Short Answer & Essay Tests
Strategies, Ideas, and Recommendations from the faculty Development Literature
- Do not use essay questions to evaluate understanding that could be tested with multiple-choice questions.
Save essay questions for testing higher levels of thought (application, synthesis, and evaluation), not recall facts. Appropriate tasks for essays include: Comparing: Identify the similarities and differences between
Relating cause and effect: What are the major causes of...? What would be the most likely effects of...?
Justifying: Explain why you agree or disagree with the following statement.
Generalizing: State a set of principles that can explain the following events.
Inferring: How would character X react to the following?
Creating: what would happen if...?
Applying: Describe a situation that illustrates the principle of.
Analyzing: Find and correct the reasoning errors in the following passage.
Evaluating: Assess the strengths and weaknesses of.
- Don't give students a choice of questions to answer.
There are three drawbacks to giving students a choice. First, some students will waste time trying to decide which questions to answer. Second, you will not know whether all students are equally knowledgeable about all the topics covered on the test. Third, since some questions are likely to be harder than others, the test could be unfair.
- Ask students to write more than one essay.
Tests that ask only one question are less valid and reliable than those with a wider sampling of test items. In a fifty-minute class period, you may be able to pose three essay questions or ten short answer questions.
- Give students advice on how to approach an essay or short-answer test.
To reduce students' anxiety and help them see that you want them to do their best, give them pointers on how to take an essay exam. For example:
- Survey the entire test quickly, noting the directions and estimating the importance and difficulty of each question. If ideas or answers come to mind, jot them down quickly.
- Outline each answer before you begin to write. Jot down notes on important points, arrange them in a pattern, and add specific details under each point.
Writing Effective Test Questions
- State the question clearly and precisely.
Avoid vague questions that could lead students to different interpretations. If you use the word "how" or "why" in an essay question, students will be better able to develop a clear thesis. As examples of essay and short-answer questions:
Poor: What are three types of market organization? In what ways are they different from one another?
Better: Define oligopoly. How does oligopoly differ from both perfect competition and monopoly in terms of number of firms, control over price, conditions of entry, cost structure, and long-term profitability?
Poor: Name the principles that determined postwar American foreign policy.
Better: Describe three principles on which American foreign policy was based between 1945 and 1960; illustrate each of the principles with two actions of the executive branch of government.
- Consider the layout of the question.
If you want students to consider certain aspects or issues in developing their answers, set them out in separate paragraph. Leave the questions on a line by itself.
- Write out the correct answer yourself.
Use your version to help you revise the question, as needed, and to estimate how much time students will need to complete the question. If you can answer the question in ten minutes, students will probably need twenty to thirty minutes. Use these estimates in determining the number of questions to ask on the exam. Give students advice on how much time to spend on each question.
- Decide on guidelines for full and partial credit.
Decide which specific facts or ideas a student must mention to earn full credit and how you will award partial credit. Below is an example of a holistic scoring rubric used to evaluate essays:
- Full credit-six points: The essay clearly states a position, provides support for the position, and raises a counterargument or objection and refutes it.
- Five points: The essay states a position, supports it, and raises a counterargument or objection and refutes it. The essay contains one or more of the following ragged edges: evidence is not uniformly persuasive, counterargument is not a serious threat to the position, some ideas seem out of place.
- Four points: The essay states a position and raises a counterargument, but neither is well developed. The objection or counterargument may lean toward the trivial. The essay also seems disorganized.
- Three points: The essay states a position, provides evidence supporting the position, and is well organized. However, the essay does not address possible objections or counterarguments. Thus, even though the essay may be better organized than the essay given four points, it should not receive more than three points.
- Two points: The essay states a position and provides some support but does not do it very well. Evidence is scanty, trivial, or general. The essay achieves it length largely through repetition of ideas and inclusion of irrelevant information.
- One point: The essay does not state the student's position on the issue. Instead, it restates the position presented in the question and summarizes evidence discussed in class or in the reading.
- Read the exams without looking at the students' names.
Try not to bias your grading by carrying over your perceptions about individual students. Some faculty ask students to put a number or pseudonym on the exam and to place that number / pseudonym on an index card that is turned in with the test, or have students write their names on the last page of the blue book or on the back of the test.
