Writing Good Exam Questions

Writing good exam questions is a challenging and time-consuming task for instructors.  Our teaching conversation today began with examples of exam questions and quickly moved to a broader discussion of the use of exams in undergraduate courses, how to approach exams, the strengths/weaknesses of exams within a broader set of assessments and how exams can better support student learning. While someone said “I don’t believe in grades, grading hinders learning” others jumped on the chance to explain the necessity of grading students in this context. While we agreed that exams must be efficient, we also acknowledged that not all exam questions assess learning.

Questions for Critical Thinking

Nicole shared her experience with mid-term and final exams in her large undergraduate courses.  Exams for Nicole can assist students to stay on top of their readings, can provide the structure to help students to study and can be a way for instructors to see if students are “listening” and “learning”.  She described using a comic followed by questions to provoke students’ critical thinking – what a good idea but, marking these open-ended questions is really time consuming. It’s also hard for the TA’s to mark these questions.

Short-Answer Questions for Displaying Knowledge

Margo asked us to think about the “ideal situation” and how the oral exam for doctoral students is used to assist the student to display their knowledge, deeper thinking and conceptions. From many years of experience Margo has learned to use short answer questions as an efficient way to have undergraduates explain their ideas and display their knowledge in an exam context. She also incorporates some multiple choice for recall but she has found that questions involving matching and “fill in the blanks” are not as helpful for assessing students’ understanding of complex ideas.

Writing the 1-minute paper

To get students to think, examine, reflect upon and display areas where they may be having difficulty, ask these 4 questions:

  1. What did we cover today?
  2. What’s the most important point?
  3. What do you want to know more about?
  4. What’s the muddiest point?

Tips Generated in the Discussion:

  1. suggest an oral exam to undergraduates who miss a written exam and they’ll never miss another!
  2. use a variety of questions on an exam including short answer, multiple choice and matching to enhance variety and recall of information
  3. use automated cards to make it easier
  4. give an incorrect answer to students and ask them to correct it
  5. give students a “problem” and listen for those areas that they can’t explain
  6. use email sparingly especially in large classes – webct can be used for communicating with students on questions they have
  7. use a marker to grade other types of assignments
  8. use graded “home work” early in the term to help students to practice tasks that they will be assessed on in the exam
  9. use essays and questions that require longer answers invite students to think deeply
  10. ask students to “write a letter to a friend” inviting the students to explain what they are learning
  11. invite students to generate exam questions and use these as review
  12. use peers to mentor threaded discussions on webct and give grades to those who self-identify as peer mentors who do a good job
  13. use an exam that “integrates” from the beginning of the term. These are difficult but assist students to “pull everything together”.

For best results, it’s wise to develop an overall course assessment strategy that includes a variety of ways for students to practice what they are learning, get feedback at regular intervals and demonstrate their learning. 

How does the learning happen? How do we discriminate “levels of learning”?

What great questions! Our conversation turned to the larger question of learning and everyone agreed that “students must make the content their own”. Lectures are a big part of teaching and the pressure to cover content is high not to mention the “peer pressure” to use power point and this translates into a “talking head”. “I’m a tour guide during my lectures”. In order for students to learn they must write, draw, talk together and make sense of the materials. Increasingly we use pictures, video, overheads and even a tablet PC where one can draw and display the ideas. “My power points provide an outline that students can use to take notes”. So, we must be discerning in our use of technology in teaching.

Resources of Interest

Testing – Stanford Handbook for Instructors

Student Evaluation – test construction

Writing Exam Questions

Writing good multiple choice items (from tomorrow’s professor blog)