Exam Writing Guidelines
For more information contact:
From: NBME’s Constructing Written Test Questions for the Basic and
Clinical Sciences. Available at:
What Should be Tested?
Content should match course objectives
Important topics should be weighted more heavily than less important
Testing time devoted to each topic should reflect the relative
importance of the topic
Sample of items should be representative of instructional goals
General Guidelines for Item Construction
Make sure the item can be answered without looking
at the options OR that the options are 100% true or false.
Include as much of the item as possible in the
stem; the stems should be long and the options short.
Avoid superfluous information.
Avoid "tricky" and overly complex items.
Write options that are grammatically consistent and
logically compatible with the stem; list them in logical or alphabetical
Write distracters that are plausible and the same
relative length as the answer.
Avoid using absolutes such as always, never, and
all in the options; also avoid using vague terms such as usually and
Avoid negatively phrased items (i.e., those with except or not in the
lead-in). If you must use a negative stem, use only short (preferably
single word) options.
And most important of all: Focus on important concepts; don’t waste
time testing trivial facts.
Flaws that Tip Off Students to the Correct Answer
Grammatical cues - one or more distracters don’t follow grammatically
from the stem.
Logical cues - a subset of the options is collectively exhaustive.
Absolute terms - terms such as "always" or "never" are in some
Long correct answer - correct answer is longer, more specific, or more
complete than other options.
Word repeats - a word or phrase is included in the stem and in the
Convergence strategy - the correct answer includes the most elements
in common with the other options.
Flaws that Make Items Unnecessarily Difficult
Options are long or complicated, or contain duplicated portions.
Numeric data are not stated consistently.
Terms in the options are vague (examples--"rarely," "usually").
Language in the options is not parallel.
Options are in an illogical order.
"None of the above" is used as an option.
Stems are tricky or unnecessarily complicated.
The answer to an item is "hinged" to the answer of a related item.
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Time to Complete
|| 2 minutes
- Allow another 5 minutes for students to review their exams.
- Allow time for distributing and collecting exams.
- Another rule-of-thumb: Allow students 4 times the amount of time that
it takes you to complete the exam.
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To ensure that all major topics covered in a course are represented on
the exam, use a two-way grid called a test blueprint.
Levels of Item Complexity
Guidelines for Number of Items per Objective
Weight assigned to content area
Emphasis given to levels of complexity in Bloom’s Taxonomy
Amount of class time spent on topic
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Students have an opportunity to integrate and synthesize
material and apply knowledge to varying contexts.
Students can work at their own pace; no time constraints
usually result in better written responses.
Allow longer and more involved questions.
More thorough exploration of ideas and material can take
More resources are available to the student.
Less test anxiety.
More a test of thinking and writing than of memory.
Easier for you to read, if you require students to type.
Take longer to grade.
More difficult to grade objectively than multiple-choice
Students can be unsure about the time and effort to put
into completing exam.
Students may not do their own work.
Students may spend less time preparing for exam.
Appropriate types of questions
Do not make the exam too difficult.
Make limits on length or time. Students may find it difficult
to know when to stop writing and/or when to stop researching and start
Give students instructions on what they can and cannot
do—what resources they can use, who they can consult, etc.
Consider a compromise
Include both an in-class and take-home component to the exam.
Distribute possible essay questions a week or two before the
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Guidelines for take-home group exam
Students need to understand the purpose of writing a group exam.
Are they developing particular skills?
Are they learning to do research?
What is the level of analysis that you will require of them?
The instructor needs to outline a schedule.
All requirements should be specified.
Length of written products
Use of graphics
Method of documentation
The grading procedure should be stated.
One grade can be given for the exam, another for the individual’s
part in the exam.
Students can be allowed a voice in the grade.
Students can be allowed to assign the final grade.
Final grading can be postponed until students have a chance to
Guidelines for in-class group exams
Allow students to practice working in groups throughout the
When using multiple-choice exams, use higher-level questions and
allow about 50 minutes to do about 25 items.
Have students discuss each item, not just vote on the answer.
Try dividing students into groups of five.
Try having students complete the exam by themselves, pass it in, and
then complete the exam in a group.
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- …….(2002). Special Issue: Facilitating Students'
Collaborative Writing, ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report, Vol. 28, Issue
5. Available at:
(no longer available).
- Brinkley, A. et al. (1999). The Chicago Handbook for Teachers. The
University of Chicago Press: Chicago.
- Davis, B.G. (2001). Tools for Teaching. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco.
- Fry, H., Ketteridge, S., & Marshall, S. (1999). A Handbook for
Teaching & Learning in Higher Education: Enhancing Academic Practice.
Kogan Page: London.
- Jacobs, L.C. & Chase, C.I. (1992). Developing and using tests
effectively: A handbook for faculty. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco.
- Sax, G. (1980). Principles of educational and psychological
measurement and evaluation. Wadsworth Publishing Company: Belmont,
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