Examinations are a very common assessment and evaluation tool in universities and there are many types of examination questions. This tips sheet contains a brief description of seven types of examination questions, as well as tips for using each of them: 1) multiple choice, 2) true/false, 3) matching, 4) short answer, 5) essay, 6) oral, and 7) computational. Remember that some exams can be conducted effectively in a secure online environment in a proctored computer lab or assigned as paper based or online “take home” exams.
Multiple choice questions are composed of one question (stem) with multiple possible answers (choices), including the correct answer and several incorrect answers (distractors). Typically, students select the correct answer by circling the associated number or letter, or filling in the associated circle on the machine-readable response sheet.
Example: Distractors are:
A) Elements of the exam layout that distract attention from the questions
B) Incorrect but plausible choices used in multiple choice questions
C) Unnecessary clauses included in the stem of multiple choice questions
Students can generally respond to these type of questions quite quickly. As a result, they are often used to test student’s knowledge of a broad range of content. Creating these questions can be time consuming because it is often difficult to generate several plausible distractors. However, they can be marked very quickly.
Tips for writing good multiple choice items:
In the stem:
In the choices:
In the stem:
In the choices:
Suggestion: After each lecture during the term, jot down two or three multiple choice questions based on the material for that lecture. Regularly taking a few minutes to compose questions, while the material is fresh in your mind, will allow you to develop a question bank that you can use to construct tests and exams quickly and easily.
True/false questions are only composed of a statement. Students respond to the questions by indicating whether the statement is true or false. For example: True/false questions have only two possible answers (Answer: True).
Like multiple choice questions, true/false questions:
- Are most often used to assess familiarity with course content and to check for popular misconceptions
- Allow students to respond quickly so exams can use a large number of them to test knowledge of a broad range of content
- Are easy and quick to grade but time consuming to create
True/false questions provide students with a 50% chance of guessing the right answer. For this reason, multiple choice questions are often used instead of true/false questions.
Tips for writing good true/false items:
Suggestion: You can increase the usefulness of true/false questions by asking students to correct false statements.
Students respond to matching questions by pairing each of a set of stems (e.g., definitions) with one of the choices provided on the exam. These questions are often used to assess recognition and recall and so are most often used in courses where acquisition of detailed knowledge is an important goal. They are generally quick and easy to create and mark, but students require more time to respond to these questions than a similar number of multiple choice or true/false items.
Example: Match each question type with one attribute:
- Multiple Choice a) Only two possible answers
- True/False b) Equal number of stems and choices
- Matching c) Only one correct answer but at least three choices
Tips for writing good matching items:
Suggestion: You can use some choices more than once in the same matching exercise. It reduces the effects of guessing.
Short answer questions are typically composed of a brief prompt that demands a written answer that varies in length from one or two words to a few sentences. They are most often used to test basic knowledge of key facts and terms. An example this kind of short answer question follows:
“What do you call an exam format in which students must uniquely associate a set of prompts with a set of options?” Answer: Matching questions
Alternatively, this could be written as a fill-in-the-blank short answer question:
“An exam question in which students must uniquely associate prompts and options is called a
___________ question.” Answer: Matching.
Short answer questions can also be used to test higher thinking skills, including analysis or
evaluation. For example:
“Will you include short answer questions on your next exam? Please justify your decision with
two to three sentences explaining the factors that have influenced your decision.”
Short answer questions have many advantages. Many instructors report that they are relatively easy to construct and can be constructed faster than multiple choice questions. Unlike matching, true/false, and multiple choice questions, short answer questions make it difficult for students to
guess the answer. Short answer questions provide students with more flexibility to explain their understanding and demonstrate creativity than they would have with multiple choice questions; this also means that scoring is relatively laborious and can be quite subjective. Short answer
questions provide more structure than essay questions and thus are often easy and faster to mark and often test a broader range of the course content than full essay questions.
Tips for writing good short answer items:
|Type of question||Avoid||Do use|
Suggestion: When using short answer questions to test student knowledge of definitions consider having a mix of questions, some that supply the term and require the students to provide the definition, and other questions that supply the definition and require that students provide the term. The latter sort of questions can be structured as fill-in-the-blank questions. This mix of formats will better test student knowledge because it doesn’t rely solely on recognition or recall of the term.
Essay questions provide a complex prompt that requires written responses, which can vary in length from a couple of paragraphs to many pages. Like short answer questions, they provide students with an opportunity to explain their understanding and demonstrate creativity, but make it hard for students to arrive at an acceptable answer by bluffing. They can be constructed reasonably quickly and easily but marking these questions can be time-consuming and grader agreement can be difficult.
Essay questions differ from short answer questions in that the essay questions are less structured. This openness allows students to demonstrate that they can integrate the course material in creative ways. As a result, essays are a favoured approach to test higher levels of cognition including analysis, synthesis and evaluation. However, the requirement that the students provide most of the structure increases the amount of work required to respond effectively. Students often take longer to compose a five paragraph essay than they would take to compose five one paragraph answers to short answer questions. This increased workload limits the number of essay questions that can be posed on a single exam and thus can restrict the overall scope of an exam to a few topics or areas. To ensure that this doesn’t cause students to panic or blank out, consider giving the option of answering one of two or more questions.
