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Palomar College Learning For Success

Test Writing Strategies

Opportunities to Improve Our Educational Approach

General Tips About Test Design

Test. Keyboard

In the previous post (below) we asked, “Do you think about what you are testing and how you are assessing that information?” when it comes to test design.

This site,


provides some general tips:

General tips about testing

  • Length of test

The more items it has, the more reliable it is.  However, if a test is too long, the students may get tired and not respond accurately.  If a test needs to be lengthy, divide it into sections with different kinds of tasks.

  • Clear, concise instructions

It is useful to provide an example of a worked problem, which helps the student understand exactly what is necessary.

  • Mix it up!

It is often advantageous to mix types of items (multiple choice, true-false, essay) on a written exam.  Weaknesses connected with one kind of item or component or in students’ test taking skills will be minimized.

  • Test Early

Consider discounting the first test if the results are poor.  Students often need a practice test to understand the format each instructor uses and anticipate the best way to prepare and take particular tests.

  • Test frequently

Frequent testing helps students to avoid getting behind, provides instructors with multiple sources of information to use in computing the final course grade, and gives students regular feedback.

  • Check for accuracy

Instructors should be cautious about using tests written by others.  They should be checked for accuracy and appropriateness in the given course.

  • Proofread exams

Check them carefully for misspellings, misnumbering responses, and page collation.

  • One wrong answer

It is wise to avoid having separate items or tasks depend upon answers or skills required in previous items or tasks.

  • Special considerations

Anticipate special considerations that learning disabled students or non-native speakers may need.

  • A little humor

Using a little humor or placing less difficult items or tasks at the beginning of an exam can help reduce test anxiety and thus promote a more accurate demonstration of their progress.

My reaction to their advice is mixed.  I’m not sure I could provide good examples of worked problems on the test itself because I teach mathematics — working problems for the students defeats the purpose of the test.  However I can have the students get that knowledge before the exam by having them complete homework problems and emphasize that many of the test problems will utilize those skills and strategies.

I am able to “mix it up” sometimes, depending on the course and the material being covered.  When testing vocabulary in statistics, for example, sometimes I use multiple choice and sometimes I use fill-in-the-blank.

I am not fond of the idea of discounting the first test if it is poor.  I get around that by offering my students short quizzes on a regular basis — I write the problems and grade them so students get a feel for my writing style and notation expectations before the longer, high-stakes exams.  My goal for the quizzes is to have the cumulative points be similar to an exam but then that total is weighted less than an exam towards the overall grade.

In math it is difficult to completely avoid having separate items or tasks depend upon previous answers.  The dilemma is this:  Do I write a complicated problem and have the students recall all the steps I want?  Or do I walk them through the steps knowing the answer to one may be dependent on the answer of another?

I think humor is a wonderful addition to tests.  Whenever I can (i.e., there is room), I include a math-related cartoon on the last page.

Also, the phrase I have heard about placing less difficult items at the beginning of test is “establishing a pattern of success.”  Give the student who has prepared a chance to start off with a victory thus building confidence for the rest of the questions.

What do you think of the list?  Would you add to it?  Is there anything with which you disagree?

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