15 Tips for Creating Exams

by Gina Merys, Assistant Director for Faculty and Graduate Student Development, Reinert Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning

In honor of the 15th anniversary of the Reinert Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning (CTTL), I would like to share “15 Tips for Creating Exams.”   When creating exams it is important to remember the purpose of exams is to assess or evaluate student learning.  Creating exams that carefully measure real learning rather than those that measure a student’s ability to take an exam is an important skill for instructors to practice.

All Exams

1. Align the type of exam (take-home, timed, multiple-choice, short answer, essay, etc.) with the learning objectives of the course.

Not all exam types can measure all types of learning.  For instance, if the objective is that students can perform a specific activity, they made need a demonstration exam rather than a multiple choice exam.

2. Create a variety of questions so that students engage both lower order and higher order thinking skills.

Use this chart for some beginning ideas for using Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning in exam questions.

3. Design questions that should be difficult for people who don’t know the material to answer, but that are straightforward for those who do know the material.

If a question is difficult because of complicated wording (e.g., double negatives) or vocabulary, you will be testing verbal ability rather than a command of the subject.

4. Give clear directions on how to take the various parts of the test, and identify the point value of the various items.

The directions to each part of an exam should tell students details about how to answer questions (there is only one correct answer for each of the following questions, write answers in complete sentences, etc.).  Additionally, the point value should not only be identified, but should also be aligned with the kind of answer expected.  For instance, a complicated essay question that requires a paragraph or more of writing will likely be worth more points than a brief short answer question that requires a few words or one sentence.

5. Guard against cultural, racial, ethnic, age and sexual bias. Items should not require presupposed knowledge which favors one group over another.

References to specific musicians, television shows, movies, or sports may introduce confusion or prejudice into an otherwise clear or unbiased question.

Multiple-Choice Exams

1. Present a clear and complete problem in the stem of the question, and state questions as questions rather than as incomplete thoughts.

For instance, the question stem,  “Who wrote the Declaration of Independence?” is much   clearer than “The Declaration of Independence was written by …”

2. Avoid using negative words.

It is generally suggested that negative words be avoided in the question stem to prevent confusion. If included, it is best if any negative word is capitalized and/or underlined, and bolded (e.g., Which of the following is NOT an item of mountain climbing gear?)

3. Balance the placement of the correct answer.

Rather than placing correct answers as the second or third option only, remember to use all the options equally.

4. Keep each alternative answer homogeneous in content.

Alternatives that are parallel in content help the question present a clear-cut problem more useful in measuring the attainment of a specific objective.

5. Keep the alternative answers similar in length.

An answer noticeably longer or shorter than the other is frequently assumed to be the answer, with good reason.

Short-Answer and Essay Exams

1.  Use specific course content.

Focus essay questions on specific course content. Make it clear what content and subject matter students should use in answering the question. (Generally, it is better to require students to use more specific content then broad or general content.)

2. Limit and narrow the possible correct responses.

Structure the question so that the range of acceptable responses is limited to a single correct answer or a narrow set of definite, clear-cut, and explicit answers.

3. Clearly state the thinking processes students are to use in writing their answers and require the students to use these thinking processes in a novel or previously un-encountered problem situation (e.g., compare, analyze, evaluate, etc.).

Instead of providing the exact problem found in the textbook, or discussed in class which would only measure a student’s ability to memorize a response, create a new problem, situation, or case in which you ask students to demonstrate specific thinking or methodology.

4. Avoid writing essay questions that require only factual knowledge.

There are other types of exam questions, such as multiple choice questions, that measure factual knowledge better and more efficiently.

5. Require students to answer all of the essay questions provided.

When students have an option of choosing to answer only some of the essay questions such as three of five, they are not all being assessed or evaluated over the same material.


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