Tips for writing good essay items:
Suggestions: Distribute possible essay questions before the exam and make your marking criteria slightly stricter. This gives all students an equal chance to prepare and should improve the quality of the answers – and the quality of learning – without making the exam any easier.
Oral examinations allow students to respond directly to the instructor’s questions and/or to present prepared statements. These exams are especially popular in language courses that demand ‘speaking’ but they can be used to assess understanding in almost any course by following the guidelines for the composition of short answer questions. Some of the principle advantages to oral exams are that they provide nearly immediate feedback and so allow the student to learn as they are tested. There are two main drawbacks to oral exams: the amount of time required and the problem of record-keeping. Oral exams typically take at least ten to fifteen minutes per student, even for a midterm exam. As a result, they are rarely used for large classes. Furthermore, unlike written exams, oral exams don’t automatically generate a written record. To ensure that students have access to written feedback, it is recommended that instructors take notes during oral exams using a rubric and/or checklist and provide a photocopy of the notes to the students.
In many departments, oral exams are rare. Students may have difficulty adapting to this new style of assessment. In this situation, consider making the oral exam optional. While it can take more time to prepare two tests, having both options allows students to choose the one which suits them and their learning style best.
Computational questions require that students perform calculations in order to solve for an answer. Computational questions can be used to assess student’s memory of solution techniques and their ability to apply those techniques to solve both questions they have attempted before and questions that stretch their abilities by requiring that they combine and use solution techniques in novel ways.
Effective computational questions should:
- Be solvable using knowledge of the key concepts and techniques from the course. Before the exam solve them yourself or get a teaching assistant to attempt the questions.
- Indicate the mark breakdown to reinforce the expectations developed in in-class examples for the amount of detail, etc. required for the solution.
To prepare students to do computational questions on exams, make sure to describe and model in class the correct format for the calculations and answer including:
- How students should report their assumptions and justify their choices
- The units and degree of precision expected in the answer
Suggestion: Have students divide their answer sheets into two columns: calculations in one, and a list of assumptions, description of process and justification of choices in the other. This ensures that the marker can distinguish between a simple mathematical mistake and a profound conceptual error and give feedback accordingly.
Cunningham, G.K. (1998). Assessment in the Classroom. Bristol, PA: Falmer Press.
Ward, A.W., & Murray-Ward, M. (1999). Assessment in the Classroom. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co.
This Creative Commons license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon our work non-commercially, as long as they credit us and indicate if changes were made. Use this citation format: Exam questions: types, characteristics and suggestions. Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo.
Types of Questions
In order to prepare properly for a test, you will need to ask not only what the content for the test will be, but also which types of questions the test will contain. Different question types require different study strategies. Listed below are descriptions of a number of different question types as well as study and preparation strategies for each.
Multiple-choice tests usually consist of a question or statement to which you respond by selecting the best answer from among a number of choices. Multiple-choice tests typically test what you know, whether or not you understand (comprehension), and your ability to apply what you have learned (application). Some questions might assess your ability to analyze or evaluate information, but these kinds of questions are difficult to write so they aren't common on multiple-choice exams.
There are no special tricks for studying for multiple-choice exams. General study skills apply:
- Stay current with assignments.
- Review your notes after each class.
- Schedule regular study sessions.
- Indentify materials you don't understand and ask questions.
- Form study groups to share notes and check each other's understanding.
- Create your own multiple choice questions about the content for practice.
Tips for Taking Multiple-choice Exams
- Read the question or statement carefully.
- Try to answer the question in your head before reading the answer choices.
- Read all of the answer choices carefully.
- Eliminate answers you know are incorrect
- If you know more than on answer is correct, consider if "all of the above" is possibly the correct choice.
- If "all of the above" isn't a choice, or isn't the correct choice, then select the BEST answer from those you think are correct.
- Never leave a multiple-choice question blank unless you are penalized for guessing. If you don't know the answer, eliminate the ones you know are not correct and then make an educated guess.
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True-false tests contain statements that the student marks as being either true or false. In order to qualify as true, all parts of the statement must be true. In general, true-false tests check your knowledge of facts. Again, general study skills and best practices apply to studying for true-false tests.
Tips for Responding to True-false Questions:
- Every part of a true sentence must be "true."
- Read each statement carefully and pay close attention to negatives, qualifiers, absolutes, and long strings of statements.
- Qualifiers like "never," "always," and "every" mean that the statement must be true all of the time. Usually these types of qualifiers lead to a false answer.
- Qualifiers like "usually, sometimes, and generally" mean that if the statement can be considered true or false depending on the circumstances. Usually these types of qualifiers lead to a true answer.
- If any part of the question is false, then the entire statement is false, but just because part of a statement is true doesn't necessarily make the entire statement true.
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Essay questions require students to write answers to statements or questions. To complete a successful essay exam, you need to be able to recall relevant information and to organize it in a clear way, generating a thesis and building to a conclusion. Instructors give essay tests to determine whether or not students can make connections among various ideas, apply course information to new situations, and (most importantly) demonstrate that they have made the information their own.
