Best Practices for Higher Education Exam Development

Exam design and creation at universities and other higher educational institutions is no easy task.There is a lot to consider for higher education exam development, including the ultimate function of the exam, whether and why you will administer the exam as a traditional paper-based exam (PBE) or more modern computer-based exam (CBE).

Additionally, educators must determine which test style(s) works best for the material to be assessed, and how to produce an exam that is accurate, reliable, fair, and effective given the material you have covered in your course. While it can be difficult, especially for new professors, to produce exams that are rigorous yet practical, it is a skill which can be improved upon quite easily if you follow the steps below.

Best Practices for Higher Education Exam Development

Best Practices for Higher Education Exam Development
Best Practices for Higher Education Exam Development

Purpose and Function of Exams

At its most basic, an exam is used to ascertain the quality and level of student learning. Exams and tests also confirm student achievement, direct and improve learning, and provide pertinent information and data to relevant faculty who can then help students conform their learning and studying to the expectations of the professors. Furthermore, there are some crucial benefits specific to you as the professor, such as the ability to measure your performance as an educator, to ascertain your ability to impart the necessary knowledge and skills to your students.

Paper-Based Exams V. Computer-Based Exams

One of the first questions you face when building an exam is whether you will administer a PBE or a CBE. Research indicates little to no statistical difference in test results between students taking PBEs versus CBEs, yet there are a plethora of advantage to both students and professors when CBEs are used.

For example, CBEs offer instantaneous scoring for true-false and multiple-choice questions, and therefore provide immediate performance feedback. CBEs also allow for the ability to create reality-based situations using videos, slideshows, 3D graphics and revolving objects. A student could be asked to maneuver an object and build a model, or, in the case of a medical student, assess a patient or perform a procedure.

Thus CBEs offer greater efficiency and flexibility, as well as long-term cost savings. And as computer-assisted instruction (CAI) continues to gain popularity, it makes sense to strongly consider computer-based exam testing by in order to seamlessly integrate all the enhanced learning techniques offered by CAI into the assessment method.

Best Practices For All Exam Types

Whether you choose a CBE or PBE, all exams should have the following six components:

1. Efficacy – The exam should give you accurate and actionable data about the ideas and theories that were being tested.

2. Dependability – The exam should allow for uniform assessment as well as the ability to distinguish between different levels of achievement.

3. Fairness – The exam should reflect the information that the students were preparing for (i.e., the students should be tested on what was taught).

4. Correct timing – The number of hours and effort necessary to finish the exam should be realistic (you should take your exam yourself and then give students three to four times the amount of time it took you to complete it).

5. Unity – The exam should have similar formatting, grammar and vocabulary throughout – it’s best to have only one person create an exam to minimize the number of different styles.

6. Social neutrality – When possible, the exam should be blind to gender, race, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic background.

Higher Education Exam Development
Higher Education Exam Development

Which Test Style Is Best?

When it comes to actually creating an exam, you will see that there are a variety of styles to choose from and determining which is best for your course depends on your ultimate objective. This is something you must spend significant time thinking about.

If you want your students to simply connect terms with the appropriate definitions, then an essay question would be a poor choice. Similarly, if you want a student to coherently defend an argument, true-false would not work. Two of the best and most frequently used types of test styles for evaluating high-level cogitation are multiple-choice and essay questions – thus these two are perfect for university and professional exams.

Assessment Through Multiple-Choice Questions

Multiple-choice questions are an efficient method for testing a wide variety of information, in a reliable manner, as the ability to guess the correct answer decreases exponentially as the number of possible answers increases. Unlike a simple true-false question, a student will rarely receive points without actually knowing the correct answer (i.e., with true-false, the student could answer correctly simply by knowing which answer was incorrect but not actually knowing why the correct answer was correct).

And while short-answer questions also decrease the ability to guess, time limits on exams restricts the amount of short-answer questions you can include, and thus also limits the breadth of knowledge tested, while also increasing potential ambiguity. Multiple-choice questions also make it more straightforward to pinpoint misunderstandings between you and your students as you can examine the incorrect answers that were chosen most often.

When creating multiple-choice questions, be sure they are simple, straightforward, and that all information provided is relevant. Distribute the correct answers equally (i.e., the same amount of A, B, C, or D correct answers throughout the exam), and make the wrong answers (of which there should be at least three) credible. Also, make sure there is only one right answer!

Assessment Through Essay Questions

Essays provide an excellent way to evaluate higher-order thinking such as analytical skills, correct application of facts, argument justification, and opinion evaluation. They challenge students by asking them to systematically arrange and interpret information, offer clarification about their decisions, and assess the validity of concepts presented.

Restricted response essay questions can be used to evaluate basic information (for e.g., “State two theories as to why sea turtles migrate. Summarize the evidence supporting each theory.”) and extended response questions allow pupils to provide various strategies and explanations. While the breadth of knowledge tested by essay questions is restricted, making them impractical for testing a large quantity of content, they provide secondary benefits, such as the ability to appraise a student’s general writing ability, including correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

When writing essay questions, write them as clearly as possible and use an assortment of smaller, targeted questions instead of only one expansive one. And always offer a time estimation for completing each part of the question, as well as an expected level of effort.

In Summary

The goal of all types of tests, exams and assessments should be to inform learning and help students focus on the vital knowledge and skills they need. Examinations should direct students’ efforts in a way that focuses pupils on the most important ideas, issues and skills that you as the teacher are trying to impart.

Thus developing assessments that offer actionable data about your students’ learning while also instructing students as to how they should expend their time and energy is extremely important. Spend the time figuring out what type and how much material you want to cover, how you want to administer the test, and what style(s) of exam will best support your ultimate goals.

Author Bio: Kathleen Nubinski is a freelance writer and former educator based in Clayton, Georgia. She loves teaching others and strives to get students more involved in science and learning. When she’s not writing, she volunteers in her community.

Best Practices for Higher Education Exam Development

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