How to Write Good Test Questions

When preparing a test on any given subject matter, you are flooded with available test formats and test questions to select from. So, how do you write the best test questions for your students? The first step in creating a strong test for students is to choose the best test format for the cognitive ability or comprehension that you are seeking to evaluate. Then, you must create good test questions for the chosen test format for your students. By practicing the tips outlined below, you will be well positioned to create strong test questions for your classroom.

Choosing a Test Format

Before you begin to write test questions, you need to determine which type of test format you are going to utilize. The most common test formats include multiple choice questions, true or false questions, fill in the blank questions and open-ended questions. Choose the format that best measures the student's cognitive ability in the given subject matter.

For example, 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 test 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 an exam.

Another factor to consider when selecting a test format is how much time the students will have available to take the test and then also how long you will have to score them. For larger classrooms, essay format or open ended question format test questions will be more difficult to manage both the student's time and your own as you grade them. So, 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. Once you have selected the test format, you will need to write good test questions to utilize within the test structure.

Multiple Choice Questions

Multiple choice questions offer the most flexibility to the teacher as they can formulate a variety of test question structures. Multiple choice questions are a great way to test a student's comprehension level of a particular subject matter. But, they can often be the most difficult and time consuming for the teacher to construct. They comprise of a test question stem and several available options for the student to select from as their answer.

Here are some ideas to utilize when constructing multiple choice test questions:

  • Don't use excessive wording when creating the test question stem. Be clear and concise in your word and phrase choices.
  • Make sure that there is only one clearly correct answer from the options given to the student.
  • Provide between 3-5 plausible choices for the student to select from as their answer
  • Minimize the use of 'all of the above' or 'none of the above' question answers.
  • Randomly distribute the correct answer options i.e. A, B, C, D etc so that there is not a clear pattern that becomes obvious to the student
  • Be sure to use test questions that test knowledge, application, comprehension, analysis and evaluation throughout your test to get the best overall sense of the student's understanding and mastery of a subject matter

True or False Questions

True and false questions are best used when you are looking to test a student's recall ability of specific facts or knowledge. Keep the following tips in mind when creating true or false test questions:

  • Make sure that the answer is clear and that it could not be either or
  • Try not to use negative questions such as 'this novel was not written by...." but instead use 'this novel was written by...."
  • Use a random order of true and false responses with your test questions to avoid creating a pattern
  • Use more false questions than true questions as they have been proven to cater towards higher cognitive level students

Fill-in-the-Blank Questions

Fill in the blank questions require the student to know the correct answer rather than having the ability to guess from a list of possible answers. Here are some tips to consider when writing good fill in the blank test questions:

  • Ensure that there is only one possible correct answer to avoid confusion and difficulty grading
  • Blanks should come at the end or as close to the end of the question or statement as possible
  • Questions should recall important information taught within the lesson plans

Open-Ended Questions

Open ended or essay format questions are excellent for measuring higher level cognitive learning and overall comprehension of a subject. They allow the student to select content for their response, to organize their thoughts in a logical manner and to present their ideas on a given subject matter. Overall, these types of test questions allow the teacher to test the student's broader understanding of a subject matter. And, these types of questions are often more applicable to real life situations that the student may be presented with in the future.

When writing good open-ended questions, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Be sure that the test question clearly states the answer that you are seeking from the student. For example, 'discuss the recent election outcome' is a poor test question. But, worded as 'describe the potential positive and negative impacts that Barack Obama's recent election win for president could have on the US's economy' is a better test question as it clearly gives the student something to compare and contrast within a focused area, the US economy.
  • If you are requiring the student to prepare a longer essay (2-3 pages), include several questions that are intended to be in addition to the primary question for the student to respond to rather than only a single question to answer.
  • If you are looking to test comprehension, a good opening line for the test question is, 'Explain the following..."
  • If you are seeking to test the student's ability to analyze a concept, a good opening phrase for your test question is, 'compare and contrast....."
  • Don't give students the option to pick 2 or 3 questions from among 5. This can add confusion for the students and complexity for the teacher when grading for a classroom. How can you accurately compare students to each other when they have answered different test questions?

When creating good test questions, first be sure that you have selected the best format for what skills or concepts you are seeking to test for. Then, take your time to construct the best possible test questions using the tips mentioned above.