Test Construction

by Cassie Morton

Constructing Effective Exams

Barbara Gross Davis, in Tools for Teaching, offers the following suggestions for constructing effective exams:
  1. Prepare new exams each time you teach a course.  A past exam may not reflect changes you have made in the course or topics you have emphasized.
  2. Make up test items throughout the term. Don't wait until the last minute. Consider writing test questions at the end of each class session and putting them on index cards or computer files for later sorting.
  3. Ask students to submit questions. Faculty who use this technique limit the number of questions from each student. You can adapt or select students' test items for the exam.
  4. Cull items from colleague's exams.  Ask colleagues at other institutions for copies of their exams. Be careful about using questions from colleague's at your own campus.
  5. Consider making your tests cumulative.  These require students to review materials throughout the course, reforcing what they have already learned. They give students a chance to integrate and synthesize course material.
  6. Prepare clear instructions.  Test your instructions by asking a colleague to read them.
  7. Include some words of advice and encouragement on the exam. For example, offer a hint at the beginning of an essay question or give them advice on how much time to spend on each section.
  8. Put some easy items first. Place several questions all your students can answer near the beginning of the examAnswering easy questions at first helps students overcome some of their nervousness and anxiety.
  9. Challenge your best students. Place at least one very difficult question near or at the end.
  10. Try out the timing. No purpose is served by creating an exam that is too long for even well-prepared students to review and finish.
  11. Give some thought to the layout of the test. Use margins and line spacing that make the test easy to read. If items are worth different numbers of points, indicate the point value next to each item. Group similar types of items together, such as multiple-choice or short answer questions. Keep in mind that the space you leave for short answer questions determines the length of answer expected of the students.

She offers the following suggestions for writing effective test questions:

1.  State the question clearly and precisely.  Avoid vague questions that lead students to different interpretations.

Poor: Name the principles that determined postwar American foreign policy.
Better: Describe three principles on which American foreign policy was based between 1945 and 1960; illustrate each of the principles with two actions of the executive branch of government.

Poor:  Why does an internal combustion engine work?
Better: Explain the functions of fuel, carburetor, distributor, and the operation of the cylinder's components in making an internal combustion engine run.

2.  Consider the layout of the question.  If you want students to consider certain aspects or issues in developing their answers, set them out in a separate paragraph.

3.  Write out the correct answer yourself. Use your version to help you revise the questions, and to estimate the amount of time students will need to complete their tests.

4.  Decide on guidelines for full and partial credit..

5.  Create a scoring guide and share this with students (see section on rubrics)

Specific Types of Tests

  Essay and Short Answer

writing symbolStudies have shown that students study more efficiently for essay-type examinations than objective ones. They require the students to demonstrate organized thinking and allow you much more latitude to return comments and valuable feedback. At least one of these questions should be on your examinations.
Do not use essay questions to evaluate understanding that could be tested with multiple-choice questions. Save these for higher-level thinking. Examples of essay questions would be:
Identify the similarities and differences between…
Explain why you agree or disagree with the following….
What are the major causes of….
Describe a situation that illustrates the principle of…
Assess the strengths and weaknesses of…
(See "Tests and Testing" for the section on verbs for test questions related to Bloom's Taxonomy for a more thorough description of essay question prompts.)
Don't give students a choice of questions to answer because your test data may not be valid. Some questions may be harder than others.clock
In a fifty minute class, you may be able to ask three essay questions or ten short-answer questions.


  Multiple choice and True/False

ABCD imageIt is unlikely that higher education classes can measure all their learning objectives with multiple choice exams. Most of our community colleges have SCANTRON machines that quickly scan in the scores of multiple choice tests making grading quite rapid. Remember that good multiple-choice items are difficult to construct, and probably are not advisable unless they will be administered to several hundred students.   Wilbert McKeachie, (1999, p.92-93) has some excellent tips for constructing multiple choice items.

  1. Be careful in using the multiple choice items that come with instructor's manuals. You need to assess what students have learned in class as well as what they have read.
  2. Consider asking the students to submit questions. This gives the instructor a good index of what students are getting out of the course, and gives you a chance to remind them of the goals of the course.
  3. Use only as many alternatives as make meaningful discriminations.
  4. Grouping items under headings will improve student performance.

How many questions should I use?

McKeachie suggests allowing one minute per item for multiple-choice, two minutes per short-answer questions, ten to fifteen minutes for limited essay questions, and half an hour or more for a broader question.