Quality True-False Items

True-false items (also called binary-choice items) are utilized to assess a student's ability to recognize the accuracy of a declarative statement.  Due to the nature of this type of assessment, true-false statements are particularly useful in measuring a student's ability to differentiate between forced-choice statements (such as true-false, yes-no, correct-incorrect, etc.).  As such, true-false questions are well suited for measuring knowledge, comprehensive, and application levels of understanding (although creative, well-designed questions may also assess higher-order learning objectives).  A quality true-false item is generally classified as an objective assessment technique as it will only have one correct answer.  The utility and effectiveness of true-false items in higher education has been highly debated, thus instructors should careful examine the advantages and disadvantages of true-false assessments in relation to their specific learning objectives.

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Tips for Writing True-False Items:

  • To be most effective in assessing specific learning objectives, each true-false item should target only one fact at a time and should restrict statements to a single idea.  This approach allows instructors to identify specific errors in understanding and prevents confusion over statements that are partially true.

  • Research indicates that students tend to mark "true" when guessing blindly, thus false items discriminate better between high and low ability students.  At the same time, students tend to quickly pick up on patterns of responding.  To prevent response-bias and effectively assess understanding, instructors should include an equivalent number of true and false items within the assessment.

  • To prevent rote memorization of trivial facts or general knowledge, avoid using exact wording from the textbook. A well-designed true-false item is very effective for assessing the accuracy of statements, understanding of definitions, and novel applications of theories or principles.

  • Generally, long statements are more likely to be false.  Thus to limit response-bias, test designers should try to make all true-false items similar in length.

  • In order to more effectively differentiate between high and low ability students, instructors should make wrong answers more attractive by wording statements in a way that is supported by superficial logic or popular misconception.

  • When designing true-false items, avoid absolute words (such as all, always, never) and indefinite adjectives, generalizations, and qualifying terms (such as usually, generally, sometimes).  This type of wording may indicate the accuracy of a statement regardless of the content of the item.

  • To prevent confusion and arguments, test designers should use statements that are clearly true or false.  When using an opinion-oriented statement, be sure to include the source of the opinion.

  • Instructors should avoid negative statements (especially double-negatives) when writing true-false items.  Negative wording tends to be more confusing for students and may be an inaccurate measure of knowledge.

Ideas to Enhance the Effectiveness of True-False Assessments:

  • Instructors may use correct-for-guessing scoring (+1 for correct answer, 0 for blank statement, -1 for incorrect answer) in order to reduce student guessing.  When using this type of special scoring, be sure to inform students of the scoring method prior to administering the assessment.

  • To increase the cognitive demands placed on students, instructors may require students to correct false questions.  This type of activity requires students to go beyond the simple judgment of true-false to identify specific errors within the statement.

  • Rather than assess simple factual knowledge, true-false items can be effectively used to test novel applications.  Instructors may generate unique examples and require students to indicate the accuracy of the application.

  • In addition to the standard true-false dichotomy, test designers can use a variety of binary-choice modifications (yes-no, agree-disagree, valid-invalid, right-wrong, fact-opinion, etc.).  Essentially, the standard true-false format can be utilized for any assessment of understanding between two categories.

  • Rather than make a distinct statement for a series of related items, instructors may cluster items that share a common stem.  This increases the efficiency of the assessment while still allowing discrimination between discrete aspects of understanding.

  • When dealing with higher-order understanding or knowledge, test designers may want to utilize a true-false checklist that requires students to check all true items from a given list.  When using this type of assessment, related statements should be grouped together based on a common theme or principle.

Review Checklist:

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Aiken, L. R. (2000). Psychological testing and assessment (10th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Chatterji, M. (2003). Designing and using tools for educational assessment. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Gronlund, N. E. (2003). Assessment of student achievement (7th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (2002). Meaningful assessment: A manageable and cooperative process. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

McKeachie, W. J. (1999). Teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers (10th ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Popham, W. J. (2000). Modern educational measurement: Practical guidelines for educational leaders (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Trice, A. D. (2000). A handbook of classroom assessment. New York, NY: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc.


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