Students writing exams.


Constructing and grading tests and exams can be a challenging prospect – and for many not an entirely enjoyable one. Tests and exams can become more meaningful (and less painful) when they are constructed to build upon mere evaluation to enhance and support teaching and learning.

Components of a lesson plan

Here are some guidelines* to help you get started:

  • Consider your reasons for testing.
  • Will this quiz monitor the students’ progress so that you can adjust the pace of the course?
  • Will ongoing quizzes serve to motivate students?
  • Will this final provide data for a grade at the end of the quarter?
  • Will this mid-term challenge students to apply concepts learned so far?

The reason(s) for giving a test will help you determine features such as length, format, level of detail required in answers, and the time frame for returning results to the students.

  • Maintain consistency between goals for the course, methods of teaching, and the tests used to measure achievement of goals. If, for example, class time emphasizes review and recall of information, then so can the test; if class time emphasizes analysis and synthesis, then the test can also be designed to demonstrate how well students have learned these things.
  • Use testing methods that are appropriate to learning goals. For example, a multiple-choice test might be useful for demonstrating memory and recall, but it may require an essay or open-ended problem-solving for students to demonstrate more independent analysis or synthesis.
  • Help students prepare. Most students will assume that the test is designed to measure what is most important for them to learn in the course. You can help students prepare for the test by clarifying course goals as well as reviewing material. This will allow the test to reinforce what you most want students to learn and retain.
  • Use consistent language (in stating goals, in talking in class, and in writing test questions) to describe expected outcomes. If you want to use words like explain or discuss, be sure that you use them consistently and that students know what you mean when you use them.
  • Design test items that allow students to show a range of learning. That is, students who have not fully mastered everything in the course should still be able to demonstrate how much they have learned.

What are the elements of a good exam?**

  • A good exam gives all students an equal opportunity to fully demonstrate their learning. With this in mind, you might reflect on the nature and parameters of your exam. For example, could the exam be administered as a take-home exam? Two students might know the material equally well, but one of them might not perform well under the pressure of a timed or in-class testing situation. In such a case, what is it that you really want to assess: how well each student knows the material, or how well each performs under pressure? Likewise, it might be appropriate to allow students to bring memory aids to an exam. Again, what is it that you want to assess: their ability to memorize a formula or their ability to use and apply a formula?
  • Consistency. If you gave the same exam twice to the same students, they should get a similar grade each time.
  • Validity. Make sure your questions address what you want to evaluate.
  • Realistic expectations. Your exam should contain questions that match the average student’s ability level. It should also be possible to respond to all questions in the time allowed. To check the exam, ask a teaching assistant to take the test – if they can’t complete it in well under the time permitted then the exam needs to be revised.
  • Uses multiple question types. Different students are better at different types of questions. In order to allow all students to demonstrate their abilities, exams should include a variety of types of questions.
  • Offer multiple ways to obtain full marks. Exams can be highly stressful and artificial ways to demonstrate knowledge. In recognition of this, you may want to provide questions that allow multiple ways to obtain full marks.
  • Free of bias. Your students will differ in many ways including language proficiency, socio-economic background, physical disabilities, etc. When constructing an exam, you should keep student differences in mind to watch for ways that the exams could create obstacles for some students. For example, the use of colloquial language could create difficulties for students for whom English is a first language, and examples easily understood by North American students may be inaccessible to international students.
  • Redeemable. An exam does not be the sole opportunity to obtain marks. Assignments and midterms allow students to practice answering your types of questions and adapt to your expectations.
  • Demanding. An exam that is too easy does not accurately measure students’ understanding of the material.
  • Transparent marking criteria. Students should know what is expected of them. They should be able to identify the characteristics of a satisfactory answer and understand the relative importance of those characteristics. This can be achieved in many ways; you can provide feedback on assignments, describe your expectations in class, or post model solutions.
  • Timely. Spread exams out over the semester. Giving two exams one week apart doesn’t give students adequate time to receive and respond to the feedback provided by the first exam. When possible, plan the exams to fit logically within the flow of the course material. It might be helpful to place tests at the end of important learning units rather than simply give a midterm halfway through the semester. 
  • Accessible. For students with disabilities, exams must be amenable to adaptive technologies such as screen-readers or screen magnifiers.


* Center for Teaching and Learning, University of Washington. (n.d.). Constructing tests. Retrieved from:

** Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo. (n.d.). Preparing tests and exams. Retrieved from:

Using tests and exams to support learning

An exciting new wave of brain-based research has emerged that looks at how we learn. Long-term memory is now thought to be limitless. However, memory is much like an enormous messy warehouse. If you placed your red-handled screw driver somewhere in that warehouse but you don’t remember where you placed it – then it’s like it doesn’t exist. On the other hand, if you put the screwdriver down in a particular spot and then practiced retrieving that screwdriver a few times then you will remember where to find it. Practicing the retrieval of knowledge and skills helps to solidify access to information in your long-term memory.  The following conclusions are reported by Brame and Biel’s (2015) review of the use of retrieval practice to support learning.

