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Examinations and quizzes

Most new faculty members concentrate their classroom efforts on supplying their students with knowledge; they tend to give less care and effort to the construction of examinations and quizzes.  In order to be fair, serve as an indication of how much a student has learned, and a reflection of the importance of certain course content areas, your examinations and quizzes should be a reflection of your course objectives and teaching methods.  You should select your testing methods and create your tests as carefully as you do your research methods.

How do you choose your testing format?  Here are different types of test formats, their purpose, and some drawbacks.

Test Format

Best for/Benefits:



  1. Higher level thinking skills, such as application or analysis
  2. Smaller classes


  1. Time consuming to grade
  2. Need to establish correct answer and criteria for grading beforehand

Multiple choice

  1. Information to be recalled or recognized
  2. Can be written to involve problem-solving and higher level thinking-skills
  3. Ease of grading – useful in large classes
  4. Automated scoring methods can help determine reliability and validity of test items
  1. Writing questions for higher-level thinking skills requires effort


Fill in the blank or short answer

  1. Information to be recalled or recognized
  1. Useful only for low-level cognitive tasks


  1. Information to be recalled or recognized
  2. Ease of grading – useful in large classes
  1. Useful only for low-level cognitive tasks


Writing Good Tests

Tests should reflect the student’s ability with the material – what they have learned – rather than their ability to guess what the instructor wants. Tests should be written with clear, straightforward language keeping in mind the course objectives, teaching methods, and level of the students.  Students should not encounter language, content or skills not represented in the course.

Tests should also provide clear directions at the beginning and every time the type of question changes.  For example, if you want students to provide an essay that takes up only one-half page, tell them so in the directions.  If the multiple choice questions have only one answer, tell them to provide the “one best answer.”  If you use a Scantron sheet and accept only answers on that Scantron sheet, tell them so.

Provide point values for each question. It helps students organize in case they run out of time.  It also gives them an indication of the importance of the question and how detailed their answer should be.

Consider placing the easiest questions at the beginning and end of the test.  In this way, student confidence is increased and test anxiety is reduced.

Check your rough draft to assure the course content and objectives have been covered to a degree equal to their importance and time spent with learning activities.  A grid or checklist is helpful to keep you organized.

Once you have finished writing, have an experienced colleague review your test.

Take the test yourself.  It should take you about one-fourth the time it takes your students.

The answer to a question should not depend on the answer to a previous question.  In this situation, the student is doubly-penalized for one wrong answer.

Other considerations

What will your workload be in creating and correcting the test? Will you have help grading?  The answer to these questions will help you select the type and length of the test.

In order to avoid bias in essay or short answer questions, try these hints:

  • Make sure you have established the acceptable answers and grading criteria before you grade. Keep the acceptable answers close at hand while grading.
  • Rather than grading one test at a time, try grading one question at a time.  In this way, you can be more consistent.
  • Blind yourself to whose test you are grading.  Have the students write their names only on a cover sheet and fold the cover sheet over.  Alternatively, you can have the students write their names on the back of the test.

Review the test or quiz with the students?  Reviewing the test can help a student learn, if you structure the review carefully.  You can review simply by stating the correct answer and why the answer is correct.  Better yet, pick a few questions and have the students problem-solve the answer.  No matter how you review the test, make sure you have a ‘challenge policy.’

Challenge policy.  Having a formal system by which students can challenge a question or answer will help you proceed through a test review and help the student learn.  Make sure your challenge policy is in your syllabus or, at least, students have access to the policy before the test.

Make up tests?  Students who come in late?  These decisions will have to be yours. Whatever your decision, students must be treated fairly and equally.  What you decide for one situation must be carried through for another student in a similar situation.


Need more information?

  • Davis, B. G. (1993). Tools for teaching.   San Francisco : Jossey-Bass Publishers.
  • Jacobs, L. C. How to write better tests: A handbook for improving test construction skills. Retrieved from
  • McKeachie, W. J., & Svinicki, M.  (2005).  McKeachie’s teaching tips : strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers (12th ed.).  Boston:  Houghton Mifflin Company.
  • Suskie, L. (2004). Assessing student learning: A common sense guide. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing.
  • Stanford University. (2007). Teaching at Stanford. Retrieved on August 8, 2008 from: http://ctl.stanford.edu/handbook.pdf


Virginia Commonwealth University  |  Center for Teaching Excellence
Last updated: 06/20/2013
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