Writing Guide Home
Writing in History
Types of Writing
Your Professors' Advice
Turabian Style Citations
Links to Writing Advice
Decoding the Question (Definitions)
Grading Standards

Essay Exams

Testing your knowledge using just short regularly scheduled quizzes and multiple-choice exams is a challenging task for an instructor. Interpretation of facts and demonstration of understanding usually requires that you express your ideas in writing. As a result, instructors may require you to take one or more in-class essay exam that may involve short-essay identifications or long essays.

A. Shorter In-Class Essays
B. Longer In-Class Essays
C. Take Home Essays (Thought Papers)
D. Sample Assignments/Instructions


A. Shorter In-Class Essays
Typically, short-essay identifications require you to define a term or concept and briefly discuss its significance.

  • You should try to be concise (to the point) and direct in your answer. In assigning a task like this, instructors want to determine if you can define (describe, name or identify a person, place, event) the term (word, expression, phrase). In addition, they want to know if you are familiar enough with the term to explain its significance (why it is important) in relation to larger course themes and topics.
  • Because history is about time and place, professors will advise students of their position on the use of absolute versus approximate dates; generally, an answer should reference time and place in some way.
  • Whenever you are in doubt about any instruction given you should ask the professor to clarify his expectations.

You can explain (give details, describe) the significance of a term in several ways:

  • Cite (refer to, name, quote) an example of how the term was used in a particular lecture, video, or reading.
  • Provide (offer, supply) an example of how the term is applied in a particular historical context (background, framework).
  • Compare (showing similarities) and/or contrast (differences) the term with another concept (idea, thought, impression).
  • Analyze (examine, investigate, evaluate) the idea’s meaning in order to point out conceptual ambiguity (vagueness) or multiple meanings depending on the context within which the term is used.

Often you will find short identifications difficult to do because you may have a problem settling on one concise definition, or because you do not know the term well enough to give a convincing statement about its significance. Take the time to define your term and be sure to address who, what, where, when and significance in your essay to get full credit.

back to top

B. Longer In-Class Essays
Longer essay questions typically require you to respond to a question(s) aimed at measuring their understanding of course facts, theories and themes. Generally instructors can determine how well you know the material. Instructors base student success on whether students can respond to the question by drawing on class readings, videos, and lectures. Students who provide their own analysis (or independent thinking) of course materials usually do better than those who simply restate material presented through lectures or in the readings. A longer in-class essay requires you to balance a discussion of facts, theories, examples and analysis.

back to top

C. Take Home Essays (Thought Papers)
Take home essays are comparable to longer in-class essays; however, they typically require you to provide more in-depth explanations because you have more time to answer the question(s).

back to top

D. Sample Assignments/Instructions
In all cases, be sure to follow the specific guidelines set forth by your instructor.

1. Essay

Pay particular attention to those emboldened words to use as guides for instruction:

An essay due on ___________ should not be shorter than 3 but not longer than 4 printed double spaced pages.

The essay has to focus on one of the following aspects of European history: forms of government; religion; philosophy and science; art and architecture, family life and the position of women.

The goal of the essay is to trace and explain change in three consecutive historical periods.

In order to understand what is meant by a historical period, students have to examine the titles and the periods covered by the video lectures as well as by chapters in the Course Reader.

The essay may cover any three consecutive periods from video lecture # ___ to # ___.

In your essay you have to describe how things were during the period chosen as the first; explain how and why they changed in the next two periods.

The essay has to be based on information contained in the textbook, the video lectures, and the reader.

On the last page of the essay should be a bibliography of the sources used.

Use parenthetical citations for the essay. This meant that you have to put the name of your source and the page number in parenthesis after the cited sentence or short paragraph.


Women played an important role in the monastic missionary movement and the conversion of the Germanic kingdoms. (Spielvogel, 139).

The dowry was an important part of marriage arrangements during the Renaissance and in Alberti’s opinion it was better to be “certain and prompt rather than large, vague, or promised for an indefinite future”. (Reader, Alberti, 150.

The Industrial Revolution had a strong impact on family life – divorce rates rose steadily, birthrates declined but at the same time a new ideology about the family was created. (Stern, Video Lecture No. 8).

2. Essay Exam

Please answer one of the following questions. (Two questions are provided from which to choose).

The examination is an essay exam. This type of exam allows you to do your very best writing because it is expected that you will have the time to think about the question, use notes taken for the video lectures and class discussion, and materials from the textbook and reader.

The goal of this kind of test is for you to demonstrate that you understand the question and are able to synthesize (or integrate) the information in a coherent and readable form.

Essay should have a paragraph that introduces your main points.

  • For example, if answering a question: “Why did Egyptian Civilization last so long?” you could begin by stating: “Historians have given three major reasons why Egyptian civilization lasted thousands of years. These reasons include…….”

The body of the essay details the reasons stated in the introduction.

The conclusion sums up earlier points.

Be sure to answer the question asked. These essays call for specific information but NOT a laundry list of everything possible and remotely connected with the topic.

Re-read the essay for grammar and spelling.

Type and double-space the essay.

Due in class (hard-copy only, do not send as an e-mail attachment) on _________.

If short quotes or paraphrases are used, please cite the source (page from text or reader or video).

The essay should be between 4-6 pages in length.

3. Short Writing Assignment

Clearly state and then sustain a strong central argument throughout each answer. In addition to information presented in class, also incorporate information from the textbook, course reader, and reserve readings as evidence to support your argument.

When referring to these assigned readings please provide adequate citations in your paper such as [Spence, p. 405] or [Ebrey, "Peasants in the Cities," p. 489], but paraphrase or summarize as much as possible and avoid long quotations.

A few short quotations may be appropriate and effective.

Each essay should be approximately 5 pages in length, double-spaced, and typed using regular font (12 point) and margins (1 inch on all sides).

Paginate (number) and staple each essay before handing it in.

Instructor will read no more than 6 pages for each essay (12 pages total).

Answers will be graded on the basis of: (1) the degree to which they demonstrate an understanding of information presented in class and in assigned readings; and (2) the thoughtfulness, persuasiveness and clarity of their arguments.

back to top