Course Content
Chapter 3: Writing Mechanics Help
Chapter 12: Teaching Writing
Chapter 23: Teaching Reading
College English Composition: Help and Review
About Lesson

What Goes Into an Effective Essay Prompt?

Imagine that you’ve been teaching lit for 10 years, using a set of tried and true essay prompts all along. You labored over those prompts. They are minor works of literature in themselves. And it’s not like Shakespeare’s works or Moby Dick have changed with the times, right? You still love your subject and your students, yet somehow, looking at the stack of essays squatting ominously on your desk, you can hardly bring yourself to pick up the next one.

There is no foolproof formula for a perfect essay prompt. Just as effective writing must be responsive to intent and audience, essay prompts should reflect the situation and purpose. With your purpose in mind, lay out clear requirements and boundaries within the prompt. Teaching and incorporating key words for rhetorical approaches will help establish your expectations and set up a mutual vocabulary with students.

Your prompts initiate a transaction, impacting the students’ experience of writing as well as your experience of reading and evaluating the results. Effective prompts should stimulate creative engagement and responses that demonstrate higher order thinking.

Truly effective essay prompts must be fair. Being considerate of students across the broad spectrum of identity, learning style, and background will help ensure that all students are given equal encouragement and opportunity to offer their best within the requirements of their essays.

Clarity and Key Words

Effective essay prompts need to be clear and accessible to students. Rather than promoting comprehension and confidence, excessive set up or elaboration may well intimidate or confuse many students. A new take on the KISS acronym will serve as a reminder: Keep It Short & Straightforward! Along with striving for brevity, incorporate key words that will define specific expectations and outcomes. Is the prompt asking for an informative or a persuasive essay?

Informative Essays and Key Words

Informative essays should be just that, without imposing personal taste or opinion. Building prompts around key terms will help students stay focused and objective:

  • Explain: To facilitate reader understanding of function, process, or leaning.
  • Describe or Define: To present identifying and distinctive qualities, often through visual imagery.
  • Summary (Summarize): An objective, highly condensed overview that encapsulates its subject.
  • Discuss: To thoroughly explore a particular topic from multiple angles.
  • Compare (and/or Contrast): To lay out significant similarities and differences and reach a purposeful culmination.

Persuasive Essays and Key Words

Persuasive essay prompts require that students take a decisive stand and strive to convince the reader of its merits. It is especially important to differentiate personal taste or opinion from critical examination of aesthetic, affective, or structural elements and to emphasize the expectation that critical appraisal be supported by sustained analysis and evidence. Key terms such as those that follow will reinforce these expectations for students:

  • Analysis (Analyze): An intensified explanation that treats its subject as a working system, examining key components to determine an overall result or effect.
  • Argue: To pose and support a reasoned proposition on a controversial question.
  • Evaluate: To weigh costs and benefits or to measure against an established standard.
  • Critique (Critical Assessment): A formal evaluation that considers the merits and shortcomings of its subject within a genre or category.
  • Justify: To make a supportive case in favor of an issue or proposition.
  • Interpret: The crucial act in responding to literature, and perhaps the most difficult higher order skill for many students. Interpretation derives meaning, themes, and subtext from literary text. All of the modes of engagement and response that are intrinsic to the key terms above will contribute to a full and academically sound interpretation.
  • Additional Terms: Examine, Explore, Assess, Review, Illustrate, Identify, Demonstrate, Infer

Stimulating Essay Prompts

A defining feature of an effective prompt is that it draws out extended, higher order thinking rather than having students select from a predetermined set of options. Prompts that allow little room for creativity or individual interpretation can be stifling for the student and leave an instructor reading a pile of sterile and repetitive essays. While freedom is a wonderful thing, however, it can be disconcerting or frustrating for students who are responding to a work of literature on an exam or in a paper if they don’t have sufficient direction or a well-defined objective in their writing prompts. Consider the following examples:

Restrictive: Discuss constraints placed on Hester Prynne and how they limit her capacity for self-definition in the text of The Scarlet Letter.

Vague: Discuss self-definition in The Scarlet Letter.

Better: Discuss the character of Hester Prynne in terms of self-definition. What constraints are placed on Hester by culture and community? To what extent is she able to forge her own identity within those boundaries?

Fair Essay Prompts

It is important for instructors to realize that student responses will only be as good as the essay prompts and the preparation given. Fair prompts do not expect or evaluate for knowledge outside of course curriculum. A fair prompt specifies requirements and criteria and allows for a successful result across the broad spectrum of learning or expressive styles. The limiting factors of time and circumstance must be considered: very few students will produce their highest quality work or demonstrate the full extent of their preparation and comprehension in a timed writing format. A fair essay prompt will be situated within a balanced evaluation structure, without excessive weight on a particular prompt and essay response.

Fairness also requires that instructors conscientiously avoid language or hypotheticals that might disadvantage or demean students based upon socioeconomic factors, ethnic background, or individual identity. Concisely drawn situations and scenarios within an essay prompt can encourage personal investment, but poorly considered assumptions about collective student ‘norms’ might embarrass or even shut down some individuals.

Lesson Summary

Keep your essay prompts clear and concise. Define requirements and evaluative criteria using mutually understood language that is sensitive to your students as people and sets out fair expectations. An effective essay prompt will not only stimulate student interest, but will promote responses that engage the instructor’s interest in the evaluation process. It is difficult to be enthusiastic, or objective, when you are reading the umpteenth ‘answer’ to the same prompt you have used for a decade.

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