- Skim all exams quickly, without assigning any grades.
Before you begin grading, you will want an overview of the general level of performance and the range of students' responses.
- Choose examples of exams to serve as anchors or standards.
Identify exams that are excellent, good, adequate, and poor. Use these papers to refresh your memory of the standards by which you are grading and to ensure fairness over the period of time you spend grading.
- Grade each exam question by question rather than grading all questions for a single student.
Shuffle papers before scoring the next question to distribute your fatigue factor randomly. By randomly shuffling papers you also avoid ordering effects.
- Avoid judging exams on extraneous factors.
Don't let handwriting, use of pen or pencil, format (for example, many lists), or other such factors influence your judgment about the intellectual quality of the response.
- Write comments on students' exams.
Write brief notes on strengths and weaknesses to indicate what students have done well and where they need to improve. The process of writing comments also keeps your attention focused on the response. And your comments will refresh your memory if a student wants to talk to you about the exam.
- Strive to balance positive and critical comments.
Focus on the organization and flow of the response, not on whether you agree or disagree with the students' ideas. Experiences faculty note, however, that students tend not to read their returned final exams, so you probably do not need to comment extensively on those.
- Read only a modest number of exams at a time.
Most faculty tire after reading ten or so responses. Take short breaks to keep up your concentration. Also, try to set limits on how long to spend on each paper so that you maintain you energy level and do not get overwhelmed. However, research suggests that you read all responses to a single question in one sitting to avoid extraneous factors influencing your grading (for example, time of day, temperature, and so on).
- If you can, read some of the papers twice.
Wait two days or so and review a random set of exams without looking at the grades you assigned. Rereading helps you increase your reliability as a grader. If your two score differ, take the average.
- Place the grade on the last page of the exam.
This protects students' privacy when you return or they pick up their tests.
Returning Essay Exams
- Return exams promptly.
A quick turnaround reinforces learning and capitalizes on students' interest in the results. Try to return tests within a week or so.
- Review the exam in class.
Give students a copy of the scoring guide or grading criteria you used. Let students know what a good answer included and the most common errors the class made. If you wish, read an example of a good answer and contrast it with a poor answer you created. Give students information on the distribution of scores so they know where they stand.
- Use groups to discuss test questions.
Some faculty break the class into small groups to discuss answers to the test. Unresolved questions are brought up to the class as a whole.
- Get feedback from the class about the test.
Ask students to tell you what was particularly difficult or unexpected. Find out how they prepared for the exam and what they wish they had done differently. Pass along to next year's class tips on the specific skills and strategies this class found effective.
- Keep a file of essay questions.
Include a copy of the test with your annotations on ways to improve it, the mistakes students made in responding to various question, the distribution of students' performance, and comments that students made about the exam. If possible, keep copies of good and poor exams.
The Strategies, Ideas and Recommendations Here Come Primarily From:
Gross Davis, B. Tools for Teaching. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 1993.
McKeachie, W. J. Teaching Tips. (10th ed.) Lexington, Mass.: Heath, 2002.
Walvoord, B. E. and Johnson Anderson, V. Effective Grading. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 1998.
And These Additional Sources...
Brooks, P. Working in Subject A Courses. Berkeley: Subject A Program, University of California, 1990.
Cashin, W. E. "Improving Essay Tests." Idea Paper, no. 17. Manhattan: Center for Faculty
Evaluation and Development in Higher Education, Kansas State University, 1987.
Erickson, B. L., and Strommer, D. W. Teaching College Freshmen. San Francisco:
Fuhrmann, B. S. and Grasha, A. F. A Practical Handbook for College Teachers. Boston:
Little, Brown, 1983.
Jacobs, L. C. and Chase, C. I. Developing and Using Tests Effectively: A Guide for Faculty.
San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1992.
Jedrey, C. M. "Grading and Evaluation." In M. M. gullette (ed.), The Art and Craft of Teaching.
Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984.
Lowman, J. Mastering the Techniques of Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1984.
Ory, J. C. Improving Your Test Questions. Urbana:
Office of Instructional Res., University of Illinois, 1985.
