Essay Exams: Beyond Knowledge and Recall of Factual Information

Presented by Amy Wilson-Delfosse, PhD and Klara Papp, PhD on March 24, 2016 at 12:00 pm

A firmly held belief in medical education is that assessment drives learning. Students generally learn what they need to learn to succeed on required assessments. As part of our curriculum redesign a decade ago at Case Western Reserve University SOM, we switched from almost exclusively multiple-choice to open-ended essay type questions. The switch occurred after vigorous debate. The leadership believed that constructed response-type questions promoted more desirable study methods and required conceptual organization and synthesis of information on the students’ part more so than multiple choice. This shift was supported by our faculty. During this webinar, we will review our experience with open-ended assessments as well as the lessons learned using open-ended essay type questions for the assignment of student grades during Foundations of Medicine and Health. We will share a sampling of our faculty’s comments and insights regarding the assessment of student performance using open-ended essay type questions. We will explore evidence behind the commonly held view that open-ended items require that students both search for and retrieve information whereas multiple choice test items require only that students recognize and pick the correct answer out from among a list of incorrect choices (ironically enough, called distractors), i.e., that different assessment formats place different cognitive demands on students.

Seminar Archive

Presenter Bios

AmyW-DAmy L. Wilson-Delfosse, PhD is the Associate Dean for Curriculum at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine and is the immediate Past-President of the International Association of Medical Science Educators. She is published in the fields of pharmacology education, team-based learning and integration of basic science and clinical medicine. She also has particular interest in the identification of strategies to optimize learning within the context of problem-based learning teams. The American Association of Medical Colleges recognized Dr. Wilson-Delfosse’s accomplishments in medical education with the Alpha Omega Alpha Robert J. Glaser Distinguished Teacher Award in 2012.


KlaraPappKlara K. Papp, PhD, is Professor and Director of the Center for the Advancement of Medical Learning at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio, USA. The Center supports students and faculty in their efforts to pursue excellence in learning, teaching, and educational scholarship. Dr. Papp completed her PhD in Educational Psychology at the State University of New York at Buffalo. She provides expertise in educational testing and measurement which includes the construction and interpretation of performance-based measures of student performance, including multiple choice tests, essay examinations, behavior checklist rating scales, and patient-based clinical skills exams. She is working with a small and dedicated team of faculty on designing assessments for the curriculum redesign at CWRU that aligns educational goals, instructional methods, and assessments.