In our last column we told you everything we know about multiple-choice
tests (we also told you a few things we didn't know about them, just to fill up
the space). This time, it is just like us to tell you about essay tests. We
will keep it simple, which is also just like us.
To be successful you need to understand why essay tests are given. Essay
tests are given because professors do not leave themselves enough time to
construct the short-answer or multiple-choice tests, which take longer to
devise. Thus, they bet that they will have more time next weekend to grade
papers than they did last weekend. Because this is never the case, the most
serious error you can make is to be too wordy in your answer and thus waste
your professor's valuable weekend time. This bit of advice, however, runs
directly counter to most students' intuitive sense about essay tests: "If
I write enough, I'm bound to hit upon the right answer." Unless you're a
monkey taking courses in typing, probability theory, and/or Shakespeare, this
is not true.
The Sport of Essay Questions:
Preparation and Performance
If you are committed to answering essay questions without risking the wrath of
your professors or permanent damage to your writing hand, you need to pay
careful attention to several aspects of the situation, each of which can help
you answer the questions with both a minimum of words and a minimum of
studying. First, you need to understand that several aspects of the testing
situation are under your control. The most important of these is adequate
preparation. You need to prepare for the grueling physical ordeal of
test-taking. Get plenty of sleep the night before the big test. (If you have
trouble getting to sleep, we cannot yet recommend melatonin; however, tapes of
presidential debates seem to be a natural sleep inducer.) On the morning of the
test, eat plenty of pasta to keep your endurance up. And practice only with
pens or pencils of the same diameter as the ones you will use during the test;
this prevents cramping. Always use the best equipment: paper of odd colors
creates eye strain, chewed-on pencils present an unnecessary risk of
splintering during the test, and pens with the names of hotels or ski resorts
on them can be distracting.
You also have complete control over the legibility of your handwriting. Most
students make the mistake of starting to write their answer slowly, legibly,
and then getting sloppier toward the end of their answer. However, if it is
true that the last part of your answer is when you're finally developing
something to say, it is much more advantageous to write the FIRST part of your
answer in that frantic scrawl, and then finish by printing the LAST part of
your answer in block letters (preferably in blue magic marker so your professor
will be able to read it while watching a football game or movie on TV).
There are times, however, when it is more important to write legibly than to
write something worth reading. This occurs when your professor is using the
LEGIBILITY grading criterion. Professors use a variety of grading mechanisms,
based on the latest research in educational psychology, exhaustive field
testing, and (most importantly) what their own professors used in graduate
The LEGIBILITY criterion is based entirely on how tired the professor's eyes
are after reading your answer. However, the most common criterion is the KEY
WORD scheme, which allows professors not even to read the entire answer, but
rather to scan the answer for key words that indicate that the student has
attained mastery of the material, or stayed awake in class, or at least has a
pulse. Some students will print the key words in block letters, and write
everything else illegibly. The major advantage of the KEY WORD criterion is
that it allows the professor to grade the tests before the third quarter
A much less common grading criterion is the PRE-POST-IMPRESSIONISTIC method,
which is more mathematical. It involves a formula that compares the professor's
overall impression of a student before and after reading the answer. Because
the formulae for this method are so complex, only statistics professors can use
it. But since they don't give many essay tests, the PRE-POST-IMPRESSIONISTIC
criterion is seldom used.
The wording of the question is another important consideration. Professors use
a variety of phrasings to convey what they're after in an essay question. They
use different types of questions depending on what material is being tested,
how much time you have for the test, and what they had for dinner. Here are
some frequent phrases used in essay questions, and what the astute student will
"BE CLEAR" means, "Say exactly what I said in class."
"BE PRECISE" means, "Say what I said in class in fewer
"BE CREATIVE" means, "Make the points I made in class, but
use some different words."
"COMPARE & CONTRAST" means, "Start with another theory,
but end up by saying what I said in class."
"REVIEW THE RESEARCH" means, "Say that there's empirical
support for the points I made in class."
"CRITIQUE THE RESEARCH" means, "Attack on methodological
grounds the research that disagrees with the points I made in class."
