I decided to re-post this article, since I wrote it before I actually had people reading my blog! Enjoy!
(Originally posted June 7, 2011)
For the last few months, I have been working night and day to “separate” our Literature Guides into our new products, called PocketSolutions®. The idea of the PocketSolutions product is a smaller, bite-sized portion—such as a collection of Comprehension Check questions, a single test, or a quiz, taken directly from an existing Literature Guide to be sold at a fraction of the price. It is an idea we are very excited about, and in working to divide our Guides, I have had the unique opportunity to take a very close look at each activity, quiz, test, worksheet, and handout. After viewing the quizzes and tests in each Guide individually, I decided that our quizzes and tests needed to become more consistent from Guide to Guide, so I have done more research on creating quality quizzes and tests. I will be meeting with our writers and editors to implement some changes which we hope will make our assessments more consistent, appropriate, and effective. After this research, I decided to share my findings with you. We will be using this information to create better quizzes and tests within our products, and you will hopefully be able to use this knowledge to write great quizzes and tests yourself. Good assessments will help you correctly and effectively assess your students’ knowledge and comprehension of a text so that you can more successfully schedule and utilize the precious time you have with your students.
First, decide the goal of the assessment. Do you want to quickly check that your students have actually read the chapter they were assigned to read last night? Do you want to test your students on a deeper level—getting into the analysis of the text? Or, do you want to spark your students’ interest in further reading by asking “teaser” or rhetorical “theme-based,” open-ended questions? In other words, what do you want to know about your students’ grasp of the subject – and what do you plan on doing with the information you gather from the assessment? It is a waste of everyone’s time to test students on random questions just to give them a test; furthermore, it is a waste of time to write a test that has no meaning, then fail to grade the tests and use them to your benefit. Unless your goal is to surprise your students with a random pop quiz to keep them on their toes, it is crucial that you take the time to make a meaningful assessment that teaches both you and the students something of value.
Deciding on the goal of the assessment will help you to know not only how many questions to give your students, but also the format of the assessment, how long it will take you to grade the assessment, and how to use the findings to inform further teaching. For this article, I have decided to focus on three types of assessments. I have also created a list five of the most valuable and helpful general tips I found in my research and included it at the end of the article. Finally, I have included a few very helpful links and recommended books on the subject in case you would like to read more in-depth about test creation.
Three Types of Assessments
In my research, I was surprised to find that good multiple choice questions can be just as revealing and successful as essay or short-response questions. In fact, well-written multiple choice questions can be written to measure reasoning, comprehension, application, analysis, and other higher-level thinking processes. This was great news! I already knew that multiple choice type questions were not only more manageable for students of all learning levels than written-response question, but they are also easier and less time-consuming to grade than essay or short-response questions! However, they must follow some simple, but important rules to be effective and useful:
The question or statement (also called the stem) should:
- be clear, concise, and unambiguous
- always include a verb. Ex. “The author used foreshadowing in this chapter to reveal…” or Ex. “What is the purpose of the use of foreshadowing in this chapter?” Avoid the phrasing “The author…” or “Foreshadowing…”, for example.
- be based on the content, not on random information—you will get nothing for further teaching out of asking questions such as “What color shirt was Jim wearing in Chapter Two?” and you will just end up losing credibility and frustrating your students.
- move beyond mere recall of information, by avoiding the exact wording of a text. This includes vocabulary definitions. It takes more work to write these questions, but in doing so, you will be helping students to move beyond recall to higher-level thinking and problem solving.
Answer choices (also called distractors) should:
- be clear to the student. Be sure there is only one correct response. Don’t try to trick students—again, this just results in frustration. A good practice is to put yourself in the students’ shoes to think of common or possible errors that students might make, then offer those as choices.
- be in the same grammatical format. Be careful not to give away an answer because of “a/an” wording or pluralization!
- be approximately the same length or number of words. A red flag is raised in our minds when only once choice is a one-word response, or conversely, a longer response than all the others.
- not repeat the same words in all the choices. Rephrase the stem if you find your distractors repeating a word or phrase throughout.
- be short, sweet, and to the point. No one wants to have to read a question or answer choices over and over because they are too wordy or full of jargon.
