Pros And Cons Of Essay Assessments

Multiple choice tests have been a staple of student assessment for decades, and it is likely that they will remain so for a long time to come.

The biggest advantages of multiple choice tests include that they are extremely easy to grade, and it is simple for teachers to identify where students and classes at large struggle. A simple scan through a grading machine will score the tests, and item analyses options help teachers see where there are areas of strength and weakness.

Multiple choice tests conducted properly are another tool for teachers to measure learning and reflection. But there are many different ways to assess student skills, and multiple choice tests need to be understood within the spectrum of the many options available.

Another powerful assessment tool for teachers to use is to have students write down their own answers to questions. Instead of having students merely select the correct option, written answers compel students to compose their own unique answers to demonstrate their understanding.

A written assessment can come in many forms, depending on what the teacher desires. Whether one question, several questions, or many questions, the written test has several advantages that cannot be as easily replicated in multiple choice assessments.

Advantage 1: Students are forced to demonstrate the extent of their knowledge. There is no such thing as “guessing” on a written test. Students either know the material or they don’t, and the format of the test requires that they express their understanding rather than merely bubble in someone else’s words.

Advantage 2: Articulation is part of the assessment. While a multiple choice test can help assess student thinking, it allows little room for student articulation. A written assessment instead requires that students perform two essential tasks – thinking and the articulation of that thinking.

Advantage 3: Students can explain their thinking. Students often try to “argue” their reason for picking a certain multiple choice answer that, in their mind, seemed perfectly justifiable at the time. Whether they have a good reason or not, if we reflect on it, it is exactly that skill – the identifying and arguing in defense of one’s answer – that we really want students to do. A written assessment offers a format for students to defend their answer by proving that their reasoning is justified.

Advantage 4: Written assessments take less time to create. While proper time should be allocated to deciding what exact questions to ask and how to phrase them, written assessments generally require less design time than multiple choice tests. Multiple choice assessments require many questions and many possible answers choices. Written tests only require the questions. (But yes, you’re correct, they do take more time to grade.)

Advantage 5: Teachers can provide better feedback on answers. A multiple choice question is either right or wrong. On a written assessment, an answer may be partially correct, and different portions of the answer may receive different attention. A written, developed answer allows for more opportunity for a teacher to assess thinking and articulation, and an instructor can target feedback to address specific portions of a student’s response.

While there are many different kinds of assessments, a written assessment offers several advantages that multiple choice tests cannot. As a teacher is deciding how to best prepare and assess his or her students, the instructor should take the advantages and disadvantages of each form of testing into consideration.

It’s good to regularly review the advantages and disadvantages of the most commonly used test questions and the test banks that now frequently provide them.

Multiple-choice questions


  • Quick and easy to score, by hand or electronically
  • Can be written so that they test a wide range of higher-order thinking skills
  • Can cover lots of content areas on a single exam and still be answered in a class period


  • Often test literacy skills: “if the student reads the question carefully, the answer is easy to recognize even if the student knows little about the subject” (p. 194)
  • Provide unprepared students the opportunity to guess, and with guesses that are right, they get credit for things they don’t know
  • Expose students to misinformation that can influence subsequent thinking about the content
  • Take time and skill to construct (especially good questions)

True-false questions



  • Considered to be “one of the most unreliable forms of assessment” (p. 195)
  • Often written so that most of the statement is true save one small, often trivial bit of information that then makes the whole statement untrue
  • Encourage guessing, and reward for correct guesses

Short-answer questions


  • Quick and easy to grade
  • Quick and easy to write


  • Encourage students to memorize terms and details, so that their understanding of the content remains superficial

Essay questions


  • Offer students an opportunity to demonstrate knowledge, skills, and abilities in a variety of ways
  • Can be used to develop student writing skills, particularly the ability to formulate arguments supported with reasoning and evidence


  • Require extensive time to grade
  • Encourage use of subjective criteria when assessing answers
  • If used in class, necessitate quick composition without time for planning or revision, which can result in poor-quality writing

Questions provided by test banks


  • Save instructors the time and energy involved in writing test questions
  • Use the terms and methods that are used in the book


  • Rarely involve analysis, synthesis, application, or evaluation (cross-discipline research documents that approximately 85 percent of the questions in test banks test recall)
  • Limit the scope of the exam to text content; if used extensively, may lead students to conclude that the material covered in class is unimportant and irrelevant

We tend to think that these are the only test question options, but there are some interesting variations. The article that promoted this review proposes one: Start with a question, and revise it until it can be answered with one word or a short phrase. Do not list any answer options for that single question, but attach to the exam an alphabetized list of answers. Students select answers from that list. Some of the answers provided may be used more than once, some may not be used, and there are more answers listed than questions. It’s a ratcheted-up version of matching. The approach makes the test more challenging and decreases the chance of getting an answer correct by guessing.

Remember, students do need to be introduced to any new or altered question format before they encounter it on an exam.

Editor’s note: The list of advantages and disadvantages comes in part from the article referenced here. It also cites research evidence relevant to some of these advantages and disadvantages.

Reference: McAllister, D., and Guidice, R.M. (2012). This is only a test: A machine-graded improvement to the multiple-choice and true-false examination. Teaching in Higher Education, 17 (2), 193-207.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 28.3 (2014): 8. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.

Posted in Educational Assessment
Tagged with assessing student learning, designing test questions, grading strategies, multiple-choice tests, test questions


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