Tollefson, S. K. Encouraging Student Writing. Berkeley:
Office of Educational Development, University of California, 1988.
Unruh, D. Test Scoring manual: Guide for Developing and Scoring Course Examinations.
Los Angeles: Office of Instructional Development, University of California, 1988.
Walvoord, B. E. Helping Students Write Well: A Guide for Teachers in All Disciplines.
(2nded.) New York: Modern Language Association, 1986.
Examinations are a very common assessment and evaluation tool in universities and there are many types of examination questions. This tips sheet contains a brief description of seven types of examination questions, as well as tips for using each of them: 1) multiple choice, 2) true/false, 3) matching, 4) short answer, 5) essay, 6) oral, and 7) computational. Remember that some exams can be conducted effectively in a secure online environment in a proctored computer lab or assigned as paper based or online “take home” exams.
Multiple choice questions are composed of one question (stem) with multiple possible answers (choices), including the correct answer and several incorrect answers (distractors). Typically, students select the correct answer by circling the associated number or letter, or filling in the associated circle on the machine-readable response sheet.
Example: Distractors are:
A) Elements of the exam layout that distract attention from the questions
B) Incorrect but plausible choices used in multiple choice questions
C) Unnecessary clauses included in the stem of multiple choice questions
Students can generally respond to these type of questions quite quickly. As a result, they are often used to test student’s knowledge of a broad range of content. Creating these questions can be time consuming because it is often difficult to generate several plausible distractors. However, they can be marked very quickly.
Tips for writing good multiple choice items:
In the stem:
In the choices:
In the stem:
In the choices:
Suggestion: After each lecture during the term, jot down two or three multiple choice questions based on the material for that lecture. Regularly taking a few minutes to compose questions, while the material is fresh in your mind, will allow you to develop a question bank that you can use to construct tests and exams quickly and easily.
True/false questions are only composed of a statement. Students respond to the questions by indicating whether the statement is true or false. For example: True/false questions have only two possible answers (Answer: True).
Like multiple choice questions, true/false questions:
- Are most often used to assess familiarity with course content and to check for popular misconceptions
- Allow students to respond quickly so exams can use a large number of them to test knowledge of a broad range of content
- Are easy and quick to grade but time consuming to create
True/false questions provide students with a 50% chance of guessing the right answer. For this reason, multiple choice questions are often used instead of true/false questions.
Tips for writing good true/false items:
Suggestion: You can increase the usefulness of true/false questions by asking students to correct false statements.
Students respond to matching questions by pairing each of a set of stems (e.g., definitions) with one of the choices provided on the exam. These questions are often used to assess recognition and recall and so are most often used in courses where acquisition of detailed knowledge is an important goal. They are generally quick and easy to create and mark, but students require more time to respond to these questions than a similar number of multiple choice or true/false items.
Example: Match each question type with one attribute:
- Multiple Choice a) Only two possible answers
- True/False b) Equal number of stems and choices
- Matching c) Only one correct answer but at least three choices
Tips for writing good matching items:
Suggestion: You can use some choices more than once in the same matching exercise. It reduces the effects of guessing.
Short answer questions are typically composed of a brief prompt that demands a written answer that varies in length from one or two words to a few sentences. They are most often used to test basic knowledge of key facts and terms. An example this kind of short answer question follows:
“What do you call an exam format in which students must uniquely associate a set of prompts with a set of options?” Answer: Matching questions
Alternatively, this could be written as a fill-in-the-blank short answer question:
“An exam question in which students must uniquely associate prompts and options is called a
___________ question.” Answer: Matching.
Short answer questions can also be used to test higher thinking skills, including analysis or
evaluation. For example:
“Will you include short answer questions on your next exam? Please justify your decision with
two to three sentences explaining the factors that have influenced your decision.”
Short answer questions have many advantages. Many instructors report that they are relatively easy to construct and can be constructed faster than multiple choice questions. Unlike matching, true/false, and multiple choice questions, short answer questions make it difficult for students to
guess the answer. Short answer questions provide students with more flexibility to explain their understanding and demonstrate creativity than they would have with multiple choice questions; this also means that scoring is relatively laborious and can be quite subjective. Short answer
questions provide more structure than essay questions and thus are often easy and faster to mark and often test a broader range of the course content than full essay questions.