- avoid the use of “all of the above” or “none of the above.” By using “all of the above” as a choice, the student only needs to know one or two correct choices, increasing the possibility of a correct random guess. While the “none of the above” choice is better and can increase difficulty, unless it is used more than once or twice, it can be a dead giveaway.
- use capital letters for answer choices. This will help students with reading and/or writing difficulties and will help reduce confusion in correcting. (This is also true for Matching tests.)
Matching questions—where students are given a word or phrase in one column and are asked to match them with the correct description, definition, etc. in a second column are another testing favorite.
There are also a few general guidelines that will help make matching assessments more effective:
- It is better to have more possibilities than items. In other words, don’t try to trick students, but having more seemingly plausible answer possibilities will help eliminate students just guessing the last few answers based on process of elimination.
- Items and choices should all be on the same page—students should not have to flip pages.
- Make both the items and the answer choices must be clear, short, and to the point. The more they have to read, the more confusing and time-consuming the test becomes.
- Be sure to mention that choices will be used only once, more than once, or not at all.
- Give students letter choices rather than having students draw a line to the correct response from column to column. Correcting is just far too difficult, especially when the student decides to get creative with their lines, or makes a mistake and tries to change it!
True/False statements are another favorite in classrooms. Also called a “forced-choice” type of question, students must make a decision whether the statement given is true or false, giving them a 50/50 chance at a correct answer. These types of questions are ideal for recall or basic comprehension.
- Avoid using negatively worded statements. Statements should not use the word “not” at any time. This is a form of trickery!
- Avoid directly restating the text.
- Try to make all statements, whether true or false, the same length. There is a tendency to write long true questions because of the available material.
- Avoid long, wordy statements or complex sentences. This can easily cause confusion for a student, especially when students think one part of the statement is true and another is false.
- Avoid stating opinions unless they are attributed to someone.
- Avoid using all, always, never, none, etc. as these can be dead giveaways because of the sweeping generalization.
- Having students correct false statements can be tricky. Be sure to underline the part of the statement that needs to be rewritten or corrected so there is little confusion.
5 Tips for Writing Quizzes and Tests
In general, there are some guidelines that can help you no matter what type of quiz or test you write.
Assessments should be clear, precise, and answerable. Students should not have to be an expert on the subject on which they are being tested, but should be able to answer the questions that you have given them based upon the information that they have been taught. Remember, if you have quite a few students failing the test, the problem may not be with the students—it may be with the test, or even further, with the delivery of the information. Here are some tips to help make your assessments the best they can be:
- Decide on format. There is something to be said for consistency, as the type of quiz becomes familiar to the student and the student knows what to do with it. Or, make each test multiple choice, like state assessments, so they can get used to the format.
- After you have taught a particular lesson or given a particular lecture, review your notes or make a list of the ideas you believe students should have learned. Base your questions for the quiz or test on these notes.
- Be sure you read over the test in its entirety so that you are not giving away answers in other questions.
- Use Bloom’s Taxonomy of Questioning. To be sure your assessments do not merely measure recall, but higher-level questioning as well, make a chart or checklist to keep track.
- Once you have written a test, be sure to leave it alone for a few days, then try taking the test yourself\. This is especially true year after year. Be sure that you actually taught the information on which your students are being tested. You may have accidentally left out an entire section in this year’s lecture without even realizing it. (I have done this, only to sadly realize that my tests were a waste of time.)
Once you have given the assessment, it is always helpful for students to receive the answers in one format or another. I always liked going through the answers using the overhead project (yes, low-tech, I know…but it works!). This way, the questions are fresh in their minds, and they can think about their own answers in comparison (always a popular choice with high-level or Honors students who are impatient about their scores!) This also helps open the discussion for incorrect choices. Create an environment where students feel comfortable sharing their answers—correct or not. This gives you the opportunity for a “teachable moment,” maximizing your class discussion time, and scaffolding upon their learning, and segueing into the next lesson.
Helpful Websites and Books
Indiana University, Bloomington Evaluation Services & Testing
The Center for Assessment and Research Studies
Alabama Department of Education Professional Development Modules
University of Texas, Austin Instructional Assessment Resources
Classroom Assessment – What Teachers Need to Know (Fifth Edition) by W. James Popham, ISBN 978-0205510757