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Test Writing Strategies

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Alternative-Response Design: Structure and Advice

In the previous post we talked about the pros and cons of the alternative-response (e.g., true-false) types of questions as well as their application to Bloom’s Taxonomy.  Next we discuss aspects to consider when writing the questions.

I found this “Simple Guidelines” list helpful and informative.


  1. Base the item on a single idea.
  2. Write items that test an important idea
  3. Avoid lifting statements right from the textbook.
  4. Make the questions a brief as possible
  5. Write clearly true or clearly false statements.  Write them in pairs: one “true” and one “false” version and choose one to keep balance on the test.
  6. Eliminate giveaways:
    • Keep true and false statements approximately equal in length
    • Make half the statements true and half false.
    • Try to avoid such words as “all,” “always,” “never,” “only,” “nothing,” and “alone.” Students know these words usually signify false statements.
  7. Beware of words denoting indefinite degree.  The use of words like “more,” “less,” “important,” “unimportant,” “large,” “small,” “recent,” “old,” “tall,” “great,” and so on, can easily lead to ambiguity.
  8. State items positively.  Negative statements may be difficult to interpret.  This is especially true of statements using the double negative.  If a negative word, such as “not” or “never,” is used, be sure to underline or capitalize it.
  9. Beware of detectable answer patterns.  Students can pick out patterns such as (TTTTFFFF) which might be designed to make scoring easier.

All of this makes sense to me.  At first I objected to “Make half the statements true and half false” but when I thought about it, I wouldn’t do exactly half necessarily but maybe close to half.  In fact this source,,  suggests making the ratio more like 60% false to 40% true since students are more likely to guess the answer is true.

I found other points to add to the guidelines list.  (Source:

Two ideas can be included in a true-false statement if the purpose is to show cause and effect.

  • If a proposition expresses a relationship, such as cause and effect or premise and conclusion, present the correct part of the statement first and vary the truth or falsity of the second part.
  • When a true-false statement is an opinion, it should be attributed to someone in the statement.
  • Underlining or circling answers is preferable to having the student write them.
  • Make use of popular misconceptions/beliefs as false statements.
  • Write items so that the incorrect response is more plausible or attractive to those without the specialized knowledge being tested.
  • Avoid the use of unfamiliar vocabulary.
  • Determine that the questions are appropriately answered by “True” or “False” rather than by some other type of response, such as “Yes” or “No.”
  • Avoid the tendency to add details in true statements to make them more precise.  The answers should not be obvious to students who do not know the material.
  • Be sure to include directions that tell students how and where to mark their responses.

This same source gives you a nice tip for writing true-false items:

Write a set of true statements that cover the content, then convert approximately half of them to false statements.  State the false items positively, avoiding negatives or double negatives.

Most of this discussion has been about True-False questions but the category is really Alternative-Response.  Let’s look at the variations available to us.


  • The True-False-Correction Question
    In this variation, true-false statements are presented with a key word or brief phrase that is underlined.  It is not enough that a student correctly identify a statement as being false.  … the student must also supply the correct word or phrase which, when used to replace the underlined part of the statement, makes the statement a true one.This type of item is more thorough in determining whether students actually know the information that is presented in the false statements.

    The teacher decides what word/phrase can be changed in the sentence; if students were instructed only to make the statement a true statement, they would have the liberty of completely rewriting the statement so that the teacher might not be able to determine whether or not the student understood what was wrong with the original statement.

    If, however, the underlined word/phrase is one that can be changed to its opposite, it loses the advantage over the simpler true-false question because all the student has to know is that the statement is false and change is to is not.

  • The Yes-No Variation
    The student responds to each item by writing, circling or indicating yes-no rather than true-false.  An example follows:

What reasons are given by students for taking evening classes?  In the list below, circle Yes if that is one of the reasons given by students for enrolling in evening classes; circle No if that is not a reason given by students.

Yes   No   They are employed during the day.
Yes   No   They are working toward a degree.
Yes   No   They like going to school.
Yes   No   There are no good television shows to watch.
Yes   No   Parking is more plentiful at night.

  • The A-B Variation
    The example below shows a question for which the same two answers apply.  The answers are categories of content rather than true-false or yes-no.

Indicate whether each type of question below is a selection type or a supply type by circling A if it is a selection , B if it is supply.

Select     Supply
A      B            Multiple Choice
A      B            True-False
A      B            Essay
A      B            Matching
A      B            Short Answer

In summary, the sources all tend to agree that the best type of Alternative-Response items are those that are unambiguous (“true or false with respect to what?”), concisely written, covering one idea per question, and aimed at more than rote memorization.  We should avoid trick questions or questions that test on trivia.  And the best tests with A-R items have a lot of questions with a True-to-False ratio of 40:60.

Next test item type:  Matching!

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