Tips for Writing an Effective Exam

To create exams that empower students to perform to the best of their ability, keep these six tips in mind: 

1. Provide Succinct Instructions

Provide simple, succinct instructions for your students at the start of each exam section (i.e., anywhere a new item type is introduced). Instructions should indicate:  

  • How to record answers (e.g., write in the blank space provided, circle the best option, etc.)
  • Whether or not to show work on problems (e.g., in solving a math problem)
  • The point value of each item 

Consider including a request that students write neatly, and a warning that if you can’t read their writing, their answers will be marked wrong.


2. Include Multiple Types of Items

Consider using several item types (e.g., multiple choice and short answer). This can be beneficial to students, as individual weaknesses connected with one type of item will be minimized. Group items of the same type in sections on the exam. 


3. Items Should Stand-alone

Design the exam so that each item “stands alone.” If a student answers item #1 incorrectly, and then is asked to use her answer to item #1 to answer items #2 and #3, the student’s initial mistake will be perpetuated over all related items. This penalizes the student repeatedly for one error.

  • If you must design an exam such that items do not stand alone, consider evaluating the process the student used to reach her answer rather than only looking at her final answer.  


4. Consider Cognitive Capacity

Cognitive capacity is the amount of information we can hold onto at any given time and the number of operations we can perform on that information. When exam items are written in a way that requires exam takers to keep track of multiple pieces of information or to process lengthy explanations, it is possible that little cognitive capacity is left for solving the problems. To ensure that your exam measures students’ learning, not their cognitive capacity, develop items and instructions that are clear and succinct. 


5. Test for Depth of Understanding

When writing exam items, especially selected response exam items, it is very tempting to simply ask students for basic facts; for example, by providing a definition and asking for the related term, or by naming a historical event and asking for the date it happened.  Instead, consider giving students the opportunity to demonstrate a greater depth of understanding of the material by asking them to use knowledge in new ways.

  • For example, provide a description of a situation and ask students to identify the term illustrated in that situation, or ask students what would happen if a component of a studied system broke down. For more on this topic, see Testing for Depth of Understanding

6. Proofread and Pilot

Consider asking a colleague who was not involved in the development of your exam to proofread it. Invite her to look not only for errors, but also places where you could improve clarity. She might also check that each item has a single best answer.


For program assessment, you may also want to pilot test the exam on a small group of students. Ask students to take the exam and provide feedback on items. If you do not want to use class time, think about compensating students who volunteer with an incentive such as pizza or gift cards.


Return to Exams home page