Writing Test Items

Writing Quality Test Items

Creating an assessment is a critical component of the overall instructional sequence.  Assessments serve the dual purpose of providing feedback to the instructor on the effectiveness of instructional activities and monitoring student's mastery of course-specific learning objectives.  Since a student's final course grade in many courses rests primarily on their test grades, it is important to ensure that these assessments are well-planned, valid measures of student understanding.

Stages in Test Preparation:

1. Plan Test Content and Format

  • Determine the material to be covered by the test

  • Review learning objectives to be assessed by the test

  • Create a table of specifications

  • Determine length and format of the test

2. Write Test Items

  • Create test items using the preparations guidelines

  • Arrange items in the exam by grouping according to item type

  • Write directions for each group of items

3. Determine Grading Criteria and Scale

  • Include brief description of grading policy or point distribution in the relevant test directions

4. Revisions and Corrections

  • Examine outcome of the exam to identify problems with specific test items

  • Revise, edit, or delete test items if necessary

General Guidelines for Writing Test Items:

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Tips to improve the overall quality of test items and assessments:

  • Prepare more test items that you need so that you can review and delete ineffective items prior to the test.

  • Write test items well in advance of the test date, then wait several days to review the items.  This type of fresh perspective may help you to identify potential problems or areas of confusion.

  • Review all test items once they are compiled for the test to ensure that the wording of one item does not give away the answers to another item.

  • Within each group of test items, order questions from the least to most difficult.

  • Have a naive reader review test items to identify points of confusion or grammatical errors.

Determining the Number of Assessment Items:

The number of items you include in a given assessment depends upon the length of the class period and the type of items utilized.  The following guidelines will assist you in determining an assessment appropriate for college-level students.

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Creating a Table of Specifications:

A table of specifications is simply a means of connecting learning objectives, instructional activities and assessment.  The following steps will guide you in the creation of a table of specifications:

  • Develop learning objectives based on the taxonomy of educational objectives

  • Identify instructional activities that target the learning objectives

  • Implement instructional activities

  • Reflect on instructional activities and identify relevant learning objectives that will be assessed based on the instructional experience

  • Determine the relative importance and weighting of each objective

  • Generate test items based on the designated learning objectives

Review Checklist:

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Resource Links:

Michigan State University's Writing Test Items


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.


Questions concerning the Park University CETL Quick Tips website should be directed to cetl@park.edu.