Improving Your Test Questions, Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Improving Your Test Questions

Table of Contents

I. Choosing Between Objective and Subjective Test Items

There are two general categories of test items: (1) objective items which require students to select the correct response from several alternatives or to supply a word or short phrase to answer a question or complete a statement; and (2) subjective or essay items which permit the student to organize and present an original answer. Objective items include multiple-choice, true-false, matching and completion, while subjective items include short-answer essay, extended-response essay, problem solving and performance test items. For some instructional purposes one or the other item types may prove more efficient and appropriate. To begin out discussion of the relative merits of each type of test item, test your knowledge of these two item types by answering the following questions.

Test Item Quiz (circle the correct answer)
1. Essay exams are easier to construct than are objective exams. T F ?
2. Essay exams require more thorough student preparation and study time than objective exams. T F ?
3. Essay exams require writing skills where objective exams do not. T F ?
4. Essay exams teach a person how to write. T F ?
5. Essay exams are more subjective in nature than are objective exams. T F ?
6. Objective exams encourage guessing more so than essay exams. T F ?
7. Essay exams limit the extent of content covered. T F ?
8. Essay and objective exams can be used to measure the same content or ability. T F ?
9. Essay and objective exams are both good ways to evaluate a student's level of knowledge. T F ?

Quiz Answers

TRUE Essay items are generally easier and less time consuming to construct than are most objective test items. Technically correct and content appropriate multiple-choice and true-false test items require an extensive amount of time to write and revise. For example, a professional item writer produces only 9-10 good multiple-choice items in a day's time.
2. ? According to research findings it is still undetermined whether or not essay tests require or facilitate more thorough (or even different) student study preparation.
3. TRUE Writing skills do affect a student's ability to communicate the correct "factual" information through an essay response. Consequently, students with good writing skills have an advantage over students who have difficulty expressing themselves through writing.
4. FALSE Essays do not teach a student how to write but they can emphasize the importance of being able to communicate through writing. constant use of essay tests may encourage the knowledgeable but poor writing student to improve his/her writing ability in order to improve performance.
5. TRUE Essays are more subjective in nature due to their susceptibility to scoring influences. Different readers can rate identical responses differently, the same reader can rate the same paper differently over time, the handwriting, neatness or punctuation can unintentionally affect a paper's grade and the lack of anonymity can affect the grading process. While impossible to eliminate, scoring influences or biases can be minimized through procedures discussed later in this booklet.
6. ? Both item types encourage some form of guessing. Multiple-choice, true-false and matching items can be correctly answered through blind guessing, yet essay items can be responded to satisfactorily through well written bluffing.
7. TRUE Due to the extent of time required by the student to respond to an essay question, only a few essay questions can be included on a classroom exam. Consequently, a larger number of objective items can be tested in the same amount of time, thus enabling the test to cover more content.
8. TRUE Both item types can measure similar content or learning objectives. Research has shown that students respond almost identically to essay and objective test items covering the same content. Studies1 by Sax & Collet (1968) and Paterson (1926) conducted forty-two years apart reached the same conclusion:

"...there seems to be no escape from the conclusions that the two types of exams are measuring identical things." (Paterson, p. 246)

This conclusion should not be surprising; after all, a well written essay item requires that the student (1) have a store of knowledge, (2) be able to relate facts and principles, and (3) be able to organize such information into a coherent and logical written expression, whereas an objective test item requires that the student (1) have a store of knowledge, (2) be able to relate facts and principles, and (3) be able to organize such information into a coherent and logical choice among several alternatives.
9. TRUE Both objective and essay test items are good devices for measuring student achievement. However, as seen in the previous quiz answers, there are particular measurement situations where one item type is more appropriate than the other. Following is a set of recommendations for using either objective or essay test items: (Adapted from Robert L. Ebel, Essentials of Educational Measurement, 1972, p. 144).
1Gilbert Sax and LeVerne S. Collet, "An Empirical Comparison of the Effects of Recall and Multiple-Choice Tests on Student Achievement," Journal of Educational Measurement, vol. 5 (1968), 169-73.

Donald G. Paterson, "Do New and Old Type Examinations Measure Different Mental Functions?" School and Society, vol. 24. (August 21, 1926), 246-48.

When to Use Essay or Objective Tests

Essay tests are especially appropriate when:
  • the group to be tested is small and the test is not to be reused.
  • you wish to encourage and reward the development of student skill in writing.
  • you are more interested in exploring the student's attitudes than in measuring his/her achievement.
  • you are more confident of your ability as a critical and fair reader than as an imaginative writer of good objective test items.
Objective tests are especially appropriate when:
  • the group to be tested is large and the test may be reused.
  • highly reliable test scores must be obtained as efficiently as possible.
  • impartiality of evaluation, absolute fairness, and freedom from possible test scoring influences (e.g., fatigue, lack of anonymity) are essential.
  • you are more confident of your ability to express objective test items clearly than of your ability to judge essay test answers correctly.
  • there is more pressure for speedy reporting of scores than for speedy test preparation.
Either essay or objective tests can be used to:
  • measure almost any important educational achievement a written test can measure.
  • test understanding and ability to apply principles.
  • test ability to think critically.
  • test ability to solve problems.
  • test ability to select relevant facts and principles and to integrate them toward the solution of complex problems.

In addition to the preceding suggestions, it is important to realize that certain item types are better suited than others for measuring particular learning objectives. For example, learning objectives requiring the student to demonstrate or to show, may be better measured by performance test items, whereas objectives requiring the student to explain or to describe may be better measured by essay test items. The matching of learning objective expectations with certain item types can help you select an appropriate kind of test item for your classroom exam as well as provide a higher degree of test validity (i.e., testing what is supposed to be tested). To further illustrate, several sample learning objectives and appropriate test items are provided on the following page.

Learning Objectives Most Suitable Test Item
The student will be able to categorize and name the parts of the human skeletal system. Objective Test Item (M-C, T-F, Matching)
The student will be able to critique and appraise another student's English composition on the basis of its organization. Essay Test Item (Extended-Response)
The student will demonstrate safe laboratory skills. Performance Test Item
The student will be able to cite four examples of satire that Twain uses in Huckleberry Finn. Essay Test Item (Short-Answer)

After you have decided to use either an objective, essay or both objective and essay exam, the next step is to select the kind(s) of objective or essay item that you wish to include on the exam. To help you make such a choice, the different kinds of objective and essay items are presented in the following section of this booklet. The various kinds of items are briefly described and compared to one another in terms of their advantages and limitations for use. Also presented is a set of general suggestions for the construction of each item variation.