Write Effective Tests

Tips for writing successful, fair tests that both measure whether learning has occurred and stimulate learning through recall.

Writing tests can be a time-consuming, difficult job, but it doesn’t have to be. To write successful, fair tests that both measure whether learning has occurred and stimulate learning through recall, consider using the following guidelines:

  • Focus on important information: The test writer should be able to answer why the test taker needs to know the information that is presented in the question. Writers should not ask questions that focus on irrelevant information simply to make the test more challenging. Irrelevant questions, such as “What is the diagram showing on page 3 of the reading?” are demoralizing and create anxiety in the test taker.
  • Avoid trickery: Questions should have only one answer, and each distracter should be plausible but clearly incorrect. Don’t ask testers to choose the “best” answer among a correct answer and several distracters that are also technically correct. Writing such “choose the best answer” questions highlights ambiguity and frustrates test takers.
  • Maintain parallelism: To create an indisputably correct answer, test writers sometimes make the mistake of writing the answer longer and more specific than any distracter. When creating distracters, include proper nouns if the answer includes a proper noun, and keep all answer choices roughly the same length. In the example below, choice B sticks out because of its length, specificity, and inclusion of proper nouns.

Q: Where can an operator view output statistics for the seal water booster pump?

a. On a computer in the supervisor’s office

b. On the Allen Bradley kiosk 16 touchscreen, in the River Office entranceway

c. On a screen that is attached to the pump itself

  • Eliminate outliers: A few distracters and an answer that hover too closely around a central idea can create easily eliminated distracters. In the question below, the answer and two distracters all deal with the machine chest, so it is easy for a savvy test taker to eliminate the choice that deals with the drop chest.

Q: On the paper machine, thick stock dye is injected____.

a. Just before the stock enters the machine chest

b. As the stock leaves the machine chest

c. As stock is agitated within the machine chest

d. As stock enters the drop chest

  • Read questions and all answer choices carefully: Read the question, answer, and each distracter carefully to avoid giving away grammatical clues. Pay particular attention to “a/an” and “is/are” before or after a fill-in-the-blank question. For example, in the question below, choice B is obvious because it contains the only plural noun.

Q: The ____ are responsible for filtering stock.

a. Thin stock screen

b. Cleaner cones

c. Deflaker

  • Watch for repeated key words: Be careful when repeating key words in the answer. In the example below, even people who know nothing about carrier water could make a good guess about which answer is correct because choice C uses the word, “carries.”

Q: What is the purpose of carrier water?

a. It is used to flush contaminants from pipes and send debris to the wastewater treatment plant.

b. It takes chips and fibers to the paper machine’s drop chest.

c. It carries dye from the dye kitchen to the paper machine.

The ability to write successful test questions is a skill that improves with practice. By following these guidelines and listening to feedback from test takers and subject matter experts, you will be well on your way to building a valuable skill set that will serve you for years to come.

Eric Montag works as a Training coordinator for Neenah Inc., a manufacturer of fine paper, packaging, and technical products. He earned a B.A. in English with a writing minor, and learned the art of test writing while working as a content developer for an educational software company.

Eric Montag
Eric Montag works as a senior training coordinator for Neenah Inc., a manufacturer of fine paper, packaging, and technical products. His first How-To article for Training magazine appeared in 2019, and was titled “How to Write Effective Tests.”