  • Repeated retrieval enhances long-term retention in a laboratory setting
  • Various testing formats can enhance learning
  • Feedback enhances the benefits of testing
  • Learning is not limited to rote memory
  • Testing can increase further study habits
  • The benefits of testing appear to extend to the classroom

In the same study, strategies are suggested for the use of tests (retrieval practice) to enhance learning:

  • Incorporating frequent quizzes into a class’s structure may promote student learning. These quizzes can consist of short-answer or multiple-choice questions, and can be administered online or face-to-face. Studies investigating the testing effect suggest that providing students the opportunity for retrieval practice—and ideally, providing feedback for the responses—will increase learning of targeted as well as related material.
  • Providing “summary points” during a class to encourage students to recall and articulate key elements of the class. Lyle and Crawford’s study examined the effects of asking to students to write the main points of the day’s class during the last few minutes of a class meeting, and observed a significant effect on student recall at the end of the semester (Lyle and Crawford, 2011). Setting aside the last few minutes of a class to ask students to recall, articulate, and organize their memory of the content of the day’s class may provide significant benefits to their later memory of these topics.
  • Pretesting to highlight important information and instructor expectations. Elizabeth Ligon Bjork and colleagues have reported results that suggest that pretesting students’ knowledge of a subject may prime them for learning (Little and Bjork, 2011). By pretesting students prior to a unit or even a day of instruction, an instructor may help alert students both to the types of questions that they need to be able to answer as well as the key concepts and facts they need to be alert to during study and instruction.
  • Telling students about the testing effect. Instructors may be able to aid their students’ metacognitive abilities by sharing a synopsis of these observations. Telling students that frequent quizzing helps learning—and that effective quizzing can take a variety of forms—can give them a particularly helpful tool to add to their learning toolkit (Stanger-Hall et al., 2011). Adding the potential benefits of pretesting may further empower students to take control of their own learning, such as by using example exams as primers for their learning rather than simply as pre-exam checks on their knowledge.


Brame, C.J. and Biel, R. (2015). Test-enhanced learning: Using retrieval practice to promote learning. Retrieved from

Helping students prepare for tests and exams

Linda Nilson (2010) provides the following advice to support students as they prepare for tests and exams:

Reading and Review Strategies

You begin preparing your students for tests from the very first day by teaching them proven techniques for taking notes on your lectures and class activities. Of course, students should review the relevant readings and their notes before a test. More than 80 percent of the studies conducted on reviewing lecture notes find that the activity enhances test performance (Bligh, 2000). But just reading notes over, even multiple times, will not help much for the test.

The quickest, most efficient, and most effective way to study written material, at least for factual and problem-solving tests, is “active recall” or the 3R (read-recite-review) strategy (McDaniel, Howard, & Einstein, 2009; Roediger & Karpicke, 2006). According to this method, students read a section of their text or notes, then put the material away, recite aloud as much as they can remember, and finally reread the section. In addition to reinforcing their reading by restating and hearing the material, students practice retrieval with self-testing, which is exactly the skill they will need during the test.

Study Groups

Study groups that meet regularly outside class are also very helpful (Hufford, 1991; Treisman, 1986). Since member commitment can make or break them, consider formalizing them by having students sign up for such groups early in the term. Then distribute a list of all the groups with their members’ names and contact information.

Review Sheets

This study aid helps many students prepare for a test, especially first-year and second-year students who do not yet know what college-level assessment involves. You can make a review sheet as simple as a list or outline of important topics that you have emphasized, but this alone will not tell students how to study this content.

Students gain much more from a sample test or a list of review questions. These questions should mirror your student learning outcomes and represent the variety of item formats that will appear on the test. If you plan to use some factual and terminological multiple-choice questions on the test, then put some of those items on the review sheet. If you intend to test analysis and synthesis, develop some questions that require those same cognitive operations.

This method demands much more of your time and effort because you do not want to duplicate the sample items on the real test. But it is highly effective, and you can draw appropriate items from previous tests. Perhaps the best option for students is what is called a “test blueprint” (Questionmark Corporation, 2000; Suskie, 2004), and it can also help you design a test that assesses your students’ achievement of your outcomes. So, have your syllabus and outcomes map handy. To make a test blueprint:

  • Begin by listing all the major content areas that your test will address.
  • Designate their relative importance by the percentage of the test (or number of points) to be devoted to each area.
  • Within each content area, write down what you want students to be able to do or demonstrate, using action verbs and avoiding internal-states verbs such as know, understand, realize, and appreciate. These statements should reflect your student learning outcomes, though perhaps on a more micro-level than in your syllabus or outcomes map.
  • Allocate points or items across these outcome statements according to how central they are in this part of the course. In other words, instead of just listing concepts for students to “know,” tell them more specifically that, for instance, they should be able to recognize the definitions, purposes, and examples of a list of concepts and be able to reproduce a given list of principles. Let these statements serve as the blueprint for your test questions.

