AY 300 - Writing Exams and Quizzes

As a GSI, you will probably be asked to write and give section quizzes and/or write exam questions. Here are some guidelines to keep in mind in writing these types of questions:

Test the Material Emphasized

There are two aspects to this. Firstly, and we hope obviously, you should not test students on minuscule details or lecture asides. Instead, the vast majority of the exam should cover the main points presented in lecture and discussion section.

Secondly, your exams should challenge students in the same ways that they've been challenged on their homeworks and quizzes: the kinds of problems on your exam should be the same kinds of problems you've presented in your homeworks and quizzes, and the skills necessary to solve the exam problems should be the same skills you've tested throughout the course. Ideally, this means that your exams will test whether your students have a sophisticated understanding of the important concepts of the class, rather than a peripheral understanding of everything. In practice, we rarely design our homeworks and quizzes well enough to demand real sophistication from our students in the middle of the semester, and it's unfair to suddenly ask them to develop such sophistication during test times. Usually, a good practical exam question is one that requires the student to use what they learned in class to move slightly beyond what was directly presented (e.g. apply a concept in a slightly different situation than the one shown in lecture or join together two different concept applications in a way not previously presented).

Keep Questions Short and To the Point

Your exams should be challenging, while also requiring the student to spend the majority of their time thinking, rather than reading. It is especially unfair to non-native English speakers to give long, wordy questions. Such questions are also often ambiguous.

Edit Questions for Clarity

Keeping your exam questions short will automatically make most questions clear. However, it is still a good idea to carefully edit your exams because ambiguous questions both upset students and make grading difficult later. If possible, have a fellow GSI (or Head GSI or Ay 300 instructor) take your quiz or exam in advance of giving it. The other person may have good suggestions for improving question wording. Note that evaluating others' exam questions is equally or more important as knowing how to write them, since GSIs almost always vet exams but usually only contribute a few questions at most.

Don't Write a Long Test

Your test should assess student understanding, not student speed. Therefore, good exams should be easily completed in the allocated time by 90% of students. One way to gauge whether your test is too long is by having a fellow GSI take your exam. Double (or probably triple) the time it takes the GSI to take the exam in order to estimate how long the exam will take your typical student.


Quizzes vs. Homeworks

  • They're quite similar in their construction and type of questions.
  • The main difference is that quizzes should be shorter and have easier questions, since students have much less time to work on quizzes and must work on them alone.

Quizzes are:

  • Short
  • Usually given in section
  • Exam-like in difficulty, i.e. easier than homework questions
  • Not too in-depth or calculation-based. Some light calculation might be OK, but take care. (Not everyone will remember a calculator no matter how many times you remind them, and many people will be petrified of the idea of computing things on their own.)
  • Usually, only cover recent material (i.e. the past 2-3 weeks)

Quizzes are used:

  • By the GSI to gauge each students' understanding of recent material individually (as opposed to homeworks which can be done in groups)
  • By the student to gauge their own understanding of recent material and get a feel for what a college level intro science course non-Scantron exam will look like and what level of understanding they are expected to have for the exams
  • By the instructor to get a grade early in the semester that's more important than a single homework, but isn't the big production that an exam is (you might not have covered enough material for a full exam)
  • By the student, at times, to decide whether or not to continue with, or drop the class (sad, but true)

Good quizzes are:

  • Not too long (both in length of individual questions and number of questions)
  • Not too hard
  • Not too easy (shoot for a variety of difficulties in questions)
  • Relevant to recent material
  • Varied in the types of questions (fill in the blank, calculation/mathematical, read a graph, free/paragraph response)
  • Unambiguous with easy-to-read questions
  • Not mathematically demanding - questions should probably not require a calculator and should definitely not include extensive tedious calculations
  • Representative of same knowledge required for exams
  • Gradable for partial credit (not simply binary right/wrong like Scantron exams)
  • Specific about what you're looking for in free response type questions: Don't give students the opportunity to 'core-dump' for a problem, it wastes their time spewing forth useless information and makes your life tougher when you have to grade the mess.
  • Quick to grade (This makes your life much easier and helps the grading be more fair for all of your students.)

Quizzes are meant to be relatively low stress (especially compared to full exams)


Exams exist to:

  • Evaluate student learning for University-required grading.
  • Motivate students to study and understand the material.
  • Allow the instructor to evaluate his/her progress educating students about the material.
  • To a limited extent, provide feedback to students about their understanding and study habits and illustrate specific gaps in their understanding of the material.

What makes good multiple choice exam questions?

  • Not too long/wordy (neither the question nor the possible answers)
  • Not too much calculation
  • Not too tricky (i.e. two extremely similar answers)
  • Relevant to important material (as opposed to really obscure/minute details)
  • Very clearly written, precise wording in both question and answers
    • E.g., 'Which best describes…' as opposed to 'What is…' or 'How does…happen'
  • Pedagogical as well as evaluative (e.g., some questions should probe common misconceptions)
  • Questions that are very easy or very difficult are OK as long as the test has questions with a variety of difficulties

What makes bad ones?

  • Long answers!
  • Excessive use of 'all of the above' (some people say any use of 'all/none of the above' is a bad thing)
  • Questions that can be solved without knowledge of the material (usually because of the use of too many blatantly wrong or “funny” possible answers)
  • Multiple potentially correct answers (usually from vague questions or possible answers)

Non-multiple choice questions

  • Types of questions:
    • Matching
    • Fill-in-the-table/blank
    • Simple calculations
    • Short answers and paragraph/free responses
    • Diagrams, plots, graphs
  • Most of the same points discussed above, and for quizzes, apply here:
    • Questions should be clear, easy to read, and unambiguous
    • Questions should be relevant to the material presented and emphasized (do not test on obscure passages of the textbook)
    • For high-value questions, allow for partial credit
    • Make the questions easy to grade! Don't give students the opportunity to 'core-dump' for a problem: be very specific about what you're looking for in free response type questions.
  • Can be be slightly more time-consuming than quiz questions, depending on the overall length of the exam.