Writing Good Test Questions

It’s important to make certain that your learners have grasped the knowledge, skills, and abilities being presented in your training program. The most direct way to accomplish this is with a quiz or test. Unfortunately, if the test is flawed, you might not get an accurate picture of how much (or how little) your learners have benefited from the training.

Using the Right Testing Method

If you want your learners to simply recall the information being presented in class, then a simple multiple choice or true/false exam may be sufficient. However, if you need your learners to go beyond mere recall, then you would be better served by a short-answer or essay exam. While multiple choice questions are easier to grade, they can’t truly assess how students think through a problem or use the appropriate language when responding to a question. Also, good multiple choice questions can be surprisingly difficult to write.

Writing Good Multiple Choice Questions

Here are a few quick tips on preparing multiple choice exam questions:

  • Use simple sentences, and precise wording. Don’t use words that weren’t covered in the training class.
  • Put most of the words in the stem of the question. Keep the alternatives (also known as distracters) short and to the point. Also, make sure that the “wrong” answer choices seem plausible. If the only answer that seems reasonable is the right answer, it isn’t much of a test.
  • Most students have learned that the right answer is frequently the longest or most qualified one. Avoid this trap by making all the alternatives about the same length.
  • Design questions that emphasize the most important points of the class. Resist the temptation to write test items that pull from obscure information (e.g., the description of a diagram, or a footnote).
  • Avoid double negatives. In fact, avoid negatives altogether if possible.
  • Put the correct answers in random positions. For example, don’t put all the correct answers in only the “a” and “b” positions.
  • Have a consistent number of answer options. Three possibilities is probably too few, and five options is difficult to write. The “sweet” spot seems to be four possible options.
  • Avoid using “all of the above” and “none of the above” in your test. While it may be tempting when you’re running out of plausible answer options, it can promote guessing and doesn’t let you know if the learner could actually identify the correct answer.

Testing the Test

The final step in test preparation is to have a colleague answer the test questions before you deliver them to your learners. Ask them if the questions were worded clearly, and if the level of difficulty was appropriate. Then you can use the test with greater confidence.