I have never been good at writing essay questions. My handouts for assigned essays when I started teaching basically consisted of “well, we’ve talked a lot about cross-cultural interactions, trade, hierarchy, governance, and some other themes. Come up with something interesting to say about one of those topics.”

Students found this discomfiting.

And I would look at other professors’ essay questions, full of extended hypotheticals such as “Imagine that you are an advisor to Montezuma. Write a defense of the Aztec religion and its tenets against the proselytzing Catholics. Be sure to do X, Y, and Z. Consider A, B, and C…..” and think, “well, that’s much richer and deeper than mine, but it also practically does all the work of outlining the essay for them, and outlining is the hard part that I need to get them to do, so….”

Comments I return on essays go like this:

–[extended discussion of the structure of the essay, intermingled with discussion of the analysis they are making]
–“your sentences are fine, grammatical, good vocabulary.”

I’m actually a pretty decent line-editor, and do a fair bit of scribbling, but it’s just not the priority I think students usually need to focus on. But, you know, I still felt inadequate, so I’ve been writing actual questions lately, and this year I decided to try to extend them and do a bit more set up like I see other professors doing. E.g., if it was a question on how governments deal with problems and people, I tossed in some jazz about the early modern period being the age of the formation of the nation-state.

Result: I confused the students. They were so accustomed to needing to respond to every element of a question, that they thought they needed to say something about nation-states, though it wasn’t part of anything with an actual question mark.

I said in class “the question is a springboard. Your essay is judged against the thesis you develop.” I mean, I was consistently the type of student who spent the introduction rewriting the question into a question I wanted to answer. But it apparently didn’t take.

Anyhow. Any tips? Any links that might be useful? How do you write essay prompts?

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