Five tips for having successful multiple-choice exams

This is the time of year for sharpened #2 pencils and Scantrons — exam time for big auditorium classes.

Here are x tips for having your multiple-choice exams be a good measurement of student learning and go smoothly during the test time.

1. Write exam questions as the course progresses.
By writing questions as the course progresses, you won’t be in the situation where “I have to write 50 questions in the next 24 hours!” You will have more time to develop questions. Also, by writing questions throughout the semester, your test will be more balanced in test question distribution. When you wait until right before the exam to develop questions, you often focus too much on the material more recently covered.

2. Write questions that test important aspects of the course.
That would seem obvious, but sometimes it is much easier to write a question on a small specific fact (like the date of a court case or the name or a writer) when what is more important for the students to know and remember is a more complex concept. Those higher-order thinking questions can require higher-order exam-writing skills, too. Benjamin Bloom’s Taxonomy provides a valuable framework to use in designing assessment, including exam questions.

3. Follow best practices for multiple-choice exam construction.
Teachers who have been creating multiple-choice exams for years often haven’t read some of the very helpful advice on exam construction. Teaching assistants at the University of Florida receive a Teaching Assistant Handbook, which includes a section on test construction. Tips include:

  • Avoid using phrases like “all of the above” or “none of the above.”
  • Not including in the stem (the statement of the question) anything that isn’t relevant.
  • Randomizing the answers so that one answer isn’t more likely to be the correct choice.
4. Complete answer keys before you give the exam.
Even if you have proofread the exam several times, when you complete the answer keys, you may discover an error. The auto-format feature of Word has changed your answers from ABCD to ABCC. Part of an answer is incomplete. If you complete the answer keys before you have the exam copied, you can make corrections and then have the exams copied. If you discover errors after the exams are copied, you can either hand correct the error or you can announce the corrections before the students begin the exam. All it takes is one error on the test and suddenly during the exam you have dozens and dozens of students raising their hands with a question.

5. Create a test environment that promotes academic honesty.

  • Create several versions of the same exam so that students sitting next to each other won’t have the same test version.
  • Have students turn off and stow cellphone and laptops and put away all notebooks and papers.
  • Have proctors assist you during the test. If you have a large class, you don’t want to be the only one supervising the exam. You need to be available to answer questions when students raise their hands. You need at least one other person to be watching the class. Proctors can help you with efficient exam distribution and in exam collection.
  • Include in your syllabus a statement about the importance of academic honesty in your course.
  • At UF, students sign the University of Florida Honor Code when they become students. When I give a Scantron exam, before the students begin the test, I have the students sign the signature line on the form as a validation that they will follow the Honor Code and neither give nor receive assistance during the exam.

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