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Eye on Psi Chi: Winter 1997
Testing, Testing, Part 2: A Simple Guide to Essay Questions
Mitchell M. Handelsman, University of Colorado at Denver
Joseph J. Palladino, University of Southern Indiana

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).

Grading Criteria
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 school.

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 begins.

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.

Essential Vocabulary
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 attend to:

"BE CLEAR" means, "Say exactly what I said in class."

"BE PRECISE" means, "Say what I said in class in fewer words."

"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 grading."

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 view.

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 (PHPMIUF)."

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 significance meaningless.

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.


Copyright 1997 (Volume 1, Issue 2) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology



Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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