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Constructing tests

Whether you use low-stakes assessments, such as practice quizzes, or high-stakes assessments, such as midterms and finals, the careful design of your tests and quizzes can provide you with better information on what and how much students have learned, as well as whether they are able to apply what they have learned.

On this page, you can explore strategies for:

Designing your test or quiz
Creating multiple choice questions
Creating essay and short answer questions
Helping students succeed on your test/quiz
Promoting academic integrity
Assessing your assessment

Designing your test or quiz

Tests and quizzes can help instructors work toward a number of different goals. For example, a frequent cadence of quizzes can help motivate students, give you insight into students’ progress, and identify aspects of the course you might need to adjust.

Understanding what you want to accomplish with the test or quiz will help guide your  decisionmaking about things like length, format, level of detail expected from students, and the time frame for providing feedback to the students.
Regardless of what type of test or quiz you develop, it is good to:

  • Align your test/quiz with your course learning outcomes and objectives. For example, if your course goals focus primarily on building students’ synthesis skills, make sure your test or quiz asks students to demonstrate their ability to connect concepts.
  • Design questions that allow students to demonstrate their level of learning. To determine which concepts you might need to reinforce, create questions that give you insight into a student’s level of competency. For example, if you want students to understand a 4-step process, develop questions that show you which of the steps they grasp and which they need more help understanding.
  • Develop questions that map to what you have explored and discussed in class. If you are using publisher-provided question banks or assessment tools, be sure to review and select questions carefully to ensure alignment with what students have encountered in class or in your assignments.
  • Incorporate Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles into your test or quiz design. UDL embraces a commitment to offering students multiple means of demonstrating their understanding. Consider offering practice tests/quizzes and creating tests/quizzes with different types of questions (e.g., multiple choice, written, diagram-based). Also, offer options in the test/quiz itself. For example, give students a choice of questions to answer or let them choose between writing or speaking their essay response. Valuing different communication modes helps create an inclusive environment that supports all students.

Creating multiple choice questions

While it is not advisable to rely solely on multiple choice questions to gauge student learning, they are often necessary in large-enrollment courses. And multiple choice questions can add value to any course by providing instructors with quick insight into whether students have a basic understanding of key information. They are also a great way to incorporate more formative assessment into your teaching.

Creating effective multiple choice questions can be difficult, especially if you want students to go beyond simply recalling information. But it is possible to develop multiple choice questions that require higher-order thinking. Here are some strategies for writing effective multiple choice questions:

  • Design questions that ask students to evaluate information (e.g., use an example, case study, or real-world dataset).
  • Make sure the answer options are consistent in length and detail. If the correct answer is noticeably different, students may end up choosing the right answer for the wrong reasons.
  • Design questions focused on your learning goals. Avoid writing “gotcha” questions – the goal is not to trip students up, but to assess their learning and progress toward your learning outcomes.
  • Test drive your questions with a colleague or teaching assistant to determine if your intention is clear.

Creating essay and short answer questions

Essay and short answer questions that require students to compose written responses of several sentences or paragraphs offer instructors insights into students’ ability to reason, synthesize, and evaluate information. Here are some strategies for writing effective essay questions:

  • Signal the type of thinking you expect students to demonstrate. Use specific words and phrases (e.g., identify, compare, critique) that guide students to how to go about responding to the question.
  • Write questions that can be reasonably answered in the time allotted. Consider offering students some guideposts on how much effort they should give to a question (e.g., “Write no more than 2 short paragraphs” or “Each short answer question is worth 20 points/10% of the test”).
  • Share your grading criteria before the test or quiz. Rubrics are a great way to help students prepare for an essay- or short answer-based test.

Strategies for grading essay and short answer questions

Although essay and short paragraph questions are more labor-intensive to grade than multiple-choice questions, the pay-off is often greater – they provide more insight into students’ critical thinking skills. Here are some strategies to help streamline the essay/short answer grading process:

  • Develop a rubric to keep you focused on your core criteria for success. Identify the point value/percentage associated with each criterion to streamline scoring.
  • Grade all student responses to the same question before moving to the next question. For example, if your test has two essay questions, grade all essay #1 responses first. Then grade all essay #2 responses. This promotes grading equity and may provide a more holistic view of how the class as a whole answered each question.
  • Focus on assessing students’ ideas and arguments. Few people write beautifully in a timed test. Unless it is key to your learning outcomes, don’t grade on grammar or polish.

