Exams

Writing effective and efficient exams is a crucial component of the teaching and learning process. Exams are a common approach to measure student learning and provide a basis for assigning course goals. Most often, results are used to provide students feedback on what they learned or evaluate the instructional effectiveness of a course. 

STEP 1 Purpose and Scope

Examine your course learning outcomes to determine the exam’s purpose and scope. Consider what is most essential for students to know and be able to do with the course content covered to this point. 

The purpose of a first exam for your students could be to measure their learning over units 1 and 2, provide feedback to them about what they do and don’t understand yet, and counts towards 20 percent of their overall grade.  For you, the purpose could be to determine the effectiveness of instruction for units 1 and 2 to guide future changes of the course. 

STEP 2 Create an Exam Blueprint

An exam blueprint consists of a chart representing the number of questions you want in your exam within each unit/topic and for each learning outcome.  The blueprint helps ensure your exam covers the desired topics, skills, and at the appropriate cognitive level.  Some items to consider when developing a bluepring include:  

  • Match questions to intended outcomes at the proper difficulty level.
  • Ensure each question deals with an important aspect of the content and not with trivia.

The simplified example below breaks the exam down by topic and Bloom's Taxonomy, but you could exapnd upon this idea by using learning outcomes rather than topics.

After creating your blueprint, figure out the types of questions that will meet your needs and the points assigned for each question.

STEP 3 Select the Type of Exam Questions 

Choosing between open-ended and fixed-choice questions will depend on your learning outcomes and the strengths/limitations of each type.

Fixed-Choice

Fixed-choice questions require students to select the correct response from several alternatives; this includes multiple-choice, true/false, and matching questions. 

Strengths

  • Ability to measure simple and complex learning outcomes

  • Assess mastery of a variety of concepts within a single exam

  • Scoring is easy and reliable

  • Can cover a lot of material very efficiently

Limitations

  • Writing good questions is time consuming

  • Difficult to measure higher-order thinking skills

Open-ended

Open-ended questions require students to write and present an original answer; this includes short answer, essay, problem-solving, and performance tasks.

Strengths

  • Are easier to create than other question types

  • Can effectively measure higher order cognitive learning

Limitations

  • Time consuming to score

  • Difficult to measure a large amount of content or course learning objectives

STEP 4 Write Exam Questions

A general guideline for writing any type of exam questions is to make sure each question is based on a learning outcome of the course, not trivial information.  

  • Provide instructions that are unambiguous and explicit.
  • Avoid trick questions in an achievement exam. (Questions that require students to interpret your intentions).

After you finish writing your exam questions:

  • Ensure the question or problem posed is clear and unambiguous.
  • Verify each question is independent of all other questions (i.e., a hint to an answer should not be unintentionally embedded in another question).
  • Check fixed-choice questions have one correct or best answer on which experts would agree.
  • Prevent unintentionally giving clues to the answer within the statement or question (e.g., grammatical inconsistencies such as ‘a’ or ‘an’ give clues).
  • Avoid language and examples that are in the textbook or were covered in class.

STEP 5 Organize the Exam

On a exam with different question formats (e.g., multiple-choice and true-false), one should group all questions of similar format together.  Questions should follow an easy to difficult progression. Space the questions to eliminate overcrowding. Have diagrams and tables above the question using the information, not below.