Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Creating Exams

How can you design fair, yet challenging, exams that accurately gauge student learning? Here are some general guidelines. There are also many resources, in print and on the web, that offer strategies for designing particular kinds of exams, such as multiple-choice.

Choose appropriate item types for your objectives.

Should you assign essay questions on your exams? Problem sets? Multiple-choice questions? It depends on your learning objectives. For example, if you want students to articulate or justify an economic argument, then multiple-choice questions are a poor choice because they do not require students to articulate anything. However, multiple-choice questions (if well-constructed) might effectively assess students’ ability to recognize a logical economic argument or to distinguish it from an illogical one. If your goal is for students to match technical terms to their definitions, essay questions may not be as efficient a means of assessment as a simple matching task. There is no single best type of exam question: the important thing is that the questions reflect your learning objectives.

Highlight how the exam aligns with course objectives.

Identify which course objectives the exam addresses (e.g., “This exam assesses your ability to use sociological terminology appropriately, and to apply the principles we have learned in the course to date”). This helps students see how the components of the course align, reassures them about their ability to perform well (assuming they have done the required work), and activates relevant experiences and knowledge from earlier in the course.

Write instructions that are clear, explicit, and unambiguous.

Make sure that students know exactly what you want them to do. Be more explicit about your expectations than you may think is necessary. Otherwise, students may make assumptions that run them into trouble. For example, they may assume – perhaps based on experiences in another course – that an in-class exam is open book or that they can collaborate with classmates on a take-home exam, which you may not allow. Preferably, you should articulate these expectations to students before they take the exam as well as in the exam instructions. You also might want to explain in your instructions how fully you want students to answer questions (for example, to specify if you want answers to be written in paragraphs or bullet points or if you want students to show all steps in problem-solving.)

Write instructions that preview the exam.

Students’ test-taking skills may not be very effective, leading them to use their time poorly during an exam. Instructions can prepare students for what they are about to be asked by previewing the format of the exam, including question type and point value (e.g., there will be 10 multiple-choice questions, each worth two points, and two essay questions, each worth 15 points). This helps students use their time more effectively during the exam.

Word questions clearly and simply.

Avoid complex and convoluted sentence constructions, double negatives, and idiomatic language that may be difficult for students, especially international students, to understand. Also, in multiple-choice questions, avoid using absolutes such as “never” or “always,” which can lead to confusion.

Enlist a colleague or TA to read through your exam.

Sometimes instructions or questions that seem perfectly clear to you are not as clear as you believe. Thus, it can be a good idea to ask a colleague or TA to read through (or even take) your exam to make sure everything is clear and unambiguous.

Think about how long it will take students to complete the exam.

When students are under time pressure, they may make mistakes that have nothing to do with the extent of their learning. Thus, unless your goal is to assess how students perform under time pressure, it is important to design exams that can be reasonably completed in the time allotted. One way to determine how long an exam will take students to complete is to take it yourself and allow students triple the time it took you – or reduce the length or difficulty of the exam.

Consider the point value of different question types.

The point value you ascribe to different questions should be in line with their difficulty, as well as the length of time they are likely to take and the importance of the skills they assess. It is not always easy when you are an expert in the field to determine how difficult a question will be for students, so ask yourself: How many subskills are involved? Have students answered questions like this before, or will this be new to them? Are there common traps or misconceptions that students may fall into when answering this question? Needless to say, difficult and complex question types should be assigned higher point values than easier, simpler question types. Similarly, questions that assess pivotal knowledge and skills should be given higher point values than questions that assess less critical knowledge.

Think ahead to how you will score students’ work.

When assigning point values, it is useful to think ahead to how you will score students’ answers. Will you give partial credit if a student gets some elements of an answer right? If so, you might want to break the desired answer into components and decide how many points you would give a student for correctly answering each. Thinking this through in advance can make it considerably easier to assign partial credit when you do the actual grading. For example, if a short answer question involves four discrete components, assigning a point value that is divisible by four makes grading easier.

Creating objective test questions

Creating objective test questions – such as multiple-choice questions – can be difficult, but here are some general rules to remember that complement the strategies in the previous section.

  • Write objective test questions so that there is one and only one best answer.
  • Word questions clearly and simply, avoiding double negatives, idiomatic language, and absolutes such as “never” or “always.”
  • Test only a single idea in each item.
  • Make sure wrong answers (distractors) are plausible.
  • Incorporate common student errors as distractors.
  • Make sure the position of the correct answer (e.g., A, B, C, D) varies randomly from item to item.
  • Include from three to five options for each item.
  • Make sure the length of response items is roughly the same for each question.
  • Keep the length of response items short.
  • Make sure there are no grammatical clues to the correct answer (e.g., the use of “a” or “an” can tip the test-taker off to an answer beginning with a vowel or consonant).
  • Format the exam so that response options are indented and in column form.
  • In multiple choice questions, use positive phrasing in the stem, avoiding words like “not” and “except.” If this is unavoidable, highlight the negative words (e.g., “Which of the following is NOT an example of…?”).
  • Avoid overlapping alternatives.
  • Avoid using “All of the above” and “None of the above” in responses. (In the case of “All of the above,” students only need to know that two of the options are correct to answer the question. Conversely, students only need to eliminate one response to eliminate “All of the above” as an answer. Similarly, when “None of the above” is used as the correct answer choice, it tests students’ ability to detect incorrect answers, but not whether they know the correct answer.)

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