This category of assignments does not refer to the essay question on an exam. Rather, it is referring to well developed essays that the students construct over a period of time with the occasional guidance and feedback of an instructor. Students are given a topic on which to write the essay. The topic may be self-selected, instructor-selected, or from a list of acceptable topics. The length of the essay can vary greatly as can the type of essay. Essays can be fictitious as well.

Appropriate Content Areas

Most areas, although less common in Mathematics, Materials Sciences, Chemistry, Physics, and Engineering. Used extensively in Anthropology, Languages, Literature, Social Sciences, Law, Philosophy, Psychology, Political Science, and Education.

Types of Essays

When creating an essay, there are different types to meet different purposes. The following list provides some example forms that an essay can take.

  • Fiction
    • Poetry
    • Fantasy
    • Humor
  • Personal or Narrative (a sub-form of the following category applied in and about the first person)
    • Biography
    • Experiential knowing
  • Descriptive/Informative/Expository/Summative about person, place, thing, concept, text, etc. (This form is probably the most common)
    • Topical research
    • Event reporting
  • Comparison/Constrast
  • Evaluative or Reviewing
    • Movie, book, or other form of review
    • Pros and cons of a subject
  • Persuasive
  • Philosophical

Goals & Objectives

The primary goal of an essay assignment is to develop and assess a deeper understanding of a given topic by the student. In elementary levels, it can also be used to develop writing skills, citation skills, research skills, and general language knowledge.


Students will need an adequate writing/composition ability. They may need knowledge of proper citation and research skills.

Materials and Resources

The instructor provides the assignment description. Student need access to any required research sources. Online library access is very useful. Access to word processing software and other required software is needed.

Guiding Questions for this Lesson

The guiding question will be the topic of the given essay. The instructor may be asking such questions as what does the student know about the particular concept, what can the student learn about the given concept, or what can the student adequately reveal to others about the concept.

Lesson Outline and Procedure

Although there are many forms that an essay can take, the following represents the most typical format.

  1. Initially students are presented with a purpose for the given assignment. Often these are presented as early as the syllabus in the beginning of the course.
  2. As the time approaches when students should begin working on the essay, the instructor will assign or accept topics for the essay. Additional information can be given at this time such as a list of resources that must be included in the essay, format of the essay such as citation style, page length, and writing style or form as described above, and even a sample essay may become available to the students.
  3. During the essay construction, students may be required to provide progress reports. An outline or citation list may be handed in to insure student progress.
  4. When handed in, the essay may be tested using anti-plagiarism software, subjected to peer review, associated with a student presentation, and/or directly assessed by the instructor

Teaching Strategies

  • Academic Honesty tips
    • Make the topics specific rather than general
    • Discourage trivial topics
    • Avoid using the same topic repeatedly
    • No last minute topic changes
    • Ask questions from a specific point of view
    • Require a specific citation style
    • Require copies and/or links to all resources or the abstract of the resources
    • Require a specific source be included
    • Reward creative responses
    • Use electronic submission and plagiarism detection services
    • Assess process as well as product
    • Include a presentation with the essay
  • Encourage students not to procrastinate. Time management can be an issue with some students in online courses.
  • Provide a sample essay to help guide student writing. You can also provide an assessment of the sample.


What accommodations may be needed for students with disabilities or other special needs? Because of the writing intensive nature of the essay, some students will need appropriate enabling technologies to enter the text into a computer.


This can vary widely by the form that the essay takes. A typical composition course may require as many as 5 essays during the semester with the student spending 3-4 weeks per essay. Some courses may have pop essays giving the student one week to compose the document, although these may not be as developed as a standard essay assignment. Some research essays may take most of a course to complete in higher education courses where a specific topic is covered in detail.

Ideas for Lesson Evaluation and Teacher Reflection

How did the students like the lesson? End of semester evaluations should ask about the usefulness and learning accomplished through such activities.

How was student learning verified? Participation can be assessed in discussions concerning student progress on the essay. There can also be assignments allowing formative assessment such as citation lists and essay outlines.

Often, the final product will be graded using a rubric. The following sample rubrics are available on the Web. This is a random listing of rubrics that we have found. ION does not endorse nor guarantee any external links.

Ways to cut time or aid in grading:

  • Use peer evaluation: let the students do the grading.
  • Grade holistically: rather than microanalyzing the essay.
  • Use electronically submitted essays and then utilize a notation tool and/or change tracking tool such as supplied in Microsoft Word.

Additional Resources