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Test Writing Strategies

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Objective or Subjective? Those are the Questions


Now that we have studied general test writing strategies, ideas, and tips, it is time to pull our focus inward to the details of the questions themselves.

In general, question types fall into two categories:

  1. Objective
  2. Subjective

I needed specific definitions for these, which I found here.


1. Objective, which require students to select the correct response from several alternatives or to supply a word or short phrase to answer a question or complete a statement.

Examples: multiple choice, true-false, matching, completion

2. Subjective or essay, which permit the student to organize and present an original answer

Examples: short-answer essay, extended-response essay, problem solving, performance test items

This source also suggests guidelines for choosing between them:

Essay tests are appropriate when:

  • The group to be tested is small and the test is not to be reused
  • You wish to encourage and reward the development of student skill in writing
  • You are more interested in exploring student attitudes than in measuring his/her achievement

Objective tests are appropriate when:

  • The group to be tested is large and the test may be reused.
  • Highly reliable scores must be obtained as efficiently as possible.
  • Impartiality of evaluation, fairness, and free from possible test scoring influences are essential.

Either essay or objective tests can be used to:

  • Measure almost any important educational achievement a written test can measure
  • Test understanding and ability to apply principles.
  • Test ability to think critically.
  • Test ability to solve problems.

And it continues with this bit of advice:

 The matching of learning objective expectations with certain item types provides a high degree of test validity:  testing what is supposed to be tested.

  • Demonstrate or show: performance test items
  • Explain or describe: essay test items

I wanted to see what different sources would say, so I also found this one.


If you want the student to compare and contrast an issue taught during a history lesson, open ended questions may be the best option to evaluate the student’s understanding of the subject matter.

If you are seeking to measure the student’s reasoning skills, analysis skills, or general comprehension of a subject matter, consider selecting primarily multiple choice questions.

Or, for a varied approach, utilize a combination of all available test question types so that you can appeal to the learning strengths of any student on the exam.

Take into consideration both the objectives of the test and the overall time available for taking and scoring your tests when selecting the best format.

I am not sure that “multiple choice” should be the primary choice but I understand they are suggesting to avoid open-ended questions if you want to measure reasoning or analytic skills or general comprehension.

This bothers me a little.  It seems to me, from reviewing the previous posts in this blog, that an open-ended question could measure those skills.  The example that comes to mind is the question I had in botany about describing the cell types a pin might encounter when passing through a plant stem.  That was an essay question measuring general comprehension of plant tissues.

The following source brings up good points about analyzing the results.  It also notes that objective tests, when “constructed imaginatively,” can test at higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy.


Objective tests are especially well suited to certain types of tasks. Because questions can be designed to be answered quickly, they allow lecturers to test students on a wide range of material. … Additionally, statistical analysis on the performance of individual students, cohorts and questions is possible.

The capacity of objective tests to assess a wide range of learning is often underestimated. Objective tests are very good at examining recall of facts, knowledge and application of terms, and questions that require short text or numerical responses. But a common worry is that objective tests cannot assess learning beyond basic comprehension.

However, questions that are constructed imaginatively can challenge students and test higher learning levels. For example, students can be presented with case studies or a collection of data (such as a set of medical symptoms) and be asked to provide an analysis by answering a series of questions…

Problem solving can also be assessed with the right type of questions. …

A further worry is that objective tests result in inflated scores due to guessing. However, the effects of guessing can be eliminated through a combination of question design and scoring techniques. With the right number of questions and distracters, distortion through guessing becomes largely irrelevant. Alternatively, guessing can be encouraged and measured if this is thought to be a desirable skill.

There are, however, limits to what objective tests can assess. They cannot, for example, test the competence to communicate, the skill of constructing arguments or the ability to offer original responses. Tests must be carefully constructed in order to avoid the decontextualisation of knowledge (Paxton 1998) and it is wise to use objective testing as only one of a variety of assessment methods within a module. However, in times of growing student numbers and decreasing resources, objective testing can offer a viable addition to the range of assessment types available to a teacher or lecturer.

I like their point about how objective tests cannot test competence to communicate, construct arguments, or offer original answers.  Training our students to take only multiple choice tests (or simply answer “true” or “false”) does not help them to learn how to explain their thoughts or even ensure that they can write coherent sentences.

This is addressed by the second source and in previous posts.  The suggestion is to use a variety of test item types.  This can give you a better picture of what your students know, whereas using one single type can be biased against students who are not strong respondents to that type.

18 comments on “Objective or Subjective? Those are the Questions

  1. Alfeus Shilongo on

    I have read through this educative blog but my concerns is analytic mathematic questions can they be categorized as objective or subjective?

    • Tracy L Johnston on

      Hi Alfeus,

      Good question. I think the categorization is dependent on the wording of the question. I see it as the wording directing the answer, so when I see the question, I would consider the way a person taking the test might approach it, if they are following directions.

      For example, in trigonometry, a question like “Prove this identity” is pretty open-ended. Proving identities means showing how one trig statement can be modified mathematically into another. Students can approach the same problem differently, which means I, as grader, have to be willing to read what they wrote and accept any valid process. I can’t just expect them to do it the way I envisioned when I put the problem on the test. This makes it subjective. I have to judge their choices.

      But if I modify the question to something like “Prove this identity using the difference of squares”, then I have narrowed down their choices considerably and it is reasonable for me to expect the problem to be worked a certain way or ways. This makes it more objective.

      I hope that answers your question.

  2. Tracy L Johnston on

    Hi Everyone,

    I thank you for your comments and apologize for not responding sooner. That is the downside of being on sabbatical… (It was great!) I will attempt to address everyone’s questions individually.


  3. Tracy L Johnston on

    Hi Pathfinder,

    I can tell you what helped me fit my essay responses into the exam time. I learned to quickly organize my essay in basic outline form, writing in the margin of my paper. As I got experienced, I could do that outline in my head, which saved some time. Then I learned to write compact sentences, saying what I needed to say without a lot of words. Make each sentence work for you in presenting what you want to say. Avoid verbal fillers! This made my essays shorter and to the point.

    Good luck, and I apologize for the loooooooooong delay in response.


  4. Tracy L Johnston on

    Hi Larry,

    Typically objective questions are those with set answers. For example, “Name the classification of triangles based on side lengths.” The person grading sees the answer and knows if it is right or wrong.

    In contrast, subjective questions depend on the grader’s opinion of the answer. Often rubrics are useful for grading these, so both the test-taker and the grader know what is important to include in the answer.

    — Tracy

  5. Tracy L Johnston on

    Hi Creative!

    I answered this on Pathfinder’s post. Please review that and let me know if you still have questions. Thanks for your patience. : )


  6. data sgp hari ini on

    I blog frequently and I truly thank you for your information. This great article has truly peaked my interest.
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  7. Island Dreams on

    I appreciated your comments on question types and how you shared the information. In my experience, the questions you choose to use rely on many variables, so understanding your purpose is a great place to start. I was pleased to see that you called out the need to establish the purpose of your assessment before you begin writing questions. Creating assessments can be a balancing act of sorts and both types of questions can provide what you need for gathering data and assessing knowledge and skills, though it may require some creativity along the way.

  8. eustass on

    thank you for sharing this, it will really help me in my reporting soon. but I have this concern which I’m not really sure. would objective and subjective questions integrate in a single type of test?


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