Writing Effective Questions

Carefully constructed questions are basic building blocks for effective exams. What are the important considerations when writing questions for an exam?

  1. Questions should cover the most important concepts and skills you want students to learn. In other words, they should align with learning goals.
    • One way of thinking about how well questions align with learning objectives is by considering the subject matter of the questions. Does each question you write cover a topic you want students to learn in your course? For example, in an art history course, the topics might include identification of major artists and understanding the themes or innovations of their work.
    • Another way of thinking about question alignment is by considering the kind of thinking questions require students to do. Some questions involve simple memory recall. An example from an art history class might be asking students to identify the artist of works they have studied in class. Other questions demand more complex thinking skills such as synthesis of new ideas. In an art history class, an example of synthesis might be composing an essay that compares the styles of two artists and relates their differences and similarities to the historical context. Bloom’s Taxonomy (below) provides a way of classifying the kinds of thinking or learning demanded by a given question.

Diagram of Bloom's Taxonomy with Question Verbs for each level. Click to go to Google Slides version.

The verbs used in a question often indicate what level of Bloom's taxonomy it aligns with. For example, verbs like list, define, and identify are typical of the knowledge level of Boom's taxonomy, while verbs such as design, compose, and plan indicate synthesis questions. This table of action verbs can help you to compose questions at various levels of Bloom's taxonomy.


Optional activity: Analyze an existing exam

Analyze an exam you have given (or one you have taken) by classifying each question according to Bloom's taxonomy. Tally the number of questions (or points) at each level of Bloom's taxonomy. How well does your exam align with your goals for student learning?

It's important to note that it's just fine to have many questions at the knowledge level, if that aligns with your goals. This is particularly likely in introductory courses. As we'll discuss later, higher level questions can be helpful to distinguish among levels of achievement by offering students who have mastered concepts an opportunity to demonstrate their skills. Bloom's taxonomy is often represented as a triangle with the lower levels forming the base because recall and application are critical foundations for higher level thinking and learning. 

It's also important to note that higher order thinking skills can be tested with a variety of question types. Although open-ended questions like essays, proofs, or diagrams might seem like the best way to test analysis and synthesis skills, well-designed multiple choice questions can also test higher-order thinking skills. Examples of higher-order multiple choice questions can be found in CRLT's Occasional Paper on designing and grading exams

  1. Questions should cover concepts and skills you have focused on during class and in assignments or other activities outside of class. In other words, they should align with instruction. As with alignment to learning goals, there are multiple ways to approach alignment to instruction. 
  • As you write questions, ask yourself how students have encountered the subject matter of the questions during the course. Does each question relate to an in-class activity, a reading, or an assignment that students have completed? Have they had opportunities in class to practice the skills you are asking them to demonstrate and to receive feedback on their learning? 
  • Another important consideration is the type of response students are asked to provide. Questions should be recognizable to students from the course activities they have experienced. For example, if you often ask students to write a definition of a key term in their own words after lecturing about it, e.g., as a minute paper, they will be well prepared to write definitions on an exam. On the other hand, if student have only had practice recognizing definitions, a matching or multiple choice question would be better aligned with instruction. 

Optional activity: Weigh the pros and cons of different question types

The table of question types in CRLT's Occasional Paper on designing and grading exams is a good starting point for considering pros and cons of different question types (in addition to their alignment to instruction). On your own, review the table and consider which of the disadvantages might be a deal-breaker for you. Which question types do you prefer and why? 

A broader point to consider is that a course's assessment suite should include multiple ways for students to demonstrate learning. Ideally, these reflect multiple ways that course material is introduced and practiced. For example, an exam might include several different question types. Furthermore, exams might be just one of several types of assessments within a course. (We mentioned this on the introduction page when we linked to this list.) This basic inclusive teaching strategy helps ensure that all students can achieve and demonstrate learning. While including a variety of question types makes an exam more inclusive, it's still important to avoid making the exam overly complicated with too many types of questions or too much task-switching; we'll say more about this on the next page on building exams. 

  1. Questions should be designed to show understanding of what’s correct. They should provide the instructor insight into students' misunderstandings when they give a wrong answer. Well-constructed questions distinguish students who have partial or incomplete understanding from those who have a deeper understanding. This consideration can help you choose the sorts of questions you include on your exam. One drawback to true-false questions, for instance, is the possibility of guessing correctly even when material has not been mastered. At their best, even multiple choice questions allow instructors to assess misunderstandings and analyze patterns of error. 

Here are some example questions that can be improved. How could these questions be edited to give an instructor better insight into student learning? Share your ideas in the Comments section below.

1. Which of the following is a characteristic of an effective exam?
A. Relatable
B. Reliable
C. Repeatable
D. Easy to grade
2. Which of the following quantities is NOT used in the Michaelis-Menten equation?
A. reaction rate
B. substrate concentration
C. temperature
D. maximum reaction rate
  1. Questions should test mastery of course content. That probably seems obvious, but it's easy for questions to inadvertently test students' test-taking abilities more than content mastery. To avoid this problem, simplify instructions and avoid tricky or overly complex questions. Here's an example question that has the potential for students to make a mistake when looking for the correct selection among the different true-false options. This type of question is less reliable because a wrong answer could be due an error in processing the answer options rather than a misunderstanding of the content.

3. For the following trios of claims, use the corresponding letters to indicate the combination of True and False answers:
Claim 1: sin2u + cos2u = 1
Claim 2: 1 + tan2u = sec2u
Claim 3: 1 + cot2u = cos2u
A. True, True, False
B. False, True, False
C. False, False, True
D. False, True, True 
E. True, False, True

In the section on building exams, we'll discuss strategies for creating valid exams by limiting the cognitive demands that are not related to answering the questions.

Developing Questions Efficiently

With all these important considerations for creating effective questions, developing a large repertoire of usable questions is not trivial! Instructors in many fields use question banks, either that they have personally (or as a department or teaching team) developed over time or that are available online, e.g., through textbook publishers. 

Templates for questions can also save time, allowing you to use the same exam structure in multiple sections or courses but change the content to allay academic dishonesty concerns. 

  • In some courses, there are simple and obvious ways of reusing a question. For example, in a literature course, you might require the same task (e.g., identify a work and author, or compose a close reading of a short passage) but change the passages students respond to.  
  • In a science course, you might use the same sentence structure for a multiple choice question but switch the terms. An example from pharmacy:

Which of the following is TRUE when comparing the side effects of ___ and ___?

a. ____is more likely to be associated with _____ .

b. ____is more likely to be associated with _____ .

c. ____is more likely to cause _____.

d. ____is more likely to cause _____.

It's worth noting that this question might be a simple recall question if students have studied charts of the frequency of side effects for various drugs that you might use to fill the blanks in the question. However, if students are expected to infer the information about relative frequency from their knoweldge of the drug mechanism, this is a higher level thinking question. 

Next Section

Click to go to the next section for some practice evaluating exam questions.