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Good essay design involves considering pedagogic and practical questions from before you set the topic all the way through to marking and providing feedback. 

A well-designed essay allows students to concentrate on their learning through the construction of a unique piece of scholarly workThis is achieved through clear instructions, engaging and detailed essay topics, opportunities for students to ask questions, well-managed resources and transparent marking procedures. 

Best Practice Tips for Setting Essays

Learning outcomes and skills:

  • Check that the title you set will allow students to demonstrate achievement of the learning outcomes for the module. 
  • Consider the transferable skills that can be gained by doing the task – e.g. project/time management, independent learning, resilience, research skills, handling large quantities of information, prioritising tasks etc. 

Essay task design:

  • Consider how the essay design could discourage students from plagiarising. For example, link the essay to something unique that your students have done (e.g. formative work, an experiment, fieldwork, personal reflection).   
  • Ensure that there is scope to provide sufficient challenge for all students, whether emergent or advanced. 
  • If you give students a choice of essay question, try to ensure that these are of equal difficulty. Avoid having too many choices, which can affect reliability. 
  • Be inclusive – consider accepting alternative formats of submitting the information to meet particular learning needs e.g. a spoken essay. 
  • Check that your marking rubric is calibrated with the kind of essay that you have set.  
  • Be clear about what you are expecting students to produce, and what would represent a ‘good’, ‘average’ or ‘weak’ response. 
  • If you’re sharing a module/marking with a colleague, make sure that you’ve agreed on what a ‘good’, ‘aaverage’ and ‘weak’ response would be, for reasons of parity. 
  • Do the maths – ensure that the length of essay/task that you’ve set multiplied by the number of students is manageable in terms of marking time.
  • Essay questions should be changed every year. 

Setting up the essay task for students:

  • Try to anticipate student questions and provide information about this in advance. It saves time later and avoids inconsistencies which may creep in if students approach you with individual questions via email/during your office hour. Consider providing a space for Q&A in a lecture or seminar, where all students can hear all questions and answers. Questions could always be submitted in advance in electronic format or via post-it notes in case students are too embarrassed to ask a question in a whole-class situation. 
  • Be clear about your expectations and provide an appropriate level of scaffolding, especially with Level 1 Undergraduate students or Postgraduate (Taught) students who may be beginning study within your discipline for the first time. Don’t assume confidence or previous experience of writing essays. Possible ways of scaffolding can include:  
    • example essays with feedback (anonymised and with permission from the essay author and marker) 
    • breaking down an essay into several sections with allocated questions/word counts/marks available 
    • an outline plan
  • Make sure that the question is written in level-appropriate language, and that any key terminology that you would like the students to engage with is included in the essay question. 
  • Explicitly communicate all of the information that students need in order to excel at the task. For example, if you want them to use or apply a particular theory, ensure that this is written within the task prompt. 
  • Be as specific as possible about the essay requirements and put this information somewhere which is easily accessible to all well in advance of the assignment. You should include:  
    • title 
    • core readings 
    • word count (and penalties for being under/over-length) 
    • any other specific guidance or advice about content 
    • whether other elements (e.g. tables, figures) are expected or can be included 
    • recommended/supplementary reading lists 
    • deadlines 
    • whether plans or drafts can be submitted as part of a formative
  • Make sure that there are sufficient copies of any core texts which may be needed in the library – be sure to talk to your academic liaison librarian so they know which books/texts will be in high demand.

Further Reading

Biggs, J., & Tang, C. (2007). Teaching for quality learning at university (3rd ed.). Maidenhead: OUP McGraw-Hill. 

Bloxham, S., & Boyd, P. (2007). Developing effective assessment in higher education. Maidenhead: OUP McGraw-Hill. 

Entwistle, N. (2010). Teaching for understanding at university. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. 

Levesque, P. J. (2011), Designing Effective Assessment: Principles and Profiles of Good Practice – By Trudy W. Banta, Elizabeth A. Jones, and Karen E. Black. Teaching Theology & Religion, 14: 188-189.