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How to Write Effective Test Items

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0

Tests are everywhere. Schools use them. Professional associations use them. Training programs use them. Why then, with all the experience in creating them, do so many tests contain items that don’t make any sense? This article will help you create better, more effective tests.

Know Your Purpose

Tests are created for a reason. Knowing the purpose of the test makes the job of creating it easier. Some tests are created to allow people to test their own knowledge. Others are created to provide objective evidence of a person’s knowledge and skills. Still, other tests are created for pure entertainment value.

The purpose of a test has a direct impact on the types of questions you create, and the rigor you use to create it. Basically, the more someone’s livelihood depends upon their passing the test, the more carefully it needs to be created.

One Size Does Not Fit All

Tests are written for specific audiences – from people new to the topic, to experts in the field. Knowing the level of knowledge of your audience enables you to create proper test questions.

Look at the following example question about driving a car and ask yourself, “How much knowledge do you need to answer the question?”

What is the coefficient of friction on wet asphalt for new all weather tires?

If you are like me, your natural answer to the question would be “What?”

I’m sure the tire engineers at Bridgestone can answer this one. I’m not sure students in a driver’s education course can. But, why would you ever ask driver’s education students this question? The students in the driver’s education course will find the following question better suited to their level of driving knowledge.

What is the approximate braking distance, on wet asphalt, needed for a car travelling at 55 mph?

It is important for effective tests to contain questions that relate to the knowledge of the test takers. The examples above are good questions, if they are presented to the correct audience.

Basic Tips to Make Your Questions More Effective

In addtion to keeping the test purpose in mind, writing better questions is important too. Here are some specific tips to help you write more effective questions.

  1. Create questions that have all the information needed to answer the question immediately. When test takers have to make assumptions, even the knowledgeable ones will make the wrong assumptions sometimes. In the braking distance question above, providing the road conditions and surface type makes it possible to answer the question confidently. Without that information in the question the test taker must make an assumption about the road conditions and surface type. The question becomes difficult to answer because the answers are different for different conditions and surface types.
  2. Avoid using misleading information in the question. Unnecessary information in a question often causes knowledgeable people to get the answer wrong. It doesn’t affect people who were guessing at the answer in the first place. For example, consider the braking distance question if it was changed to say, “…, on wet asphalt during a full moon, …” The addition of the full moon information doesn’t change the answer that you are expecting from the test taker. The extra information makes the question harder to read, and may confuse some test takers.
  3. If you are writing a multiple choice question make sure there is only one correct choice based on the information provided in the question.  If the word wet is removed from the braking distance question above there are at least two possible correct answers – the distances required on wet or dry asphalt. If both distances are in the list of choices, the test taker can’t know which answer that they are supposed to select is.

Making it Right

The final tip for making your tests more effective is testing the questions on people who you know have the right level of knowledge to pass your test. This suggestion is easy to understand, but more difficult to do. Ideally, you are looking for people who only know as much about the subject as your test takers, but can pass the test and provide constructive feedback on your questions. People who know more than your test audience will often say your questions are too easy. People who don’t have enough knowledge will tell you that the questions are too hard. Finding the right people to preview your test can make the final version very effective.



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