4 Tips for Creating Exam Questions

students working on computers in computer lab

Creating exam questions that give students an opportunity for success while, at the same time, quickly assessing what a student knows, is challenging. There are many factors that educators must consider when designing any assessment and, in particular, a traditional style exam. It is important to consider your exam questions from many angles, including how you write and structure the questions and possible student answers along with any misconceptions they may reveal. 

In addition to considering the exam questions and test structure itself, it is also critical to understand who your learners are and what their skill and ability levels are. Do you have a classroom of language learners, students on IEPs, or gifted students? If so your test questions need to be designed in a manner that assesses the competency that you are hoping to assess rather than language or other factors. While this certainly is a challenge, there are many strategies and tips for creating exam questions that are student-friendly and assess the exact learning targets that the teacher wants to measure. 

The importance of creating assessments that are valid, reliable, and purposefully designed.

Creating exam questions and assessments that are both valid and reliable is the first step in using student data in a meaningful way. A valid assessment is an exam or assignment that measures what you are intending to measure, while reliability means that students score similarly on the test no matter how many times they take it. Ensuring exam validity and reliability requires educators to purposefully design each question. 

The goal is never to trick students but to assess what they know and while this can be challenging to do, there are a few tips for creating exam questions that will help ensure that your assessment is testing what you are intending to assess. 

Determine the Goal and Objectives of the Assessment 

Purposeful design starts by asking what you want students to know, and what are your goals and objectives for your students. From there, teachers can use backward design principles to create exam questions that target specific objectives. By keeping the overall objectives and concepts in mind educators can weed out questions that may be irrelevant or confusing for students. 

Also, by creating exam questions that are aligned with the learning goals and objectives within your class it makes it much easier for you to analyze and deconstruct data. This is especially true in today’s world where online platforms give educators the ability to tie objectives to curriculum outcomes for deep data dives and student progress tracking at the click of a button using metadata. All of this means that educators have a lot of power when it comes to data analysis making it even more important to ensure that exam questions are tied to the overall goals and objectives of the class. 

Include Clear Instructions

A big aspect of creating great exam questions is to ensure that students know exactly what it is they need to accomplish to demonstrate success. In general, this means leaving nothing to chance and, for performance-based or non-traditional assessments, giving students exemplars and clear success criteria so that nothing gets lost in the shuffle. 

Providing poor or no instructions to students means that students can and will interpret what they need to do on their own. This can lead to issues around reliability and validity as students come to their conclusions regarding how to complete the exam. 

Consider Reliability and Validity

A test is only as good as the questions that are in it. By looking over each test item’s validity and reliability, educators ensure that students are being measured fairly and equitably and the data that the educator pulls from is useful in the end. When considering reliability and validity there are a few key components to think about when creating an exam including: 

  • Content validity — know what you want to measure and ensure the test doesn’t stray from this. Don’t throw in random test items, everything on the assessment should be something that ties directly to your learning goals and objectives.  
  • Criteria validity — assesses how well your test measures the content. In addition to looking at the actual items, educators need to decide how to grade and measure each item. 
  • Construct validity — check that the test is measuring the right content or if it is measuring something else; A high level of construct validity means that the exam is a good representation of what students do and do not understand, extraneous factors such as reading ability or language background are minimized. 
  • Reliability — make sure the test is replicable and can achieve consistent results if the same group or person were to test again within a short period.

Conduct an Item Analysis After Testing 

When the test is complete, the teacher’s job is just beginning. The instructor should take a look at student responses and analyze the student response data. During this time they should be looking for trends in the data, items that students consistently got correct items that students consistently got incorrect. 

For the incorrect items, educators should being to think about why so many students go a particular question wrong. Was it due to a conceptual understanding issue, or was the question perhaps worded in a way that impacted the question’s validity? In other words, did each test item truly assess what you hoped they would assess? Or were there other factors at play? This process is all part of the cycle to creating valid, high-quality exam content, and the best part for teachers is that at the end of an assessment the high-quality content can remain for next year’s students and you can continue to improve the exam. 

 Ensuring that questions are reliable and valid, and connecting questions to overarching learning objectives allow educators to confidently say where each student in their class is at in regards to meeting the standards. 

While this may all seem like a lot of extra work, there are online tools available to help educators develop high-quality exam questions and leverage large pools of student data to better evaluate student progress and learning outcomes. For more information on how an online platform like Open Assessment Technologies can empower your educators, click here


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