Writing Effective Essay Prompts

How much do we think about the way our essay prompts affect our students? In the following, we will look at Laura Aull’s research combining rhetorical genre studies and the more linguistically-oriented approach of English for academic purposes to gain new insight to the cues we may unwittingly embed in assignments.


In “Linguistic Attention in Rhetorical Genre Studies and First Year Writing,” Laura Aull examines the effects of different question types on student writing. Aull compared essay responses among first-year writing students to essay prompts with writing by more experienced students and published academics from the Corpus of Contemporary American English. According to her findings, first-year writing students may have more in common with one another as a cohort than with more experienced students, but their rhetorical choices are directly influenced by cues including in essay writing prompts. Essay prompts that specifically request evidence from source texts were more likely to include more citations and less references to personal experience. Conversely, prompts that invited personal experience led to essays based more strongly on student opinions even if source evidence was also requested. Furthermore, Aull noticed that open-ended questions that request textual evidence seemed to make room for responses based more on the personal experience or opinions of the students. She clarifies that the personal experiences of the students are important to critical inquiry, but that without assistance in transitioning from the rhetorical situation of high school to college essay writing, students will struggle with entering academic discourse communities. There may seem to be overlap between uses of first-person pronouns among entering college students and academic writers, but Aull notes a striking difference. The language used by published academics tend to suggest that their personal views are alongside and entering into dialogue with other evidence, while the language used by first-year writers tends to present narratives rather than integrating them into the existing discourse community.
Essay Genres

By knowing the specific linguistic tendencies that essay prompts elicit, educators can design assignments and lesson plans that specifically target student needs, whether personal narrative or entering into academic discourse (see infographic). Aull’s findings place both essay prompt genres and student writing on a continuum from high school essays through early college writing to more advanced academic writing produced by experienced students and published academics.

Pedagogical Application

Aull’s research has direct relevance for course development and essay prompt writing, but I wonder if it could be used more directly in the rhet-comp classroom. I think the findings on student responses to sample prompts can be used to help students think more rhetorically through a few related writing exercises. Develop or adopt two essay prompts. The first essay prompt should include language that calls for direct experience as evidence and an argument based on the student’s personal views. The second essay prompt should provide source materials and call for evidence based on the sources. Space the essays out in whatever way makes most sense for the design of the course. When the essays are due, begin with a freewriting prompt as an opener where students compare and contrast their experience of the two essays. For discussion, have students share from their final essay. Possible discussion points could include, which essay seemed more natural to write and what did they think were the expectations of each prompt. Perhaps note student answer on the board to model how different views are brought together during research. From here transition with a context set to a mini-lecture on the different registers of academic writing and personal narrative, using the students’ own insights from the discussion. End with an activity looking at essay prompts and sample essays to solidify ways to successfully use personal views in academic writing.

Discussion Questions

  1. Aull’s findings suggest that open-ended prompts elicit personal statements from students rather than evidence from source texts. Freire’s problem-posing education emphasizes “profound trust in people and their creative power.” Using evidence from both texts, support and/or challenge Freire’s pedagogy.
  2. How can we word prompts (or present them in the classroom) in ways that prepare students to enter academic discourse communities while still respecting, as Freire puts it, the “existential experience of the students?”
  3. What is your reaction to the above questions? How would you approach them? Which would you rather answer? Why?

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