Explore potential strategies.
Exam questions or instructions are ambiguous or confusing.
Our knowledge and understanding is different from our students’ and questions that seem clear to us can seem vague, ambiguous or misleading to students. Words or phrases that have very particular meanings and usages in our fields may have different connotations for students from different majors or for students who have different levels of familiarity with the concepts and terms used in the field. Questions may also be confusing because they are culturally-biased, containing phrases, concepts or examples that are unfamiliar to particular groups of students due to their ethnicity, religion, gender, etc. When students have difficulty interpreting the questions or instructions due to ambiguity or bias, it can result in our assessing students’ abilities to decode our questions or examples or “guess” our intentions, instead of our assessing their knowledge and skills regarding the course material.
Ask your TA to sit down and read through the exam to identify potential points of ambiguity or lack of clarity. Have them tell you what they think the questions are asking, or if they are unsure. You can also have your TA take the test and then you can examine their answers to see if they interpreted the questions differently from how you intended or if their answers were missing components that you expected. Use the TA’s feedback to help you rewrite your questions so that what you want students to do is explicit and clearly articulated.
During the exam, allow students to ask questions for clarification and if the questions suggest ambiguity or bias, share your answers with the class. It is likely that if one student is confused by a question, other students are too, although they may not realize it. If you reuse questions across semesters, keep track of the ones that students found ambiguous or confusing so that you can revise them.
Tell students that if they are not clear about what a question is asking, they can rephrase the question or explain what they are answering (e.g., “I think this question is asking for …”) On multiple choice questions, allow students to explain why they are selecting a given response, or if they think multiple answers are correct, to explain why. Examining how students interpreted these questions can help you determine if the question was ambiguous or confusing, and if so, can provide insights into how to revise the question for the future.
After the exam, review the exam performance and re-examine questions on which many students performed poorly. If their answers are similar but wrong, see if you can determine if the errors were due to misinterpreting the question or not recognizing the requirements. If your best performing students performed poorly on certain questions, review their answers to help you determine if most of them had the same misinterpretation or wrong answer. This might be an indication of a particularly difficult item or it might be the result of a poorly constructed item. If the latter, you can remove these items from the total score so that you get a more accurate assessment of knowledge.
Read over your exam while keeping an eye out for questions that contain examples, scenarios, idioms, etc. that may be unfamiliar to particular groups of students. For example, contextualizing questions using American sports, public figures or idioms can confuse students from other cultures, generations, genders, etc. and make it difficult for them to reason and apply their knowledge effectively. (Cultural Variations pdf)
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