52 Writing Effective Exam Questions

Writing Effective Exam Questions

Procedural Principles: 

  • Use either the best answer or the correct answer format.
    • The best answer format refers to a list of options that can all be correct in the sense that each has an advantage, but one of them is the best.
    • Correct answer format refers to one and only one right answer.
  • Format the items vertically, not horizontally (i.e., list the choices vertically)
  • Allow time for editing and other types of item revisions.
  • Use good grammar, punctuation, and spelling consistently.
  • Minimize the time required to read each item.
  • Avoid trick items.
  • Use the active voice.
  • The ideal question will be answered by 60-65% of the tested population.
  • Have your questions peer-reviewed.
  • Avoid giving unintended cues – such as making the correct answer longer in length than the distractors.


Content-related Principles:

  • Base each item on an educational or instructional objective of the course, not trivial information.
    • Test for important or significant information.
    • Focus on a single problem or idea for each test item.
    • Keep the vocabulary consistent with the examinees’ level of understanding.
    • Avoid cueing one item with another; keep items independent of one another.
    • Use the author’s examples as a basis for developing your items.
    • Avoid overly specific knowledge when developing items.
    • Avoid textbook, verbatim phrasing when developing the items.
    • Avoid items based on opinions.
    • Use multiple-choice to measure higher-level thinking.
    • Be sensitive to cultural and gender issues.
    • Use case-based questions that use a common text to which a set of questions refers.
  • Stem Construction Rules:
    • State the stem in either question form or completion form.
    • When using a completion form, don’t leave a blank for completion in the beginning or middle of the stem.
    • Ensure that the directions in the stem are clear, and that wording lets the examinee know exactly what is being asked.
    • Avoid window dressing (excessive verbiage) in the stem.
    • Word the stem positively; avoid negative phrasing such as “not” or “except.” If this cannot be avoided, the negative words should always be highlighted by underlining or capitalization: Which of the following is NOT an example ……
    • Include the central idea and most of the phrasing in the stem.
    • Avoid giving clues such as linking the stem to the answer (…. Is an example of an: test-wise students will know the correct answer should start with a vowel)


General Option Development Rules: 

  • Place options in logical or numerical order.
  • Use letters in front of options rather than numbers; numerical answers in numbered items may be confusing to students.
  • Keep options independent; options should not be overlapping.
  • Keep all options homogeneous in content.
  • Keep the length of options fairly consistent.
  • Avoid, or use sparingly, the phrase all of the above.
  • Avoid, or use sparingly, the phrase none of the above.
  • Avoid the use of the phrase I don’t know.
  • Phrase options positively, not negatively.
  • Avoid distractors that can clue test-wise examinees; for example, absurd options, formal prompts, or semantic (overly specific or overly general) clues.
  • Avoid giving clues through the use of faulty grammatical construction.
  • Avoid specific determinants, such as never and always.
  • Position the correct option so that it appears about the same number of times in each possible position for a set of items.
  • Make sure that there is one and only one correct option.
  • Distractor (incorrect options) Development Rules:
    • Use plausible distractors.
    • Incorporate common errors of students in distractors.
    • Avoid technically phrased distractors.
    • Use familiar yet incorrect phrases as distractors.
    • Use true statements that do not correctly answer the item.
    • Avoid the use of humor when developing options.
    • Distractors that are not chosen by any examinees should be replaced.
  • Suggestions for Writing Good Multiple Choice Items:
    • Present practical or real-world situations to the students.
    • Present the student with a diagram of equipment and ask for an application, analysis, or evaluation.
    • Present actual quotations are taken from newspapers or other published sources and ask for the interpretation or evaluation of these quotations.
    • Use pictorial materials that require students to apply principles and concepts.
    • Use charts, tables, or figures that require interpretation.



Zimarro, David (2010). “Writing Good Multiple-Choice Exams.” Center for Teaching and Learning, the University of Texas at Austin. Downloaded 10.3.12 from http://ctl.utexas.edu/assets/Evaluation–Assessment/Writing-Good-Multiple-Choice-Exams-04-28-10.pdf.




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