Tips for writing good short answer items:
|Type of question||Avoid||Do use|
Suggestion: When using short answer questions to test student knowledge of definitions consider having a mix of questions, some that supply the term and require the students to provide the definition, and other questions that supply the definition and require that students provide the term. The latter sort of questions can be structured as fill-in-the-blank questions. This mix of formats will better test student knowledge because it doesn’t rely solely on recognition or recall of the term.
Essay questions provide a complex prompt that requires written responses, which can vary in length from a couple of paragraphs to many pages. Like short answer questions, they provide students with an opportunity to explain their understanding and demonstrate creativity, but make it hard for students to arrive at an acceptable answer by bluffing. They can be constructed reasonably quickly and easily but marking these questions can be time-consuming and grader agreement can be difficult.
Essay questions differ from short answer questions in that the essay questions are less structured. This openness allows students to demonstrate that they can integrate the course material in creative ways. As a result, essays are a favoured approach to test higher levels of cognition including analysis, synthesis and evaluation. However, the requirement that the students provide most of the structure increases the amount of work required to respond effectively. Students often take longer to compose a five paragraph essay than they would take to compose five one paragraph answers to short answer questions. This increased workload limits the number of essay questions that can be posed on a single exam and thus can restrict the overall scope of an exam to a few topics or areas. To ensure that this doesn’t cause students to panic or blank out, consider giving the option of answering one of two or more questions.
Tips for writing good essay items:
Suggestions: Distribute possible essay questions before the exam and make your marking criteria slightly stricter. This gives all students an equal chance to prepare and should improve the quality of the answers – and the quality of learning – without making the exam any easier.
Oral examinations allow students to respond directly to the instructor’s questions and/or to present prepared statements. These exams are especially popular in language courses that demand ‘speaking’ but they can be used to assess understanding in almost any course by following the guidelines for the composition of short answer questions. Some of the principle advantages to oral exams are that they provide nearly immediate feedback and so allow the student to learn as they are tested. There are two main drawbacks to oral exams: the amount of time required and the problem of record-keeping. Oral exams typically take at least ten to fifteen minutes per student, even for a midterm exam. As a result, they are rarely used for large classes. Furthermore, unlike written exams, oral exams don’t automatically generate a written record. To ensure that students have access to written feedback, it is recommended that instructors take notes during oral exams using a rubric and/or checklist and provide a photocopy of the notes to the students.
In many departments, oral exams are rare. Students may have difficulty adapting to this new style of assessment. In this situation, consider making the oral exam optional. While it can take more time to prepare two tests, having both options allows students to choose the one which suits them and their learning style best.
Computational questions require that students perform calculations in order to solve for an answer. Computational questions can be used to assess student’s memory of solution techniques and their ability to apply those techniques to solve both questions they have attempted before and questions that stretch their abilities by requiring that they combine and use solution techniques in novel ways.
Effective computational questions should:
- Be solvable using knowledge of the key concepts and techniques from the course. Before the exam solve them yourself or get a teaching assistant to attempt the questions.
- Indicate the mark breakdown to reinforce the expectations developed in in-class examples for the amount of detail, etc. required for the solution.
To prepare students to do computational questions on exams, make sure to describe and model in class the correct format for the calculations and answer including:
- How students should report their assumptions and justify their choices
- The units and degree of precision expected in the answer
Suggestion: Have students divide their answer sheets into two columns: calculations in one, and a list of assumptions, description of process and justification of choices in the other. This ensures that the marker can distinguish between a simple mathematical mistake and a profound conceptual error and give feedback accordingly.
Cunningham, G.K. (1998). Assessment in the Classroom. Bristol, PA: Falmer Press.
Ward, A.W., & Murray-Ward, M. (1999). Assessment in the Classroom. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co.
This Creative Commons license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon our work non-commercially, as long as they credit us and indicate if changes were made. Use this citation format: Exam questions: types, characteristics and suggestions. Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo.