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Using Test Options to Create More Sophisticated Tests

Test items can be of various kinds depending on your course learning objective. Some commonly used ones are multiple choice, essay, short answer, and true or false.

Multiple Choice

Multiple choice test items consist of a stem which identifies the question or problem and the response alternatives or choices.

When to Use Multiple-Choice Items

  • Test factual knowledge recall.
  • Test ability to use judgment in analyzing and evaluating.
  • Quick formative evaluation of understanding before moving on to the next segment of instruction.

Tips for Writing Multiple-Choice Test Items

  • State the stem as a direct question rather than as an incomplete statement.
  • Present a definite, explicit and singular question or problem in the stem.
  • Avoid excessive verbiage or irrelevant information in the stem.
  • Include in the stem any word(s) that might otherwise be repeated in each alternative.
  • Use negatively stated stems sparingly. When used, draw student attention by underlining and/or capitalizing the negative word.
  • Make all alternatives plausible and attractive to less knowledgeable or skillful students.
  • Make the alternatives mutually exclusive.
  • Make alternatives approximately equal in length.


Essay questions can be ideal for measuring students’ higher-order thinking, particularly thinking that requires analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating disparate information. Essay questions also provide ample opportunity for students to learn through the act of being assessed, both as they respond to the essay questions and as they reflect on feedback provided by the instructor. Because of the time required to read and respond to essay questions, they should be used only when you wish to assess higher-level thinking and learning; if student understanding of the same material can be assessed through multiple-choice or other objective items, use them instead.

Tips for Using Essay Questions

  • Avoid vague instructions asking students to “Discuss X” or “Compare and contrast Y and Z.” Rather, provide guidance about the form and content of the discussion you are asking students to provide: “Discuss the Joads’ journey in The Grapes of Wrath from Oklahoma to California in terms of Mazlow’s Hierarchy of Needs.” Likewise, consider suggesting to students how much time they should spend responding to the essay question, to give them some idea of the depth and breadth of a suitable response.
  • Avoid scoring prejudices. While scoring a test consisting of numerous essay questions, reading all of one student’s responses can create a positive or negative bias. If the first response you read is particularly strong, that perception may carry over to the student’s other responses–whether or not they are also strong. Likewise, a weak first response can cause you to view subsequent responses as weak. To avoid such bias, read all of your students’ first response at the same time, then move on to all of their second response, etc.

Short Answer

Short Answer format is flexible and can ask for things like: complete the sentence, short description, diagrams, lists, etc.  The answer can range from one word to a few lines, possibly listed as bullet points.

When to Use Short-Answer Questions

  • This can be used to measure a variety of factual knowledge.
  • Good for assessing knowledge of small-medium sized learning points.
  • Easy to grade and usually quick to answer for the students.

Tips for Writing Short-Answer Questions

  • Use clear wording / phrasing in the question.  Specify exactly what you wish the student to show that they know.
  • Be sure there is only one correct answer.
  • Instruct the student on the format of how to answer the question. Example: “List the answer in bullet points”
  • Be sure to note if Partial Credit will or won’t be offered for questions in which you have asked a student to solve a problem or show a process.  This helps make grading easier and answering the questions quicker for the students since they aren’t guessing on answer format.
  • Anticipate having to deal with difficult handwriting and possible spelling errors.
  • Give your students enough time to answer the questions you have provided, keeping in mind that some students take longer than others to answer.

True or False

When to Use True or False Questions

  • Best used to assess learning of objective facts and simple learning objectives. For more complex topics, different question formats or supplementary questions on the topic should be asked.
  • Easy and quick to grade.

Tips for Writing True or False Questions

  • Use direct language so as not to confuse the students
    • Avoid negative words like “No,” “Not,” “Cannot,” etc.  If you use a negative word be sure to bold, capitalize, and/or italicize the words to make them apparent in the question
    • Avoid absolutes as they can be misleading or give the student a clue to the answer.  Examples of absolutes include words like “Never,” “None,” and “Always.”
    • Avoid relative words such as “Usually,” “Often,” “Seldom,” etc. as they can also confuse students or give them clues to the answer.
  • Be sure all parts of the statement are “True” in a True-Answer scenario so that students aren’t misdirected or caused to overthink the question.
  • Paraphrase when possible; short statements are key.
  • Be cautious when using True or False questions because students have a 50/50 chance of guessing correctly.  It’s good to balance the odds by using other formats of questions to supplement the assessment.
  • Watch out for phrasing and grammar that could give clues to the correct answer.
  • Don’t use unfamiliar phrasing or words that might confuse a student.

Additional Resources