Designing Examinations and Quizzes

Design with learning goals in mind

When writing a quiz or exam question, consider the type of knowledge you want students to demonstrate. You may want some questions to test knowledge of facts. Other questions may require students to show how to begin a process. Questions that require more thinking than simple recall include questions asking students to apply a concept in a new context.

In each of these cases, you can use a more open-ended question (e.g., fill in the blank or short essay) or a multiple-choice question. Quiz/exam question design also requires consideration of item level of difficulty. A stratification of difficulty helps distinguish students who have learned deeply from students who have not.

We often think of multiple-choice exams as testing only rote memory. A skilled question writer can assess higher levels of thinking with multiple-choice items. The following resources, from experts across the field of education, are helpful when designing multiple-choice quizzes and exams.

Consult resources for creating quality multiple-choice exams

The wording and placement of exam items matter in creating a high-quality exam. For a clear discussion of what to pay attention to, see the following resources:

  • Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching’s Multiple Choice Test Question Guide
  • Multiple-Choice Item-Writing Rules (2-page guide)
  • Making Multiple Choice Tests More Effective PPT from testing expert, Linda Suskie

Writing items that address more than memorized terminology will help you assess what students understand at deeper levels. For examples of what these items look like in a multiple-choice format, see the following resources:

  • Examples of Higher-Order Multiple Choice Items and Basics of Writing Tests, from 2008 testing workshop presentation (see last 4 slides for examples)
  • Best Practices for High-Quality Exam Questions video of 2018 workshop presented by testing expert, Hoi Suen, Penn State Professor Emeritus

Academic integrity considerations

  • Students may not have budgeted their time well for studying and may attempt to cheat.
  • Students may have communication with other students in the class via GroupMe or other texting mechanisms.
  • Students may have cheated in previous instances—and may or may not have been caught.
  • Students who have done the work and have not cheated want instructors to uphold academic integrity standards.

Design exams in ways that best preserve the integrity of the exam, the exam experience for students, and exam results. Specifically, consider the following:

  • Employ tips for writing quality exams and see Resources for Creating Quality Exams (above)
  • Write items that test more than memorization—consider Bloom’s Taxonomy as a guide for thinking about questions that address various levels of learning
  • Use a quiz item bank with many questions
  • Shuffle answer options on different questions
  • Shuffle questions to create several versions of the exam
  • Consider the appropriate amount of time for the exam and set a time limit
  • Decide the manner in which you will proctor
  • If using Canvas for quizzes, consult academic integrity suggestions when testing in Canvas (see this PowerPoint Presentation, slides 6-7, from Online Faculty Experts Panel), and choose which measures you want to employ, given your particular exam context

Students need to know that academic integrity matters—to students, to faculty, and to the quality of the degree that students earn. Share that Penn State expects all students to abide by the principles of academic integrity and that the same procedures are in place for dealing with misconduct whether courses are held in residence or via World Campus. Consider including the following information on your syllabus:

Student disability accommodations

Students with registered disability accommodations should receive accommodations for exams. If you have received a letter from the Student Disability Resources Office, you are obligated to provide appropriate accommodations, as stated in the letter.

Students can read about disability resources on the Student Disability Resources page through the Office of Educational Equity.

Faculty can read about disability resources under “D” on the Academic Policies and Procedures of the College of IST Teaching site