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Teaching Strategies | Test Prep

How to Write Test Questions for High School

May 31st, 2018 | 11 min. read

Chris Zook

Chris Zook

Chris Zook is a contributing author to the AES blog. He enjoys everything about online marketing, data science, user experience, and corgis.

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Writing test questions is one of the hardest parts of teaching.

You have to prompt students to retrieve information from your class with the proper wording and format that’ll show their progress in the classroom.

So how do you write the perfect test questions?

There’s not an easy answer — but there are different steps you can follow to make sure you get the best possible questions ready for yourself.

Before we get into the different kinds of questions you can write, let’s cover some general rules about writing test questions in general.

4 Big Rules for Writing Test Questions

Test questions don’t just come out of nowhere. They take time, revision, and expertise to create well.

To make sure you hit all of those qualities, you can follow these four guidelines.

1. Write for Clarity


The best questions don’t require lengthy explanations, creative hypotheticals, or dramatic rewordings.

The best questions get to the point right away.

This is why it’s good to write your questions down and then rewrite them at least once. Your original thought is probably awesome – but getting it into the right words is a different beast.

Get the question down on paper the best you can, re-read it, and take another stab at it.

You might be surprised how much you improve it! 

2. Write for Brevity


If you can say the same idea in fewer words without losing clarity, do it.

This is one of the main points of writing whether you’re working on test questions or a novel. Brevity and clarity go hand-in-hand, and most people have a tendency to over-explain when they write.

With that in mind, you have a few rules of thumb from three famous authors that you can use to keep your test questions short and to the point:

  1. Eliminate adverbs (Stephen King)
  2. Never use a long word when a short one will do (George Orwell)
  3. Write as straight as you can (Ernest Hemingway)

These points all hail back to the idea of brevity and how you can embrace it. The most relevant advice for today is to eliminate adverbs since they’re used so often to make exaggerated or dramatic points.

When you cut that concept out of your test-question writing, your questions will take a big leap forward in terms of improvement.

The second point from George Orwell is important for your vocabulary, too. Shorter words are often more widely understood, especially by students in middle or high school.

So unless the word is jargon for your subject and students have to know it, you can almost always swap long words with short ones to write better test questions.

Last, Ernest Hemingway’s advice is a little more cryptic. Hemingway was never one to mince words, which is what he means when he talks about “writing straight.”

Today, you might hear people say this as “get to the point.” While it’s usually said as a rude jab, Hemingway means it here as practical advice.

The sooner you get to the point, the sooner your students can understand your test questions and respond.

These are just three rules of thumb in an entire industry rich with genius-level writers from previous centuries. But their advice applies to general areas of writing, and that includes test questions.

If you want to start writing your own, keep them short and remember these authors’ advice!

3. Get a Reviewer


Test questions don’t work when you make them in a vacuum. Something that sounds right in your head may not sound right on paper, and it might not sound right to someone else either.

That’s the main reason why authors have editors. Sometimes, things just don’t translate from your head to the page — and that applies to test questions, too!

In terms of finding a reviewer, it’s smart to look for a colleague who works in your department.

Find someone whose expertise is close to your own so they can gauge how appropriate each question is for your class and student grade level.

If they think a question is too easy or too difficult, take it to heart. You can also follow up with them to see if they had any specific ideas on how to make your question(s) better.

At the same time, don’t go overboard and ask multiple people for their opinions. Otherwise, you’ll wind up rewriting your whole test according to other teachers’ standards, which probably aren’t ideal fits for your classroom.

But getting a second pair of eyes on your questions can work wonders. You don’t want to design by committee — you’ll never get anything done that way — but a second opinion can really take your test to a new level of quality.

4. Answer Them Yourself Later


Once you have your questions revised, it’s time to let them sit.

Kind of like baking, you always want to let your questions sit and “cool” for a while before going back to them.

Then, you can answer them yourself.

This can be a time-consuming process if you do it by hand, but you can also review each question and just answer it in your head.

By doing this, you’re validating that you have a solid answer in mind that students will be able to answer for credit.

If you can’t think of a concrete answer, then it’s best to cross that question off your list.

Once you’ve done this for your whole list of assessment questions, you know which ones you’ll actually use.

With that in mind, we need to look at the different kinds of assessment questions you can ask.

The 4 Main Types of Assessment Questions

There are four main types of test questions you can use in assessments.

The best way to figure out the ones to use is to look at each kind!

1. True or False Questions


True or false questions are (in theory) the easiest questions to write since they only have two possible answers.

This also makes true-false questions some of the worst for student evaluation. If a student doesn’t know the answer, they still have a 50/50 chance of getting it correct.

With that much margin for error, it’s not possible to fully evaluate your students based on true-false questions alone.

Still, they can work well when they’re supplemented by other questions. It gives students a little bit of a breather among multiple choice, short answer, and essay questions. 

The main rule to remember for true-false questions is that your students have to know what constitutes a “false” answer.

If any part of a question or statement is false, then the answer is false.

That could be literally any detail down to a time of day or a word in a quote.

It’s up to you how detailed you’d like to be – but to be effective, students need to know how you look at true-false questions so they can answer them appropriately.

2. Multiple Choice Questions


Multiple choice questions have become the most common kind of question with the advent of standardized testing.

They’re usually straightforward, easy to evaluate, and quick to grade.

Still, they’re critiqued for evaluating a student’s immediate knowledge instead of their ability to reason out an answer.

