Writing Better Objective Tests
Joseph Ryan, Department of Education
The objective test is only one of many ways in which students can be
evaluated. Tests can be formal or informal, oral or written; and no one
form of testing is necessarily better or worse than another. Objective
tests, however, do offer some advantages over other forms of testing. By
definition these testing procedures are more objective than other
procedures. That is, they are less dependent on personal opinion than
some other forms of testing. Objective tests also tend to be more
reliable than other types of testing; and the objective format allows
instructors to test a large number of students on a wide range of topics
in a relatively brief period of time.
Before an appropriate test can be written, the knowledge or skills taught
in class need to be defined with some care. Instructors must determine
the content or material that has been taught and the type of skill a
student should be able to demonstrate with respect to the content or
material. This is illustrated by the three test items below.
Each of these three items deals with the same content, namely the freezing
temperature of water. The items differ, however, in the intellectual
skills that must be applied to that content. In Item 1 the student must
recognize the freezing temperature of water. In Item 2 the student must
recall this temperature. In Item 3 the student must demonstrate
comprehension of the freezing temperature of water. When writing the
objective tests, review each item after it has been written to judge
whether the content and skill it requires have, in fact, been taught in
Multiple Choice Items
Multiple choice questions contain two major parts, the stem which presents
the problem and several alter-native answers. The following checklist can
be used to create or evaluate multiple choice questions.
- The stem, not the responses, should introduce
what is expected of the student.
- The stem should be free of irrelevant material.
- All the options should be plausible and homogenous.
- All the options should be grammatically consistent with the
- Obvious verbal associations between the stem and the
correct answer should be eliminated.
- Overlapping options should be eliminated.
- All options should be approximately the same
A true-false test item is written in the form of a declarative sentence.
The student must judge whether the sentence is a true or a false
statement. Some instructors prefer to use the true-false format with the
additional requirement that students indicate how the false items can be
changed to make them true. This adaptation requires that the instructor
provide very clear standards for scoring these answers.
Use the following checklist to create or evaluate true/false items.
- The language of the items should be simple and
- The statement should be specific enough to allow a
judgement to be made.
- The statement should be clearly true or false.
- Specific determiners (e.g., always, never, sometimes, ever) should be
- Use only a single idea in each statement.
- The number of true statements and false
statements should be approximately equal.
The matching item is a modification of the multiple choice question. In a
matching test item, a list of words or phrases is presented in a column,
generally on the left side of the page. These words or phrases are called
the premises of the item. A second column, generally on the right side of
the page, contains words or phrases called responses that are to be
matched with the premises.
When there are exactly as many premises as there are responses and when
each response is used once and only once in the matching process, the test
item is said to have perfect matching. When some of the responses are
used more than once or not at all, the item is said to have imperfect
matching. Imperfect matching makes guessing more difficult.
Following are suggestions for writing matching test items.
- Clearly explain the basis on which the matching
is to be made in the directions.
- Make sure that the directions make clear whether
each response can be used only once or not at
all. It is usually better to have more responses
than premises and to state that each response may be used more than
once and that some responses may not be used at all.
- Keep the lists of premises and responses short (5
or 6). If the lists are too long, the items will be
testing the students memory and reading skills.
- Keep the lists of premises and responses relatively homogeneous.
- Write the responses in the form of short phrases,
single words, numbers, or symbols and arrange
them in an obvious order--alphabetical, chronological, etc.
The preceding sections offer specific recommendations for improving the
writing of three types of objective test questions. In addition, the
following general guidelines may be useful when preparing any type of
objective test item.
- Design each item to measure an important
learning outcome as defined by course objectives.
- Include only one central idea in each test item.
- Write the stem and options for each item in
simple, clear language.
- Do not make items more difficult through use of
tricks of ambiguity. Increase the difficulty level
by changing the stems or options.
- Make each test item independent of other items
on the test.
- If negatives are used, the negative should be
emphasized by capitalization or underlining, e. g., NOT, none,
Ryan, J. , Lackey, G. & Bell,
(1981). Improving your classroom tests: Writing better objective
questions. University of South
Carolina, Department of Educational Research
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