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Palomar College Learning For Success

Test Writing Strategies

Opportunities to Improve Our Educational Approach

Test Goals — Thinking About the Strategies


When considering “What am I testing?”, I agree with this web page’s statement:


In general, test items should

Assess achievement of instructional objectives

Measure important aspects of the subject (concepts and

conceptual relations)

Accurately reflect the emphasis placed on important
aspects of instruction

Measure an appropriate level of student knowledge

Vary in levels of difficulty

But my reaction is to laugh because it is easy to make this list.  What do you have to do to implement it?

In beginning to construct a test, I should at least acknowledge the instructional objectives.  I might even make a written list, depending on the time I have available.  I ask myself:

  • What do I want the students to get out of each section and chapter?
  • What are the big-picture goals, the skills, the vocabulary, the concepts?
  • What are the common mistakes previous students have made?
  • Is there any information I want to foreshadow?
  • What have I brought to their attention in lecture of what to do or what not to do?

The words, “measure important aspects of the subject,” make me wary.  I think it is easy to interpret them as “only focus on the most important aspects” which means I should not test at all on anything else.

What I do think it means is “avoid testing on minor facts”, which opens the field up to a great many topics as well as encourages us to think deeply about what is and is not important.  For example, in a history class you might learn that Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865.  Is it important that you know it was April 14?  Maybe not.  But April 14 of this year is the 150th anniversary of that event and that might make it important.  In any other year it might be enough to know it happened in 1865.

I find it challenging to determine “an appropriate level of student knowledge.”  This really deals with how long the test should be compared to how much time I have to give it and how well I feel the students are learning the material.  I measure how long it takes me to write up the solutions and divide that into the test time, and am happy if the answer achieves certain values depending on the class.  This generally works well although sometimes I am surprised by the students’ reaction. How do you determine the length?

I address the variation in difficulty by thinking about which questions are easily answered, which take a “usual” amount of work and thinking, and then I throw in one or two “A-B breakers.”  These are the questions that will separate the students who have really learned the material from those who are somewhat prepared or not prepared at all.  They might require a little more conceptual thinking or a slight stretch on the skills or knowledge students should have already attained.

The strategies I use are helpful for writing a test in my discipline.  Other strategies might be appropriate for other disciplines.  Feel free to write about them in the comments section.

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