Writing Effective Exam Questions

Exams can be effective ways for measuring student learning.  Before implementing an exam, it would be useful to explore the range of question types and to align questions with unit-level and course-level student learning outcomes.  In this blog post, I describe a few common types of questions, and I provides suggestions for writing effective exam questions.

Align Exam Questions to Outcomes

Exams are assessment tools that generate data about student learning.  This data is useful when it is effectively aligned to a program, course, or unit outcome. Align each question in terms of content and skill level:

  • Content. If the program, course, or unit outcome identifies a content area, align the exam question to that content. For example, if the course outcome says “Students will demonstrate knowledge of the U.S. Bill of Rights,” then a question should ask about these amendments.
  • Skill-Level. Align exam questions with the skill level identified in the program, course, or unit outcome. For example, if the course outcome says “Students will analyze data,” a multiple choice question that asks students only to recall a definition and select the correct term does not measure “analysis” skills. Instead, the question may need to present data in a table or chart and ask students about that data; for example, “which blood pressure measurement demonstrates hypertension?”

Be aware that some question types may not be the best way to measure an outcome.  Higher-level skills such as problem solving or comparison-contrast may be measured more effectively in open-ended questions instead of multiple choice. In general, use the question type that will most effectively measure the knowledge or skill you want to assess; don’t use a question simply because it is easy to write or easy to score.

Common Question Types

One of the first things to decide when writing an exam is whether to use objective exam questions or free response / open-ended questions. Here is a list of the most common types of questions for each category:

Objective Exam Questions

Objective questions are frequently used to measure content knowledge and basic-level application skills. The answer is typically listed with the question, so the student has to select the correct answer. Objective questions can be tested before implementation to ensure they are impartial and effective. Questions can be answered and scored quickly, so exams can contain several questions without exhausting the exam taker or exam grader.

  • Multiple Choice – Contain a question and four or five answer choices; the student has to select the correct answer. Questions can have one or more correct answer, and the scoring can assign partial credit.  (Here are several example Multiple Choice questions from the GRE.)
  • True-False – Contain a statement, and students determine if it is accurate or not. (Here are several example True-False questions.)
  • Matching – Often used for vocabulary, theories, principles; students connect terms with definitions.  (The first section of this quiz includes sample Matching questions.)
  • Ordering or Ranking – Students put items in a sequence. These are useful for process explanations, such as Nursing clinical procedures, scientific processes, or any activity that requires a series of actions. These questions can also be written as short response questions.  (Here is an example of Ordering or Ranking questions that ask students both to select the correct order and to assign a number in a process.)

Free Response / Essay Style Questions

Free response questions are open-ended and allow students to express their ideas in writing. They can be used to measure content knowledge and application skills or higher-level skills such as analysis, problem solving, comparison-contrast, synthesis of ideas, and argumentation. Depending on the question, responses can range from one word to several pages. Since these questions can require long and complex answers, and require more effort to grade, exams usually include only a few of these questions.

  • Fill-in-the Blank – These questions are often written as a statement and omit an important term or phrase. They can be written as multiple choice or refer to a word bank, or students can be asked to generate their own answers.
  • Short Answer – These questions ask students to explain a concept, define a term, or list components; they may also analyze data (such as a clinical chart or lab results) and make a conclusion or recommendation. Students earn points by identifying key ideas, writing an accurate definition, explaining a concept, describing a process, generating a list, creating a sequence, etc.
  • Short Essay – These questions measure higher-level skills such as comparison of concepts, problem solving, or argumentation; consequently, the question requires a developed response (usually a long paragraph or a full multi-paragraph essay). Answers earn credit for both accurate information and complex explanation.
  • Problem Solving – These questions measure application skills. They are common in math and science courses, where students are asked to perform a calculation, solve an equation, analyze data, etc.
  • Hot Spot – These questions ask students to identify the correct portion of an image. Traditionally, these questions have asked students to identify the correct state on a map, the correct bone in a skeleton, or the correct part of a plant cell. These questions can be written as multiple choice (with labels for answer options).  New academic technology is allowing students to answer these questions by clicking their mouse pointer in the correct area.

Writing Effective Multiple Choice Questions

In many disciplines, multiple choice questions are the most common type. They are versatile (can be written in several different ways), and they can be answered and scored quickly. Electronic exam platforms (including Canvas) can also generate student performance data about each question and answer choice. If you write your own questions, model questions on your discipline’s licensing exam (if there is one), and become familiar with these best practices for question writing:

  • Ask a question rather than writing an incomplete statement.
  • Make the question specific by describing a specific situation and using accurate terms.
  • Avoid excessive wordiness; only include the information that’s required to answer the question.
  • Avoid unnecessary negatives.
  • Make all incorrect answer choices equally appealing; otherwise, the 25% chance of selecting the correct answer turns into 50/50. Write answer choices of the same length, same style, same complexity, etc.
  • Use electronic platforms to re-arrange the sequence of questions and answer choices, and vary exam questions from semester to semester.

These are a few common exam questions.  For more information about course-level assessment, click on the Assessment tag below, or contact the Dean for Teaching & Learning Outcomes.

Which question types do you like to use in your courses?  Feel free to post a comment below.

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