Review Sessions

  • Prior to your review session, make it clear that you will not be summarizing the past few weeks of lectures and readings or dispensing the answers to the review questions.
  • Insist that students come prepared to ask specific questions on the material and answer any review questions on their own.
  • With respect to their questions, always ask the class for answers before answering them yourself. Have the entire class participate in brain-storming and refining the answers, and assign different questions to small groups and have them develop and orally present their answers.
  • Invite other students to evaluate the group’s answers, and then offer your own assessment.

There is another version of this format called pair/group and review

  • Student pairs or small groups develop answers to review questions, after which you randomly select a few of them to present their answers to the class.
  • Mock-grade them and explain your assessment criteria or, better yet, have the rest of the class mock-grade the answers to help students learn how to assess their own work.

One more variation, this one tailored to an essay test, is the question shuffle (Millis, 2005).

  • Students attending the review session must bring in two essay questions, each on an index card, that they think would be appropriate for the test.
  • They pair off, review their four questions, and select the best two.
  • All the pairs circulate for a few moments, shuffling their two cards among other pairs.
  • From the two questions they wind up with, the pairs select one to answer, and each student writes out an answer within a time period that replicates what the test will allow for such a question.

This activity furnishes a test-taking rehearsal, which generally reduces anxiety and enhances performance. The students in each pair compare and evaluate their different approaches to the question, giving them practice in critical thinking. As time permits, you can repeat the “shuffle.” You can then collect the questions (and responses) and use the best ones on the test. Not only does this review exercise supply you with an already-vetted test (or discussion) question bank, but it also serves as a classroom assessment technique, informing you about your students’ understanding of the material to be tested and possibly giving you the chance before the test to clear up their misconceptions and help them improve their essay writing (Millis, 2005).

Help Sessions or Course Clinics

This measure takes the review session one step further by establishing weekly meetings of one or more hours during which you or your teaching assistant answers questions. A regularly scheduled meeting motivates students to keep up with the course and not wait until the last minute to cram for a test. It also reduces stress by encouraging students to study without the impending threat of an exam.

Reducing exam anxiety

Moderate anxiety is normal before a major test and indeed can motivate and energize students. From their review of the test anxiety literature, Mealy and Host (1993) identified three types of anxious students. Those of the first type lack adequate study skills and are aware of the problem; they are not well prepared for exams and worry about performing poorly. The second group comprises students who have adequate study strategies but become severely distracted during a test. Other research confirms these two categories of anxious students (Naveh-Benjamin, McKeachie, & Lin, 1987). The final type consists of students who mistakenly believe that they have adequate study skills but do poorly on exams, then wonder what the problem could be. They may blame instructors and “unfair exams” for their falling short of their high expectations.

Mealy and Host (1993) also asked students how an instructor can affect their anxiety before, during, and after a test. They received four kinds of responses:

  1. Seventy-five percent of the students want their instructor to conduct some kind of review before the test and are less anxious after attending one. They feel more confident if they are sure they have correct information in their notes.
  2. Students become stressed when their instructor tells them that the test will be hard. They do not mind a challenging exam, but they want to hear how they should study, followed by some words of reassurance.
  3. Most students get nervous when their instructor walks around the room during a test and looks over their shoulders. While this may keep cheating in check, it also raises the anxiety of stress-sensitive students.
  4. Many students resent interruptions during a test. Even if their instructor breaks in just to correct or clarify an exam item, it throws off their train of

In summary, taking measures to prepare your students for tests, such as providing quality review sheets and review sessions, along with building their self-confidence and minimizing test interruptions, will help allay their test anxiety. So will these actions:

  • Have your test schedule written in your syllabus, and stick to it.
  • Include a clear grading system and policies on missed quizzes in your syllabus.
  • Consider dropping your students’ lowest test or quiz score from your final grade calculations; anyone can have a bad day or a legitimate reason for missing a class.
  • Test frequently, reducing the relative weight of each test so that one poor performance will not cost students dearly.
  • Tailor your tests to the time allotted. If it takes you so many minutes to complete one of your tests, figure that it will take your students three times as long. Not being able to finish a test discourages students, even if you tell them they are not expected to finish it.
  • Teach students relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, counting to ten, and visualizing a successful test session (Ellis, 2006; Hebert, 1984).

Occasionally you may have a student for whom test anxiety is a debilitating problem. Refer this individual to your institution’s counseling center, as you should for other emotional and psychological problems, or the learning skills and academic assistance center.


Nilson, L. (2010). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. pp. 296-299.

Resources and references

Barkley, E. (2010). Student engagement techniques: A handbook for college faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Brookfield, S. (2015). The skillful teacher: On technique, trust, and responsiveness in the classroom (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Davis, B. (2009). Tools for teaching (2nd ed., Jossey-Bass higher and adult education series). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Fink, L. (2013). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Lang, J. (2008). On course: A week-by-week guide to your first semester of college teaching. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

McKeachie, W., & Svinicki, M. (2013). McKeachie’s teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers (14th ed.). Belmont, USA: Wadsworth Publishing.

Nilson, L. (2010). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Smith, T. “Exams as learning experiences: One nutty idea after another.” In R. J. Mezeske and B. A.

Mezeske, eds., Beyond Tests and Quizzes: Creative Assessments in the College Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007.