Improving Exams

Test What Matters Most & Provide Practice

Faculty and students alike often find exams to be stressful—most of us have had minimal preparation in the craft of designing tests—and as Clegg and Cashin admit, “the process is not only difficult; it is also frustrating and often ineffective.” Sometimes we may find that our exams don’t align with our priorities for learning. They don’t give students a chance to show how much they’ve learned—so we can’t tell how well we’ve taught.

Although exams are traditional tools for evaluating students’ performance, they’re not always the most effective means of gathering evidence of learning, and there are plenty of good alternatives.

If we do use them, we can design tests and quizzes to more accurately measure students’ progress toward the learning goals, and even to provide powerful learning opportunities. Exams should ask students to retrieve and apply the ideas they need to take away from our courses. Ideally, tests and quizzes lead them through the thinking we want them to practice. When writing exams, it can help to ask yourself: What do I want to leave them thinking about?

The first step to designing a better exam is to articulate exactly what you want to assess. As Ory and Ryan put it, you have to make sure you’re “testing what you want to be testing”—that is, what you think your students should know and/or be able to do by this point in the class. If your test isn’t aligned with your goals, you won’t be able to make a fair or accurate evaluation of your students’ progress. This means you have to start with a good idea of what successful learning would look like, and figure out how your students could give you evidence of that learning.

You’ll also need to think about how much time and priority you allotted to particular concepts this semester. The most important ideas deserve the bulk of our attention, student effort, and class time, so they merit a corresponding proportion of the exam. As the research on the “testing effect” reminds us, if we test primarily on minutiae, our students may leave the course remembering those details, rather than the foundational concepts.

You should also consider what proportion of your exam will test higher-order thinking, as opposed to recall. Many test banks tend to focus on recognition questions, rather than analysis. If you want your students to be able to apply concepts in a variety of ways, you’ll need questions that demand that sort of thinking. Of course, your students will also need multiple opportunities to practice this thinking beforehand, in class and in homework, or lab, or recitation, etc.; we can’t expect them to pick up new reasoning skills the day of the exam.

Practice tests are a great idea, especially if you have old exams you can use. Students will feel more confident if they know what sorts of questions to expect, and how many of various types (essays, problems to solve, MCQs, etc.). Especially if they’re taking exams online and can’t scan over the whole test and then return to work the challenging problems, students may have difficulty pacing themselves, so a trial run will help assuage their anxieties. Having students generate their own test questions and quiz one another can be a useful way to study.

Another way to help students learn from exams is to assign an exam wrapper afterward: a metacognitive activity that invites students to reflect on how they prepared for the exam and whether those methods were effective, and to identify the questions or problems they answered incorrectly, in case they need to go back and fill in any gaps in their knowledge. Prompting them to monitor and attend to their own learning in this way will help them build knowledge on a stronger foundation.

Additional practical suggestions for exam design, plus a checklist for effective tests, are available in this booklet. And of course, we’d be delighted to help you revise an exam or write a new one! Feel free to bring us your draft exams if you want feedback. You can schedule a consultation by emailing us at We look forward to working with you.