Additionally, multiple choice questions have two big flaws.

First, it’s still possible for students to guess an answer correctly. Most multiple choice answers have four possibilities, and that gives students a 25% success rate in random guessing.

Second, you don’t want to use more than four possibilities in a multiple choice question since that gets to be way too much.

Instead of testing a student’s ability to comprehend material, you’re testing their ability to remember a long list of answers over the course of a couple minutes.

Then, a student has to compare that list against their memories. And if they don’t know the answer right away, a long list of choices makes it harder for them to reason out the correct answer.

Some teachers suggest that if a student doesn’t know the answer right away, it doesn’t matter how many choices they have – they won’t get the right answer.

But because multiple choice questions dominate standardized testing, students now have test-taking strategies to use when they’re in doubt.

These strategies include crossing out choices that students know to be wrong in order to discover the one that’s most likely right – at least according to what they remember.

Sometimes they’re wrong, and sometimes they’re right.

But the point is that this strategy lets them exercise the reasoning portion of their brain instead of just directly recalling information.

That trains them in critical thinking, which is a skill they can carry with them for the rest of their lives (even if they don’t realize it yet).

All of that aside, multiple choice questions are a much stronger way to evaluate a student’s knowledge of something compared to true-false.

The reason is mentioned above – even with test-taking strategies, students only have a 25% chance of blindly guessing a correct answer, at least for a standard four-choice question.  

That makes it virtually impossible for students who don’t know the material to successfully pass a test on an American grading scale.

In other words, you’ll know for sure which students in your class have learned (and retained) the correct information.

3. Short Answer Questions


Short answer questions are the most common form of prompt-based questions.

You ask students to respond to a prompt. That prompt could be a question, but you could also ask students to perform a task like writing out a timeline or filling in a blank spot in a question.

When students write in the answer, you judge whether they got it right.

To start, the short answer question has several strong advantages.

First, it’s virtually impossible for a student to guess the right answer in this case. If they know it, they’ll write it down. If they don’t, they may try to skirt around the issue or take a stab in the dark.

Second, it’s engaging. Students have to slow themselves down to read these questions because they have to recall the answer on their own instead of picking from a pre-made list.

Third, there’s sometimes wiggle room. Did a student get pretty close with an answer, but they left out one crucial detail? You can always give them partial credit or ask them to defend their answer, which is also much more engaging than a true/false or multiple choice question.

These three qualities make short answer questions an excellent addition to any test.

With that in mind, they have a few disadvantages, too.

Most notably, short answer questions require you to read and understand your students’ handwriting. That may be easy, but after 20 tests, you can quickly run out of patience for deciphering a student’s chicken scratch.

On top of that, the idea of wiggle room can actually work against you when students get their tests back. You may not ask them to justify an answer to a question — but they may want to negotiate it anyway!

You can always mitigate that by telling your students you won’t consider partial credit for answers. But if that’s the case, you could always use a multiple choice format.

4. Essay Questions


Essay questions are the longest and most intense test questions you can have without asking students to write a paper out of class.

They require a lot of spontaneous thought, planning, and organization on the part of the student. That means they don’t just have to answer your question — they have to answer your question in a way that makes a sensible, logical argument that you can follow.

That challenge alone makes essay questions impossible to “guess” correctly. Someone may be able to argue a point, but if it’s not the point they should argue, you’ll know right away.

Then, you can grade them accordingly.

Another advantage of essay questions is that they’re efficient in terms of planning. You just need a strong question that encapsulates the point of a class or unit, and then you can make that question into standalone test.

There’s a drawback to this convenience, though. You’ll need a robust list of acceptable answers and points that students can provide that you’d count in their favor.

After all, essay questions are exceptionally hard to rate as simply “correct” or “incorrect.” Because they’re so involved, you have to rate student answers on a sliding scale according to how many of your criteria they hit.

This means you’ll also have students who want to talk to you outside of class to negotiate a higher grade. Whether you let them is completely up to you!

The biggest drawback of an essay question is trying to read every student’s handwriting. This is especially hard for classes that are longer than 30 minutes.

Even the students with immaculate penmanship will start to slip after writing for half an hour straight. If your school uses block scheduling, you can expect students’ handwriting to degrade as class moves forward.

This compounds with another issue in essay questions — some students will finish way early, and others may need an extra 20 minutes to finish their thoughts.

That creates an environment where the faster students need something to occupy their time or else they could become disruptive. In this scenario, disruptive students could derail the concentration (and grade point average) of everyone around them!

At the end of the day, you get to choose whatever questions you want to use on a test.

If you want to use an essay question, make sure you have something to occupy your faster students and the patient to read their handwriting.

Mix Custom & Pre-Made Questions into Your Tests with Digital Curriculum


Writing test questions is a bummer. But in the world of teaching, it’s a necessary evil.

You can make your life easier by using test questions from a digital curriculum system.

A digital curriculum system comes with pre-made questions that are proven to evaluate a student’s knowledge on a certain topic. Better yet, the questions are automatically graded so you don’t have to spend time calculating and recording grades by hand.

On top of that, you can also customize a digital curriculum with your own assessment questions that it’ll then grade based on your criteria. Again, you never have to grade your students yourself — but you will see their progress in the gradebook!

With a mix of pre-made assessment questions and a robust library of teaching options, a digital curriculum is the ideal resource to use to streamline your classroom.

Want to know more?

Learn more about a digital curriculum now!

Learn More about Digital Curriculum >