"CITE SOURCES" means, "Cite my research."
"LIST THE MAJOR FACTORS" means, "Don't get wordy; there are
TWO good football games or movies on TV this weekend.
"EXPLAIN, WITH EXAMPLES" means, "Do a data dump of your
brain; there's no good football or movies on TV this weekend."
"EXPLAIN BRIEFLY" means, "I am probably going to use KEY WORD
Professional Stages of Development
The above vocabulary obviously demonstrates that incorporating the opinions of
your professor is a safe strategy. But professors will often say that they
value students who have--and express--their own opinions. Indeed, students
advanced in the art of essay tests will be able to satisfy the need to mirror
the professor's opinions while giving the appearance of presenting an independent
How answers are presented depends on the professor's number of years of
experience. But this is not a simple linear function! Indeed, after extensive
research (during halftime one day in 1991), we developed the
"Handelsman-Palladino Professorial Experience Inverted U Function."
This was revised by Palladino in 1993, and is now called (by most people) the
"Palladino-Handelsman-Palladino Modified Inverted U Function
In the first few years out of graduate school, professors are cocky; they
think they know everything. Therefore, it behooves students to repeat verbatim
what these professors say in class. Research consistent with these professors'
views is suggestive if not actually statistically significant. Research that disagrees
with the professors is seriously flawed, either because of a lack of control
groups or a failure to report effect sizes, either of which makes the statistical
From about 3-7 years of experience, professors are scrambling to get tenure.
Their confidence has been shaken by the reappointment letter that exhorts them
to publish more research. These professors are looking for good ideas for more
research, and thus will be more sympathetic to diverse views.
In the period just after tenure, from about 7-10 years, professors have a
renewed sense of cockiness: They know the truth again, and have little time to
spend on others' opinions. And now, because they no longer need good student
evaluations, they may be more disposed to give lower grades. So be VERY careful
with professors at this stage.
After about 10 years, professors realize three things: (1) Grading essay
questions is not as much fun as traveling to conferences, becoming chairs of
committees, serving as officers of APA divisions, writing columns, etc. (2)
They will make more money betting on football games than they will at their
next raise. (3) They really don't need the hassle of being sued by disgruntled
students. As a consequence of these realizations, the use of the KEY WORD
method skyrockets. Thus, students can afford to be a bit less vigilant about
including verbatim transcripts of lectures in their answers.
The same inverted U function pertains to how sympathetically you should
portray the professor's research. During the first three years, any mention of
the professor's research needs to incorporate the adjectives "fresh,"
"innovative," and "cutting-edge." During the middle period,
the professor is thinking more of future than past research, so references
should be in the context of other people's research. And don't praise the
research too much, because the professor has just received a letter saying the
research quality needs to improve. In the post-tenure period, the professor's
research should be the ONLY research mentioned.
One way to assess a professor's actual developmental stage is to say, in a
very cheery voice, "So, how's the
tenure thing going Dr. Smith?" If Dr. Smith grabs you by your
collar and says, "Who told you there
was something wrong??" you can bet on the 3-7 year period.
When incorporating the PHPMIUF into your studying routine, remember that
universities are like microwaves: the actual number of years--like minutes of
cooking time--may vary, depending on altitude, geography, barometric pressure,
publication pressure, etc. Thus, these are not hard and fast rules, so you
can't sue us if you get a C on a test. Also be aware that Handelsman is now
revising the function, so we will soon be publishing the HPHPMIUF-III-R.
A Final Word
After looking at a range of variables related to successful performance on
essay tests, it is important to highlight some variables that have been shown
NOT to make a difference: instructor hair color, #2 vs. #3 pencil, and who won
the football game.
This column is the second in a series designed to help students in and out
of the classroom. In our next column we will tell you everything we have
learned about giving good paper and poster presentations. During the last two
decades we have slept through (er . . . , make that:) sat through hundreds of
paper sessions (some of which have been our own) and read thousands of posters
to collect information that will help you become a top-notch presenter.