7 steps for writing robust assessment questions

7 steps for writing robust assessment questions

Writing well thought out assessment questions isn’t quite as straightforward (or quick) as you’d think it would be. To do it well, you need to firstly think about what content to assess learners on, then you need to select an appropriate question type, carefully word the question, consider the correct option as well as plausible incorrect options (this can often be the hardest part!) and if that wasn’t enough, you also need to provide the learner with timely and relevant feedback.

To make it easier for you, we’ve come up with seven steps you can follow to make sure that you write quality assessment questions every time.

Ensure the assessment relates to the learning outcomes of the course

When considering what content to include in the assessment, the first thing is to ensure that the assessment questions are assessing the learner’s achievement of the learning outcomes established at the start of the course. We usually suggest that for every learning outcome in the course there is at least two related questions in the assessment section (if not more). For more on learning outcomes, check out A Brief Guide to Writing Learning Outcomes.

Select the right type of question

True/false, multiple-choice and multiple-response are the most common question types in assessments. Let’s look at each one in a bit more detail.

True/false questions are often quicker to write because you don’t have to write plausible incorrect answers. However, because there’s a 50/50 chance the learner can guess the right answer, true/false questions are criticised for not always being accurate at assessing the learner. Sometimes they just end up assessing how good the learner is at figuring out the correct answer. Care needs to be taken to ensure the question is simple and short but still challenging. True/false questions can be useful at the start of a course, when the learner is just getting started.

Multiple-choice questions require the learner to select the one correct option from several presented. Compared to true/false questions, there are more options to choose the correct answer from in a multiple-choice question. However, they’re sometimes criticised for testing a learner’s recall. You can go beyond this by asking learners to interpret facts, evaluate situations or predict results. Using scenario-based questions is also another way to get the most out of multiple-choice questions.

Multiple-response questions are similar to multiple-choice, except the learner can choose several correct options. As a result, they are a good choice for an assessment as there is a much lower chance the learner can simply guess the answer. They also force the learner to evaluate every option. Scenario-based questions also work really well with the multiple-response question format.

Although multiple-response and multiple-choice questions are the preferred format for assessment questions, true/false can be used to provide a bit of variety every now and again.

Keep the questions simple, clear and concise

The goal of an assessment is to assess the learner’s understanding of the content, not catch them out. Assessment questions should be straightforward, clear and concise. The learner should know exactly what the question is asking of them. Let’s take a look at two examples.

Good example

Why is it important that staff are aware of their company’s grievance policy? Select all that apply.

  • So staff know the correct procedure if a grievance is raised.
  • So staff are assured that the company is treating all grievances consistently.
  • So staff can identify how much annual leave they’re entitled to.

Poor example

Grievance policies: (select all that apply)

  1. Help the employee know the correct procedure if a grievance is raised.
  2. Demonstrate the company is treating all grievances consistently.
  3. Allow staff to determine how much annual leave they’re entitled to.

This second example is not phrased as a question. This makes it ambiguous and difficult for the learner to understand what to do. For clarity, it always pays to start the question with who, what where, when, why or how and then end the question with a question mark and instruction. The instruction might be ‘select all that apply’ or ‘select the correct answer’.

Avoid using double negatives and ‘none of the above’

Double negatives in questions and using ‘none of the above’ add an additional layer of complexity to the question that’s generally not necessary. Here’s a poor example:

Which of the following is not a company policy?

  1. No eating at your desk
  2. Using your work laptop for personal use
  3. Not taking a sabbatical
  4. None of the above

Double negatives complicate the meaning of the question, and reading one option incorrectly might mean the whole meaning of the statement is reversed. Avoiding them in assessment questions saves the learner’s brain power for identifying the correct answer, not figuring the right answers out.

Write plausible incorrect answers

An often difficult part of writing assessments is coming up with plausible incorrect answers that aren’t obvious. Let’s have a look at an example.

What are the correct principles of manual handling?

  • Don’t think about the task until you’re doing it
  • Adopt a stable base
  • Maintain good posture
  • Ask a friend to do it for you if you can’t be bothered

Without knowing the principles of manual handling, the learner likely wouldn’t select option one or four because they’re too ridiculous to actually be principles of manual handling. In this example, you’ll also notice the incorrect options are consistently longer. All options should be roughly equal in length. If all incorrect options are consistently longer like in this example, it’s likely the learner will pick up on this and use that to help them answer subsequent questions. Correct answers also need to be placed in varied positions throughout the whole assessment.

Provide the learner with useful feedback

It’s important to give the learner more feedback than just if they were correct or incorrect. Why was their answer correct? If they selected the incorrect answer, what was the correct answer? Why was it correct? Answering these questions provides a valuable teachable moment, where the learner can identify their mistakes and learn how to rectify them the next time.

Use scenario-based questions where possible

Scenario-based questions require learners to apply what they’ve learned to realistic situations. They often test knowledge better than simple questions and are best used with multiple-choice or multiple-select options. Let’s look at an example.

A new retail assistant has started at Tara’s workplace. He is Russian and has a traditional Russian name. Tara wants to invite him to lunch, but she doesn’t know to pronounce his name and feels too embarrassed to ask.

What should she do?

  • She should not invite him to lunch in case she mis-pronounces his name and offends him.
  • She should wait for another team member to ask him to lunch.
  • She should introduce herself first, welcome the man to the team and politely ask him how his name is pronounced.

The key with scenario-based questions is to provide enough detail to be able to differentiate between the options and to also ensure the correct answer or answers aren’t ambiguous.

Keeping these seven tips in mind when you’re writing your next assessment will help you deliver a robust and well-designed assessment. For more on using scenario-based questions as assessment, check out our blog on Using linear scenarios to create engaging learning experiences. Subscribe to our newsletter to be kept up to date.