How to write an exam question

Thoughts about writing an exam question

Hazel Sive Ph.D.

Writing exam questions is much more difficult than one would imagine. Even when one is a professor teaching one's own field, it is very challenging to write a
clear, unambiguous and interesting question. Here are some thoughts that have helped me.

1. GIVE YOURSELF ENOUGH TIME. You cannot write a decent exam question in one day or even two. Start at least one week in advance.

2. Think about the points or concepts you want to test in the question. Write these down without an example in mind. Be as specific as you can. For example, maybe you want to test whether students understand cell/cell signaling and fate decisions. Specifically, you want to ask about

a. the difference between cell autonomous and non-autonomous regulators
b. the events downstream of a ligand binding to a receptor and
c. how this signal transduction alters transcription
d. how alteration of gene expression leads to terminal differentiation.

3. Once you have a set of general points that the question will address, think about the specific example that could serve as a framework. Try to find something that is a bit different from what has been covered in lectures, but not so different that it will divert the student from the point of the question. Look at textbooks other than the one you use in class, review articles or primary research papers for inspiration. You might want to consider a couple of possibilities at the beginning.

4. Think about the length of the question- is this going to comprise half of a three hour exam, or just one out of 10 questions in a one hour exam?

5. Think about whether you want multiple choice, short sentence, paragraph or other type of answer.

6. When you think you have found your framework for the question, think about the points you want to test and how they could specifically fit into the framework. Write down a rough outline. You may find that you want to add or alter a point at this time.

7. Draw rough figures that you may want to use.

8. Write the first draft of the question. You probably want to write an introduction that addresses the point the question and/or the framework. Write separate sections to the question for each point you want to address. Try to make different sections of a problem flow together.

9. Read your first draft- it will probably be very poor- too long, ambiguous, logically inconsistent.

Rewrite your first draft. Try to decrease the length of the question. Remove bits of the introduction you do not need, add explanations to remove ambiguity. Read your second draft.

11. Repeat step 10 over and over again until you feel your question is what you want it to be. This can take many hours. One or more overnight pauses between reading drafts of your question is very helpful.

12. Have someone else (preferably more than one person) read your question and do it as an exam question. This will pinpoint ambiguities and inconsistencies, and indicate whether it is the correct length. Make final changes to your question.

13. Figure out numbers of points for each part of the question.