Though there are, indeed, a myriad of ways to assess your students’ learning, tests remain a fairly common method of doing so. And when you’re designing a test, you also have several options for question types. Choosing which types of questions to write may be one of your more significant challenges. Creating a test structured exclusively around essay questions may prove time consuming to grade. On the other hand, crafting a test completely from multiple-choice questions would certainly take less time to grade, but you would learn a limited amount about students’ depth of understanding. Therefore, creating your test is not quite as simple as “A, B, C” (pun intended).

What factors should you weigh when writing and selecting particular questions to use? As Marilla D. Svinicki and Wilbert J. McKeachie note in McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers, Fourteenth Edition, “Class size is certainly an important factor, but your educational goals should take precedence. Higher level goals almost always will require the use of some essay questions, problems, or other items requiring analysis, integration, or application” (86). Thus, your overall instructional goals for the course should remain front of mind when creating a test.


In McKeachie’s Teaching Tips, the authors share a number of recommendations for choosing the types of questions you’ll use in your examinations. You’ll find some of their points summarized below:

  • Problems generally comprise a large portion of exams in mathematics and science courses. The authors warn against writing overly simplistic problems that do not help you evaluate students’ problem-solving skills. Therefore, if you want students to focus on the process of solving the problem, rather than simply on providing the solution itself, you could write problems that require showing a solution strategy, yet ultimately could be solved in multiple different ways; or, you could include problems that could produce more than one “correct” final answer, yet still require a demonstration or explanation of the work.
  • Svinicki and McKeachie note that short-answer questions can be used to test students’ knowledge of specific facts, yet they have broader application as well. Consider using short-answer items to test analytical skills (e.g., provide a short case study, and ask students how they would resolve or further investigate the issues described in the case). Alternately, you could have students briefly describe their own experiences as they relate to a course concept.
  • Because essay questions prompt students to give thoughtful consideration to the application and interrelationship of course concepts, the authors recommend including at least one such question in each examination. If class time and grading time are limited, you could structure the examination sheet or online form in such a way that students’ answers follow several separate prompts that require briefer responses. The authors write that this strategy “…impos[es] a little organization on the answer to make… grading easier” (88).
  • Though the authors generally recommend against using true–false items, they do suggest that asking students to explain why they answered “true” or “false” requires them to consider their answers more thoughtfully. By using this method, you can also gain better insight into their understanding (and misunderstanding) of both the content and the question itself.

  • Multiple-choice and matching questions can help you see a student’s recollection of knowledge of course concepts and their ability to discern the correct answer among several incorrect (and possibly similar) options. However, they tend not to be the best choice for testing some higher-order thinking skills, such as organizing ideas or relating various course concepts to one another. Additionally, they can be challenging to write in a fair manner. If you do opt to write multiple-choice questions, the authors recommend “pre-testing” them with other people before including them on the examination you give to your students. (86-89)

For additional information on testing and assessment, read McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers, Fourteenth EditionYou can also review our previous posts to gather more ideas for your classroom: 


Reference: McKeachie, Wilbert J. and Svinicki, Marilla. 2014. McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers, 14th ed. Belmont: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.


What’s your process for crafting and constructing tests, exams, and other assessments? Share your ideas below.