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Palomar College Learning For Success

Test Writing Strategies

Opportunities to Improve Our Educational Approach

The Challenges to Writing a Good Test

Paying attention to the details

What sorts of challenges do we, as professors, face when writing an exam?  That was one question in my mind when I started reading the resources.  This site made a statement that really struck a chord with me:


In reality, most professors develop exams as best they can.

Few have any formal training in assessment (the field that focuses on how to accurately measure performance).

Although many professors spend most of their time teaching, most of us have no formal training in education whatsoever.

So we tend to write questions that sound good and make sense to us.

We try to minimize cheating by writing new exams every semester so we never have a chance to weed out bad questions and develop really good measurement instruments.

We often use the same types of tools used by our own professors to assess the skills and learning of our students instead of thinking about what would work best.

We often don’t think clearly enough about our course goals to accurately measure them.

And sometimes our questions are not clear enough so different students interpret them differently and we only recognize interpretations that match our own.

And all this happens despite our best efforts and all our hard work.

For better or for worse.

Some of us have an education background but many of us do not.  We mimic the test styles we liked in our experience and perhaps avoid the ones we disliked.  Certainly we formed opinions about our teachers and decided which we wanted to emulate when we taught.

I don’t see anything wrong with that but if we want to improve, we need to explore new ideas.

We can start by acknowledging the basic features of a good exam.

A test should be an accurate measure of student achievement.

Source: :

Problems that keep tests from being accurate measures of students’ achievement:

  • Too many questions measuring only knowledge of facts.
  • Too little feedback.
  • The questions are often ambiguous and unclear.
  • The tests are too short to provide an adequate sample of the body of content to be covered.
  • The number of exams is insufficient to provide a good sample of the students’ attainment of the knowledge and skills the course is trying to develop.

Source: :

Well-constructed tests:

  1. Motivate students and reinforce learning
  2. Enable teachers to assess the students’ mastery of course objectives
  3. Provide feedback on teaching, often showing what was or was not communicated clearly

What makes a test good or bad?  The most basic and obvious answer is that good tests measure what you want to measure and bad tests do not.

The whole point of testing is to encourage learning.  A good test is designed with items that are not easily guessed without proper studying.

Have you ever spent time studying your tests?  When designing them, do you think about what you are testing and how you are assessing that information?

Have you analyzed the responses students put on the test to see if they understood what you were asking?  Do you think about how the wording or design could be improved on future tests?

We will explore these in more detail in the next posts.

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