Writing exam questions in a six-step process

Writing exam questions is a meticulous, complex and creative part of teaching. The habit of using a standardised process will make this frequent task more manageable, writes Fiona Lifen Liu

Fiona Lifen Liu's avatar
28 Apr 2023
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Writing exam questions is a big project, and it is not accomplished at one stroke. It requires time to prepare and polish this form of assessment but using a standardised process when writing exam papers can streamline the task.

Different subjects and exam purposes may have different processes but they are nevertheless similar, especially for closed-book exams. A reliable process can boost teachers’ enthusiasm for writing exam questions, improve the quality of the questions themselves and save a lot of working time.

Six steps for writing exam questions

The process of writing exam questions usually involves six steps: determine the goal of the questions; match to a three-way exam question guide; prepare exam questions; construct the test; predict difficulty; and develop grading rules.

1. Determine the goal of the exam questions

The goal of the exam questions serves as the starting and end point of question-writing and guides and constrains the writing process. It can be based on teaching objectives, combined with test purposes, difficulty coefficient and time constraints. For example, if I wanted to prepare a 30-minute quiz to just review a chapter, I would usually use multiple-choice questions as the best way to do this. With regard to difficulty, teachers can use their experience and a framework such as Bloom’s taxonomy to determine the level. If we choose a question from a test bank, there is often a number indicating the difficulty of the question, so teachers can also imitate the scoring method to score their own questions.

2. Match to a three-way exam question guide

What I call the three-way exam question guide is a framework used to organise test content, the assessment intent (what specifically is being tested) and the type of exam question in a table format.

Table for creating exam questions showing content, intent and type

Let’s consider one of the ways that writing exam questions needs to take into account types of questions. Of course, there is no single perfect type; it is often advantageous to mix types of questions based on the assessment intent (using, for example, Bloom’s taxonomy). In an accounting exam, say, there are two common types of questions: multiple-choice and computational. Multiple-choice questions are often used to test the low-level skills, while computational questions are often used to test higher-order thinking skills. The teacher also needs to match the test content to the assessment intent and types of questions.

This grid can also be helpful if you are collaborating with other teachers and want to avoid repeating questions from other assessments such as mid-term exams.

3. Prepare the exam questions

Preparing exam questions is the core step in this process. It involves creating questions that effectively measure the knowledge and skills that students have gained from their learning experiences. The process of preparing the questions should be based on a hierarchy of cognitive categories and the difficulty and requirements of learning objectives, so the teacher should formulate questions with varying levels of challenge. For example, computational questions in accounting exams generally have at least three parts; not all of them are difficult to solve, but they should gradually deepen in difficulty.

Usually, preparing exam questions involves adapting existing questions or creating new ones. Adapting exam questions may modify or transform existing examples to make them more formal and functional. There are many ways to adapt exam questions from a test bank; you can change the perspective of a question, the known conditions, the examination objectives, the question type, or restructure the questions. If you are writing from scratch, a new context can provide new questions.

As you prepare exam questions, it is necessary to synchronously write the answers to each one, so that problems can be identified and corrected in a timely manner.

In addition, the exam questions should be free of scientific or knowledge-based errors and the language used in the questions should be clear and concise so that students understand them without any misinterpretation.

4. Construct the test

Once prepared, the exam questions need to be grouped into a test in a certain order. The written questions in an accounting exam, for example, should be arranged in the order of multiple-choice, then computational questions. When constructing a test, the questions should be arranged from easy to difficult.

5. Predict difficulty

After the exam questions have been written, the teacher must answer the questions and record the answer time. In general, the time the students need to finish an exam is twice that taken by the teacher. Based on the teacher’s experience answering the questions, the wording or number of questions can then be tweaked. In addition, it is necessary to predict the possible scores of students to estimate the difficulty of the exam and adjust questions appropriately.

6. Develop grading rules

The answers to the exam questions should be detailed and accurate, and the grading details of the questions should be indicated. The allocation of scores for answers should be based on the difficulty and answering time. If the difficulty of the question is high and it takes a long time to answer, the mark allocation should be higher.

In conclusion, writing exam questions is a creative task, sometimes requiring the input of multiple teachers. Cultivating a standardised process can help colleagues offer mutual assistance and complete tasks together. By following the six steps in the process of writing exam questions, teachers can ensure that their exams accurately assess their students’ learning outcomes.

Fiona Lifen Liu is a lecturer in accounting at the School of Business at Macau University of Science and Technology.

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