Writing Test Questions

See the article below about choosing the right kind of assessment tool including a good checklist for instructors when looking at their assessments. The other article is an analysis of current research about how we write test questions and what are best practices.

There are two main types of test questions, defined response questions and constructed response questions. Defined response questions include true-false, matching, and multiple-choice questions. Constructed response questions include short-answer, essay, and oral examinations.

True-false questions seem easy to write but since most statements are not absolutely true or absolutely false, it can be difficult to write completely unambiguous true-false examinations. True-false questions tend to emphasize recall of isolated facts and often cannot be used to test higher level learning. The same is true for matching questions. Multiple-choice questions are the most common testing format and, if well constructed, can be used to test higher order learning. Some students will excel at multiple-choice examinations not because they have a great depth of knowledge but because they are good at finding clues in how assessments are written. Instructors always should strive to ensure assessments are permitting students to demonstrate the level of learning described in the course learning objectives. Here is a brief review of things to think about when writing multiple-choice questions.

Multiple choice questions (MCQs) are written with a stem and several possible answers, or foils. The following are basic rules of MCQ construction:

  • Put the central idea in the stem and do not repeat it in the foils 
  • Avoid negative construction in the stem (“Which of the following is not correct…”) 
  • Use proper grammar and ensure the correct foil is not obvious because of grammar clues 
  • Do not use the terms “always” or “never” in foils 
  • Place foils in logical or numerical order 
  • Make sure foils are parallel with respect to grammatical structure, length, and complexity 
  • Use “none of the above” with caution; do not use “all of the above” as a foil 
  • Three foils is the best number, based on research evaluating number of plausible foils 
  • To write plausible foils, consider most common student misconceptions or create a short answer question one year and use student responses to create foils for the next year 
  • Do not worry excessively about distribution of answers; research suggests that students pay no attention to pattern of answers as a test-taking technique 
  • Use humor sparingly 
Constructed response questions may more easily be used to test higher order learning. Short-answer questions do not provide students with clues but may be ambiguous and often must be hand-graded, as it is difficult to provide the computer with all appropriate synonyms. The item must be written so a single, brief answer is possible and should be concise statement to avoid unintentionally cuing the student to a response. If a numerical response is expected, provide the student with the expected degree of precision and the units (for example, "Normal gestation length from ovulation in the bitch is _____ (days)."
Essay questions are very well suited for assessment of higher order learning, at the levels of synthesis and analysis. They are the most difficult to grade consistently; creation of a detailed rubric may aid the instructor and any assistants who may be grading the question. Questions should be formulated to make the expected response clear - for example, "Describe pregnancy in the queen" is a bad essay question, while a much better question would be, "Describe diagnosis and nutritional management of pregnancy in the queen."
Oral examinations are rarely used in the veterinary curriculum because they are time-consuming for the instructor, can be a source of huge amounts of anxiety for students, and are difficult to grade consistently. For some students, oral examinations provide an opportunity to describe their understanding of material in ways they cannot readily articulate or physically produce in a written format. Ability of students to think on their feet and communication skills also can be assessed during an oral examination.