Constructing Effective Exams
Davis, in Tools for Teaching, offers the following suggestions for constructing
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.
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
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.
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.
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
clear instructions. Test your instructions by asking a colleague
to read them.
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.
some easy items first. Place several questions all your students
can answer near the beginning of the exam. Answering easy
questions at first helps students overcome some of their nervousness
your best students. Place at least one very difficult question
near or at the end.
out the timing. No purpose is served by creating an exam that
is too long for even well-prepared students to review and finish.
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
She offers the following
suggestions for writing effective test questions:
the question clearly and precisely. Avoid vague questions that
lead students to different interpretations.
Poor: Name the
principles that determined postwar American foreign policy.
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?
Explain the functions of fuel, carburetor, distributor, and the
operation of the cylinder's components in making an internal combustion
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.
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.
on guidelines for full and partial credit..
a scoring guide and share this with students (see section on rubrics)
Specific Types of Tests
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.
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:
the similarities and differences between…
why you agree or disagree with the following….
What are the
major causes of….
a situation that illustrates the principle of…
the strengths and weaknesses of…
and Testing" for the section on verbs for test questions related
to Bloom's Taxonomy for a more thorough description of essay question
give students a choice of questions to answer because your test
data may not be valid. Some questions may be harder than others.
a fifty minute class, you may be able to ask three essay questions
or ten short-answer questions.
choice and True/False
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Use only as many alternatives
as make meaningful discriminations.
- Grouping items
under headings will improve student performance.
How many questions should
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.