright. The presumptive diagnosis is dilated cardiomyopathy secondary to a viral infection with stage C heart failure. He is placed on a low sodium diet and treated with a diuretic Furosemide 40 mg twice daily and digoxin 0.25 mg daily. On this therapy, he is less short of breath on exertion and can also lie flat without dyspnea

a) What is the mechanism of action of digoxin at the molecular level? How it improves cardiac importance.  Also give its electrical effects.   (3.5)

b) What is rational use of Furosemide in this patient? Write its mechanism of action and adverse effects.  (3.5)

Example of Error 2

A 50 year old male presented with hoarseness of voice.  He was diagnosed as a case of CA larynx, for which his total laryngectomy was performed.

a)What are the different types of tracheostomy?  (2)

b)What are the complications of tracheostomy?  (3)

6. Options in SEQs

Never give options in SEQs because:

They decrease reliability and/or validity of the paper

Some questions may be easier/difficult than others

As then students are essentially taking different papers

Students may waste time in choosing which ones to answer

7. Miscellaneous Tips

Do NOT give too lengthy questions (it is not a long essay paper)

Difficulty and complexity should be determined according to the level of the students

Avoid using essay questions for learning outcomes that are better assessed with other kinds of assessment

Check for grammar and spelling mistakes

8. Preview and Review

Write model answer/key (improves reliability)

SEQ will be checked according to this key

Thus providing a structural key

This vastly improves the reliability of the SEQ

9. Share & Discuss with Colleagues

Share and discuss with colleagues:

The essay question

The model answer

The intended learning objective(s)

The time given

All this also improves the validity and reliability of the SEQs


Directions:  In the blank, place the letter of the most suitable cognitive level:

A = Knowledge  B = Comprehension

C = Application     D = Analysis

E = Evaluation  F  = Creation

1.Essay Items begin with explain, infer _____

2.Essay Items begin with define, state _____

3.Essay Items begin with appraise, criticize _____

4.Essay Items begin with compare, contrast _____

5.Essay Items begin with design, construct ______

6.Essay Items begin with solve, calculate ______

Medical Education Session In Pictures

Venue: Sahara Medical College, Narowal

(Also conducted separately at Sughra Shafi Medical Complex, Narowal)

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