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Essays Your Students Want to Write

Mon Nov 11, 2019 at 07:30 AM

I teach a variety of courses in two academic areas, linguistics and international studies, which has given me an opportunity to devise an effective system for creating essay questions. As noted by educator Helen J. Throckmorton, “Making good assignments is an art, and an artful assignment is one of our most effective teaching instruments” (1980:56). I agree with this view and put considerable effort into creating essays that students want to write and that I want to read.

How It Works

  1. First, I identify what I want students to accomplish in their essays. They should do the following:
    1. Demonstrate they have carefully read the assigned reading or watched the assigned video 
    2. Integrate ideas from the materials into their own thinking
    3. Write in a clear and convincing manner
  2. Given these goals, I identify topics that require students to process course materials thoroughly and link them with their experience or interests. I want to promote ownership of the course materials, that is, to create a personal relationship between the student and the content (Vatterott 2009). I select topics that allow for a variety of perspectives and would create a good conversation if I were talking to the student personally. 
  3. At the same time, I also provide a well-defined structure for essays that makes them measurable (Throckmorton 1980). I ask for the following:
    1. answers to pre-determined questions -- I pose specific questions based on my knowledge of the subject area. I aim to ask compelling questions that students want to explore. 
    2. a minimum word count -- A minimum word count is important for giving students a clear idea of how much elaboration I am looking for on a particular topic. Without a minimum word count, students do not know my expectations for the amount of content they should write.
    3. a statement of the student’s word count -- Since the word count is part of the student’s grade for the essay, I want to know whether it has been met without having to “eyeball it” or spend time calculating it myself.
    4. quotes from the reading or references to the video -- I ask students to provide quotes from the reading or references to the video to give substance to their point of view. This is the best way for students to demonstrate they have processed the materials fully and tied them in with their own thinking. Students’ writing becomes more meaningful and persuasive when they learn to support their views with information from the course materials.
  4. I explain that there is no “correct” perspective that I am looking for and grading students on. Students can express whatever point of view they like. Rather, what I grade them on is whether they have met the requirements of the assignment, which is what makes their essays measurable. Did they answer the essay questions thoughtfully and thoroughly? Did they meet the minimum word count? Did they state their word count? Did they provide quotes from the materials to back up their views? I emphasize that this is what I grade students on so they will feel free to express their opinions even if their views contradict mine or those expressed in the course materials.

Examples of Essay Questions

The following are examples of questions I ask in my courses:

  1. ALS 1101 “The Humanity of Language”: The documentary on linguist Dan Everett shows that the Piraha village where Dan conducted his research has changed considerably since he spent time there. Answer the questions below about this issue. Refer to images and facts from the video to make your descriptions complete. Use at least 200 words for your essay and state your word count.
    1. I noticed a number of major changes in village life that occurred in recent times. Describe at least three significant changes that you noticed.
    2. Now that you have described these changes, I want you to consider their effect on the language and culture of the current generation of Piraha young people and on future generations. How do you think these changes in the life of the village will impact the Piraha language and culture? Will these changes be positive or negative? Why?
  2. IS 2100 “Perspectives on China”: Read the story about the wheelwright and the commentary that follows the story. The intriguing Daoist idea of "simply knowing" is aptly illustrated in the story. Think of an example of "simply knowing" from your own life. Describe the example and discuss how it is an illustration of "simply knowing," providing quotes from the story to show parallels between your example and the wheelwright’s experience. Use at least 200 words for your essay and state your word count.
  3. IS 3002 “Globalization and the International System”: After reading the articles on Global English, look at the article Three-Fourths of the World's English Speakers Spoke Another Language First. What do you think of Global English now that you have learned about this phenomenon? Are you surprised by the number of speakers and learners of English around the world? If you are an international student or a non-native speaker of English, how do you feel about the necessity of learning English as part of your education? Address these issues in at least 200 words. Provide quotes from the materials to substantiate your view and state your word count.


As I create essay questions, I consider whether I would want to answer them if I were a student. If they seem uninspiring, I harness my creativity to change them up and pose questions that are worth answering. I ask myself, “What is the actual gem of an issue that caught my attention in this reading or video that students could relate to? What questions should I ask that I want to know students’ opinions about?” I ponder that for a while until the perfect issue emerges. Then I formulate the questions, add the structure for answering them, and voilà -- I have a great essay assignment!


Throckmorton, Helen J. “Do Your Writing Assignments Work?--Checklist for a Good Writing Assignment.” The English Journal, vol. 69, no. 8, 1980, pp. 56–59. JSTOR,

Vatterott, Cathy. (2009). Rethinking homework: Best practices that support diverse needs. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

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About the Author

Dr. Helena Riha is a Special Lecturer in the Linguistics Department and the International Studies Program. Helena has taught linguistics and international studies at OU since 2008. She has taught over 3,000 students in 13 different courses, and she is currently developing two new online courses. Helena is the 2016 winner of the OU Excellence in Teaching Award, and she was nominated for the award again this year. This is her seventh teaching tip. Outside of the classroom, Helena enjoys running Math Pentathlonand the Science Fair at her son’s elementary school.  

Edited and designed by Christina Moore, Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Oakland University. Photo provided by Oakland University. Others may share and adapt under Creative Commons License CC BY-NC.