Essay exams are a useful tool for finding out if you are able to sort through a large body of information, figure out what is important, and explain why it is important. Essay exams challenge you to come up with key course ideas and put them into your own words using the interpretive or analytical skills you've practiced in the course. Essay questions are typically used to assess your ability to analyze or evaluate material, as well as to create (synthesize) new material based on your knowledge.
You should pay close attention to the words in the question or statement, called directives, which tell you exactly what is expected in your answer.
Directives ask you to answer or present information in a particular way. For a list of words and explanations,
see Study Guides and Strategies, essay terms.
Tips for Preparing for an Essay Exam
- List all topics you expect to be on the test, including key topics covered in class and in the readings. List important subtopics for each.
- Organize your notes and readings around the list of topics and review all the materials to be covered.
- For each topic and subtopic, specify who, what, where, when, how, and why.
Tips for Taking Essay Exams
- Read through the questions once and note if you have any choice in answering questions or if you are to answer only some of the questions
- Pay attention to how the question is phrased and to the "directives," words such as "compare," "contrast," "criticize," etc.
- Answers will come to mind immediately for some questions.
- Jot down thoughts, ideas, and keywords as you read each question.
- Set up a time schedule to answer, review, and edit all questions.
- If six questions are to be answered in sixty minutes and are all of equal difficulty and value, allow yourself only seven minutes for each.
- If questions are "weighted," prioritize that into your time allocation for each question. When the time is up for one question, stop writing, leave space below your answer (if it is a pencil and paper exam), and begin the next question. Incomplete answers can be completed during the review time.
- Before attempting to answer a question, put it in your own words then compare your version with the original. Do they mean the same thing? If they don't, you've misread the question. You'll be surprised how often they don't agree.
- Focus on what you DO know about the question, not on what you don't know.
- Make a brief outline for each question.
- Number the items in the order you will discuss them to be sure you don't miss any part of the question.
- Get right to the point.
- Use words from the question in your answer.
- Begin with a strong first sentence that states the main idea of your essay.
- Use your first paragraph to provide an overview of your essay and present your key points.
- Use the rest of your essay to discuss these points in more detail.
- Back up your points with specific information, examples, or quotations from your readings and notes.
- Make sure you answer everything the question is asking.
- Instructors/graders are positively influenced by compactness, completeness, and clarity of an organized answer.
- Writing in the hope that the right answer will somehow turn up is time-consuming and usually futile.
- To know a little and to present that little well is, by and large, superior to knowing much and presenting it poorly – the former will generally earn you a better grade.
- Begin each paragraph with a key point from the introduction.
- Develop each point in a complete paragraph.
- Use transitions, or enumerations, to connect your points.
- Keeep your time limit in mind.
- It is better to write "toward the end of the 19th century" than to say "in 1894" when you can't remember, whether it's 1884 or 1894. In many cases, the approximate time is all that is wanted; unfortunately 1894, though approximate, may be incorrect, and will usually be marked accordingly.
- Summarize in your last paragraph:
- Restate your central idea and indicate why it is important.
- Complete any questions left incomplete.
- Allow time to review all questions.
- Edit and correct misspellings, incomplete words and sentences, and miswritten dates and numbers.
- Outline the answers to the questions you don't have time to finish.
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Short-answer questions or statements are similar to essay questions, except they can be answered with just a few words or sentences. They test foundational knowledge which is usually factual. When completing short-answer questions, it's important to pay attention to the directive words in each item.
Tips for Preparing for Short-answer Exams
- Create flash cards with key terms, dates, and concepts on the front and definitions, events, and explanations on the back.
- Develop summary sheets of the course materials.
- Focus on key words, events, vocabulary, and concepts.
- Organize your notes and materials around the key words, events, vocabulary, and concepts you have identified.
Tips for Taking Short-answer Exams
- Read the question carefully and make sure you answer everything that is requested.
- When answering questions, respond directly to the question or directive focusing on keywords and ideas.
- Write concise answers presenting key facts in short sentences according to the test instructions.
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Fill-in-the-blank items, also known as completion questions, provide students with a partial sentence or question and then require them to write the word (or words) in the blank that best completes the statement or question. Fill-in-the-blank and short-answer questions test your ability to recollect facts you have learned.
Tips for Preparing for Fill-in-the-blank Exams
- As you organize and review your class notes, underline new terms, important dates, noteworthy phrases, and the names of key people.
- Review readings and other materials in the same manner; underline important information and put parenthesis around key sentences.
- Make lists or flash cards of the information you have identified to study.
Tips for Taking Fill-in-the-blank Exams
- Read each question or statement carefully, picking up clues about the answer from the wording of the question.
- Completion questions test facts and basic knowledge, so don't overanalyze the question.
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To complete a matching assessment activity, you must select one item from each of two columns. The two items must fit together correctly based on the assessment directions.
Tips for Taking Matching Exams
- Read the directions to see if only one match is allowed per item.
- Carefully read all of the choices.
- Determine if what is being asked for is a person, place, thing, etc.
- Answer the items you are sure of first.
- If necessary, check off items as you use them.
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