Simple Guidelines for Writing Test Questions



True-False Items

  1. Base the item on a single idea.
  2. Write items that test an important idea
  3. Avoid lifting statements right from the textbook.
  4. Make the questions a brief as possible
  5. Write clearly true or clearly false statements.  Write them in pairs: one “true” and one “false” version and choose one to keep balance on the test.
  6. Eliminate giveaways:
  7. Beware of words denoting indefinite degree.  The use of words like “more,” “less,” “important,” “unimportant,” “large,” “small,” “recent,” “old,” “tall,” “great,” and so on, can easily lead to ambiguity.
  8. State items positively.  Negative statements may be difficult to interpret.  This is especially true of statements using the double negative.  If a negative word, such as “not” or “never,” is used, be sure to underline or capitalize it.
  9. Beware of detectable answer patterns.  Students can pick out patterns such as (TTTTFFFF) which might be designed to make scoring easier.



Multiple-Choice Test Items

These consist of the stem (or prompt or cue) which presents a problem, and several response options (usually 3 or  5), which follow.  One of the options is correct or clearly the best answer.  The other options (distractors) are designed to be attractive to the uninformed.

  1. Avoid the tendency to make the correct answer longer than the distractors.
  2. Using the same or similar words in both the stem and the correct answer can give away the answer.
  3. Beware of grammatical giveaways.  For example, if the stem ends with the word “an” and only one or two options begin with a vowel, then the student can easily eliminate the distractors.
  4. Alert students can detect any tendency to prefer certain response options. For example, students may learn that option “c” is most often correct or that option “a” is seldom correct.
  5. Avoid “None of the above,” “Some of the above,” “All of the above,” phrases which usually scream out that they are the correct answer.
  6. Order the response choices alphabetically, dates chronologically, formulas in terms of complexity.  This logical sequence will help students locate choices.



Matching-Test Items

These consist of two columns: a premise list on the left and a response lift on the right.  Students are asked to match items in the two columns.  These questions help students see the relationships among a set of items and integrate knowledge.  They are less suited than multiple-choice items for measuring higher levels of performance.

  1. Provide directions.  Students should not have to ask, for example, whether options may be used more than once.
  2. Use only homogeneous material.  Each item in a set should be the same as the other items, for examples all names or all numbers.  When different kinds of items are used in each set, the associations tend to be obvious.
  3. Place longer material in the left column.  This will help students locate matches.
  4. Arrange column material in some order.  For example, names can be arranged alphabetically.
  5. As a rule of thumb, the response set should contain a few more items than the premise set.
  6. Keep the question to one page and on the same page.  Arrange items so that students will not have to turn pages back and forth as they respond.



Completion-Test Items

These require students to supply an important word, number, or phrase to complete a statement.  Blanks are provided to be filled in by the student.  While these questions are less susceptible to guessing, the responses could vary to greatly that subjectivity could enter into the scoring.  Another drawback is that completion items are more suited to measuring lower-level than higher-level performances.

  1. Prepare a scoring key that contains all acceptable answers for each item.
  2. Call for answers that can be scored objectively.  Prefer single words or short phrases.  Check your items by posing this question:  Can someone with no competency in the subject score the items objectively by relying solely on the answer key?
  3. Beware of open questions that invite unexpected but reasonable answers.
  4. Eliminate giveaways. 
    1. Make all the blanks an equal length
    2. Avoid grammatical clues such as “an.”


  1. Place the blanks near the end of the statement.  Try to present a complete or nearly complete statement before calling for a response.
  2. Limit the number of blanks to one or two per item.  Statements with too many blanks waste time as students figure out what is being asked.
  3. If a numerical answer is called for, indicate the units in which it is to be expressed.


Essay Questions

These ask students to supply written answers to questions.  Judgments are then made about the accuracy and quality of their answers.  These can be grouped into three categories:

·        Written response items call for a fact or opinion or as much as a student can remember about a certain topic.  They are often pejoratively referred to as “regurgitation items.”

·        Restricted response essays. The student responds to an unfamiliar problem by recalling relevant concepts, facts, and principles; organizes these recollections and writes a coherent response. These are usually a page or less in length.

·        Extended-response essays.  These differ from restricted response essays in that the questions posed are more complex, requiring longer answers.

Scoring essays can be unreliable unless a rubric is used. (see Guidelines for Scoring Essays below)

  1. Use essay questions to assess complex learning outcomes.
  2. Favor restricted-response essays that can be answered in about 15 minutes or less
  3. Structure the problem.  This will make it easier to grade.
  4. Prepare model answers before asking students to respond
  5. Allow sufficient time to answer to give the students to outline first.
  6. Encourage thoughtful answers by writing positive and constructive comments
  7. Require all students to answer the same questions


Guidelines for Scoring Essay Questions

  1. Use model answers
  2. Score the same question on all exams before going to the next question
  3. Cover student names. This will reduce the likelihood of biased scoring
  4. Read each essay twice before scoring.