Helping students succeed

While important in university settings, tests aren’t commonly found outside classroom settings. Think about your own work – how often are you expected to sit down, turn over a sheet of paper, and demonstrate the isolated skill or understanding listed on the paper in less than an hour? Sound stressful? It is! And sometimes that stress can be compounded by students’ lives beyond the classroom.

“Giving a traditional test feels fair from the vantage point of an instructor….The students take it at the same time and work in the same room. But their lives outside the test spill into it. Some students might have to find child care to take an evening exam. Others…have ADHD and are under additional stress in a traditional testing environment. So test conditions can be inequitable. They are also artificial: People are rarely required to solve problems under similar pressure, without outside resources, after they graduate. They rarely have to wait for a professor to grade them to understand their own performance.” “What fixing a snowblower taught one professor about teachingChronicle of Higher Education

Many students understandably experience stress, anxiety, and apprehension about taking tests and that can affect their performance. Here are some strategies for reducing stress in testing environments:

  • Set expectations. In your syllabus and on the first day of class, share your course learning outcomes and clearly define what constitutes cheating. As the quarter progresses, talk with students about the focus, time, location, and format of each test or quiz.
  • Provide study questions or low-/no-stakes practice tests that scaffold to the actual test. Practice questions should ask students to engage in the same kind of thinking you will be assessing on the actual test or quiz.
  • Co-create questions with your students. Ask students (individually or in small groups) to develop and answer potential test questions. Collect these and use them to create the questions for the actual test.
  • Develop relevant tests/quiz questions that assess skills and knowledge you explored during lecture or discussion.
  • Share examples of successful answers and provide explanations of why those answers were successful.

Promoting academic integrity

The primary goal of a test or quiz is to provide insight into a student’s understanding or ability. If a student cheats, the instructor has no opportunity to assess learning and help the student grow. There are a variety of strategies instructors can employ to create a culture of academic integrity. Here are a few specifically related to developing tests and quizzes:

  • Avoid high-stakes tests. High-stakes tests (e.g., a test worth more than 25% of the course grade) make it hard for a student to rebound from a mistake. If students worry that a disastrous exam will make it impossible to pass the course, they are more likely to cheat. Opt for assessments that provides students opportunities to grow and rebound from missteps (e.g., more low- or no-stakes assignments).
  • Require students to reference specific materials or assignments in their answers. Asking students to draw on specific materials in their answers makes it harder for students to copy/paste answers from other sources.
  • Require students to explain or justify their answers. If it isn’t feasible to do this during the test, consider developing a post-test assignment that asks learners to justify their test answers. Instructors need not spend a lot of time grading these; just spot check them to get a sense of whether learners are thinking for themselves.
  • Prompt students to apply their learning through questions built around discrete scenarios, real-world problems, or unique datasets.
  • Use question banks and randomize questions when building your quiz or test.
  • Include a certification question. Ask students to acknowledge their academic integrity responsibilities at the beginning of a quiz/exam with a question like this one: “The work I submit is my own work. I will not consult with, discuss the contents of this quiz/test with, or show the quiz/test to anyone else, including other students. I understand that doing so is a violation of UW’s academic integrity policy and may subject me to disciplinary action, including suspension and dismissal.”
  • Allow learners to work together. Ask learners to collaborate to answer quiz/exam questions. By helping each other, learners engage with the course’s content and develop valuable collaboration skills.

Assessing your assessment

Observation and iteration are key parts of a reflective teaching practice. Take time after you’ve graded a test or quiz to examine its effectiveness and identify ways to improve it. Start by asking yourself some basic questions:

  • Did the test/quiz assess what I wanted it to assess? Based on students’ performance on your questions, are you confident that students grasp the concepts and skills you designed the test/quiz to measure?
  • Did the test align with my course goals and learning objectives? Does student performance indicate that they have made progress toward your learning goals? If not, you may need to revise your questions.
  • Were there particular questions that many students missed? If so, reconsider how you’ve worded the question or examine whether the question asked students about something you didn’t discuss (or didn’t discuss enough) in class.
  • Were students able to finish the test or quiz in the time allotted? If not, reconsider the number and difficulty of your questions.