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Mayo Clinic: Test-Taking Series Continues with Developing Fair and Engaging Tests

Mayo Clinic: Test-Taking Series Continues with Developing Fair and Engaging Tests

27 May 2016

Clear test instructions, question order and different types of questions – more than multiple choice – help students show what they know. 

By Fred Mayo, CHE, CHT

Test making – the third in this series on testing, test taking, test making and helping students review for testing – remains a critical skill for teachers. Creating clear and well-organized tests is one of many ways we can help our students show what they have learned and reduce their test anxiety at the same time. There are several key strategies including instructions, structure of tests, and interesting questions that make tests fair and interesting.

An issue that makes a difference to students – but one we often do not think about – is the clarity of the instructions. When making up a test, consider what it will be like for students who are taking the test and then write the test directions. Pause a minute when the instructions are complete and reread them, going backward. You might be surprised to find some instructions are not clear to you. And if they are not clear to you – and you wrote them – you can assume they will confuse students who may be nervous about doing well on the test.

Then ask a colleague to read the instructions inquiring if he or she knows what to do in taking the test. If you are like most of us, the instructions will not be as clear as you thought and the comments you receive will help you sort out what you need to say in the instructions. Remember to provide all the information students want to know about how to answer the test questions.

One aspect of the instructions should be the amount of points associated with each section of a test. That information will help students know how much effort or time to put into the various sections. If you have two (2) long essays worth twenty-five (25) points each and one (1) section with twenty-five (25) questions adding to a total of fifty (50) points, then they know to spend limited time on the twenty-five questions and at least half their time on those two essays. (Note how to mention numbers in both written and Arabic format for clarity.) They also can determine whether they should do the long essays first or the short questions.

Structure of Tests
One of the most important aspects of a test is the way in which the questions are sequenced and organized. If you want students to succeed in a testing situation, start with easier questions or shorter questions, which will build their confidence in being able to answer questions and take up less time.

Sometimes multiple-choice questions are easier and sometimes harder. Since you know your students better than anyone, consider what type of question – identification, definitions, item matching, sentence completion, estimation, calculation, word problem, or short essay – you might start with and why that format is easier on them. You may want to place a big essay question last in the test.

Consider whether to provide blue books, ask them to use lined paper or print out the questions with lines to answer each one. I have found that having lines on a page gives them a sense of how much detail they need to provide in answering each question; some questions have lines on only one page and some questions have six pages of lines.

Interesting Questions
Most tests follow a common structure requiring students to remember and regurgitate information they acquired from reading or class lecture and discussion. However, you can make it more interesting by creating a project examination. Give them something to read and indicate that the question will be about that article or handout. Let them bring the document to the examination. It will encourage them to study it, take notes, and prepare more thoroughly for the test. Or give them three articles or three case studies and indicate ahead of time that one of them will be on the test. The advantage of this model is that they can prepare ahead of time, and they will practice applying the information from their reading to the articles, case studies, or problems you have assigned.

Another way to incorporate interest is to create a problem and ask them to solve it using the material they have learned. It can be about organizing a walk-in, sorting management priorities, supervising employees, costing a full menu, or calculating the profit from a special event. These tests are more practical and applied and often – although not always – appeal to students. Remember to ask for the rationale or theory that supports their decisions.

I hope that these thoughts will help you develop clearer tests that measure what your students know and can demonstrate. Next month, we will discuss strategies for students to review for their tests.

If you have suggestions for other topics or teaching practices you want to share, send them to me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., and I will include them in future Mayo Clinics.

Dr. Fred Mayo, CHE, CHT, is retired as a clinical professor of hotel and tourism management at New York University. As principal of Mayo Consulting Services, he continues to teach around the globe and is a regular presenter at CAFÉ events nationwide.

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