Writing effective and efficient exams is a crucial component of the teaching and learning process. Exams are a common approach to assess student learning and the results are useful in a variety of ways. Most often, results are used to provide students feedback on what they learned or evaluate the instructional effectiveness of a course.
Types of exam questions
There are generally two types of exam questions useful for measuring student learning each with there own sub-types:
- Multiple-choice questions ask students to select the correct response from one or more of the choices from a given list. [more]
- True-false questions are typically used to measure student’s ability to identify whether statements of fact are correct. [more]
- Matching questions consist of a column of key words and a column of options, and require students to match the options associated with a given key word(s). [more]
- Short answer questions direct students to supply the appropriate words, numbers, or symbols to answer a question or complete a statement. [more]
- Essay questions require students to demonstrate through writing his/her ability to a) recall knowledge, b) organize this knowledge, and c) present the knowledge in a logical, integrated answer. [more]
Suggested uses of exams:
- Measure student learning
- Provide a basis for assigning course grades
- Compare student performance
- Provide feedback to students about their learning
- Guide course content or instruction
Strengths of exams:
- Ability to measure simple and complex learning outcomes
- Scoring is easy and reliable
- Can cover a lot of material very efficiently
- Are easier to create than other question types
- Can effectively measure higher order cognitive learning
Limitations of exams:
- Writing good questions is time consuming
- Difficult to measure higher-order thinking skills
- Time consuming to score
- Difficult to measure a large amount of content or course learning objectives
A moderate level of knowledge about course learning objectives and constructing questions is required. You should also understand how to use and interpret item analysis procedures (and/or scoring rubrics) and have experience in using databases (for large classes).
Plan your exam
STEP 1. Describe the assessment context
Consider the course content, class resources, and how the instructional setting and larger educational context impact the course. Make sure to include the age, majors, educational background, motivation level, and skill levels of students.
STEP 2. Identify student needs and develop course learning objectives
Course learning objectives, shaped by what is most essential for students to know, your needs, and any instructional priorities, specify what you want students to learn from the course. For example, "The students will be able to demonstrate their knowledge of “Erikson’s Psychological Stages of Development by naming the eight stages in order and describing the psychological crises at each stage.” [more].
STEP 3. Determine the purpose of the exam
Use the course learning objectives to guide the content and purpose of your exam. Specify how your exam will help you gain insight, change course or instructional practices, or measure student learning. For instance, is the purpose of your exam to measure students’ performance on weekly assignments (low-stake quizzes) or is the purpose of the exam to measure students’ performance on midterm or final exams (high-stake exams)?
STEP 4. Determine how you will use the results
How the results will be applied are the underlying goals of your exam. Consider whether you intend to use results for a formative assessment, summative assessment, or an aid to improve future exams or instruction. Also, consider how much the exam score will count towards student course grades.
STEP 5. Create the exam
Choose between open-ended and fixed-choice questions.
Choosing between open-ended and fixed-choice questions will depend on your course learning objectives and the advantages/disadvantages of each type. [more]
Create a blueprint
An exam blueprint helps ensure that your exam is obtaining the desired coverage of course topics and course learning objectives. [more]
Write exam questions
A general guideline for writing any type of exam questions is to make sure each question is based on a learning objective of the course, not trivial information. [more]
DeVellis, R. F. (1991). Scale development: Theory and applications. Newbury Park: Sage Publications.
Gronlund, N. E. (1998). Assessment of student achievement. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Hellyer, S. (n.d.). A teaching handbook for university faculty. Chapter 3: essay tests. Retrieved October 1, 1998 from Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis Web site: http://www.iupui.edu/~profdev/handbook/chap3.html
Hellyer, S. (n.d.). A teaching handbook for university faculty. Chapter 9: Multiple-choice exams. Retrieved October 1, 1998 from Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis Web site: http://www.iupuiedu/~profdev/handbook/chap9.html
Improving your test questions . Retrieved July 21, 2006 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Office of Instructional Resources, Division of Measurement and Evaluation Web site: http://www.oir.uiuc.edu/dme/exams/ITQ.html
Jacobs, L. C. (2002). How to write better tests: A handbook for improving test construction skills. Retrieved July 21, 2006 from Indiana University Bloomington Evaluation Services & Testing Web site: http://www.indiana.edu/~best/write_better_tests.shtml
Jacobs, L.C. & Chase, C.I. (1992). Developing and using tests effectively: A guide for faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Kubiszyn, K., & Borich, G. (1984). Educational testing and measurement: Classroom application and practice. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman.
Marshall, J. C., & Hales, L. W. (1971). Classroom test construction. Reading MA: Addison-Wesley.
Nitko, A. J. (1996). Educational assessment of students, 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Sevenair. J. P., & Burkett, A. R. (1997). Item writing guidelines. Retrieved July 21, 2006 from the Xaviar University of Louisiana Web site: http://webusers.xula.edu/jsevenai/fixed-choice/guidelines.html
Suen, H. K. (1990). Principles of test theories. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Wiggins, G. (1998). Educative assessment: Designing assessments to inform and improve student performance. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers
Writing educational goals and objectives. (2001). Retrieved July 21, 2006 from the University of Mississippi School of Pharmacy Bureau of Pharmaceutical Services Web site: http://www.pharmd.org/thebureau/N.htm (page no longer available)
Writing multiple-choice questions that demand critical thinking. (2002). Retrieved July 21, 2006 from the University of Oregon Teaching Effectiveness Program Web site: http://tep.uoregon.edu/resources/assessment/multiplechoicequestions.mc4critthink.html