Charles Sturt University
Charles Sturt University

Designing exams

Examinations, or tests, can play an integral role in the assessment of a student's ability to demonstrate their knowledge and depth of understanding on any given topic during their course of study. Hence, it is essential that we design examination questions that are fair and valid, yet challenging.

Like other assessment tasks, examinations can be used to gauge both student learning and the efficacy of the learning process. So, we must ensure that the exam questions are constructively aligned with the intended learning outcomes in the subject. The primary aim with examination questions is to provide students with a platform to demonstrate their knowledge and their ability to apply the knowledge in a context relevant to the subject learning outcomes.

Key points to consider when preparing examinations

What kind of items (questions) are most often included in an examination?

  • Multiple choice questions
  • Short answer questions
  • Essay questions

What type of response is required in an examination?

A fixed response is an objective response where students select the correct response to a question, or supply a word or short phrase to answer a question or complete a statement. For example, multiple choice, true-false, matching or fill-in-the-blank questions.

A constructed response is a narrative that challenges students to create an original answer. For example: short answer, long answer, essay, or performance test items.

How do you choose the best structure and the kinds of items (questions) to include?

The verbs in the learning outcome can provide direction towards the choice of the question type. Some verbs such as identify, list, and select clearly indicate that students need to select the response. Verbs such as analyse, apply, compare, infer and predict indicate that students should construct a response.

If the subject learning outcome is expecting the student to be able to synthesise information; then multiple choice questions (MCQ) would not serve as an appropriate assessment tool. Instead, a long answer question with clarity and emphasis on the importance of the student’s ability to synthesis information should be given.

However, having MCQ as an assessment does not always mean that the questions are meant to evaluate lower order cognitive skills. MCQ type questions can be constructed to assess higher order cognitive skills like analyse, compare, judge etc.

To gain a greater understanding of potential student actions for different question types, you could review Bloom's or SOLO Taxonomy.

Additional resources

Constructing tests - University of Washington

Exam questions: Types, Characteristics and Suggestions - University of Waterloo

A Guide for Academics- Open Book Exams - University of Newcastle

Testing Guidelines - Stanford University

UQ Assessment Ideas Factory - University of Queensland