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General Guidelines for Developing Exams

Exams can provide valuable feedback about student learning and the effectiveness of our teaching. Therefore, crafting quality exams is essential to evaluating achievement and to ensuring that students view exams as fair and meaningful. The following guidelines are provided to assist in creating valid exams:

  1. Test early in the semester and often. Students need feedback to improve their performance. In addition, frequent encounters with the content provide more opportunities for success and reduce the impact of a single poor performance (Nilson 282).
  2. Draft exam questions soon after class, while the content is still fresh in your mind. This practice keeps you on top of test construction, which is a time-intensive task (Nilson 282).
  3. Test on what you teach. In other words, test items should reflect what has been emphasized in class and in assignments. Likewise, if you test at the application and analysis levels (i.e., levels 3 and 4 of Bloom’s Taxonomy “Revised”), in- and out-of-class learning activities should be designed to provide opportunities for students to apply what they are learning and to solve problems.
  4. Keep in mind that what is tested on is what students will perceive as most important. Avoid testing on trivia.
  5. Write test items clearly. Use terminology that students understand.
  6. Group like-items together (i.e., multiple-choice, true-false, etc.).
  7. Place less taxing items at the beginning of the test to reduce anxiety and build student's confidence (Nilson 282).
  8. Prepare written instructions carefully for each section of the test and include information such as how long students will have to take the test, the point value for various items, whether to show their work, etc. Do not assume students will remember what was said or what is in your syllabus (Nilson 282).
  9. Take a break or “sleep on it” after developing an exam so that you can later objectively critique it.
  10. Proof the exam for grammar, spelling, format consistency, adequate answer space, and splitting test questions (i.e., starting a test question on one page and continuing it on the next). Better yet, have a colleague proof your exam and offer to return the favor (Nilson 282-283).
  11. Take the exam yourself for two reasons: To view it from a student’s perspective and to determine how long it will take students to complete. The general rule is to allow students three times as long as it takes you.


Nilson, L. Teaching At Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors. 3rd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010. Print.

"Bloom's Taxonomy "Revised" Key Words, Model Questions, & Instructional Strategies." Office for Professional Development. Indianapolis: Indiana U.-Purdue U., 2002. PDF file.

Piontek, M. "Best Practices for Designing and Grading Exams." CRLT Occasional Papers No. 24. Center for Research on Learning and Teach

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