Planning Quizzes and Exams

Quizzes and exams are common summative assessment techniques that appear in many courses. They are popular tools for assessing student completion of learning activities. Incorporating quizzes and exams can entail planning where there will fall in the sequence of the course, how they will be delivered, and writing the actual questions for the quiz or exam. High stakes exams, such as finals and midterms are popular for their efficiency, but there is also research to support the value of frequent low stakes assessments compared to infrequent high stakes exams.

For major assessments consider how you prepare students for those events. Students should know what to expect in terms of length of the assessment and question type (is all multiple choice, all essay questions etc.) Popular techniques for preparing students include review sessions, practice quizzes (in graded or non-graded formats), clicker questions, and making past exams available to students. Depending on the length of the assessment (e.g. one hour exam vs. 15 minutes quiz) you might anticipate a range of times for students to complete.

Another popular technique for preparing students to take quizzes and exams is “Exam Wrappers”, a brief document that asks students to reflect how much time they dedicated to prepare for an assessment and what strategies they implemented.  Ideally, students should review past exam wrapper thoughts when the date of the next quiz or exam approaches. 

When planning a quiz or exam, consider the following:


  • Determine which course objectives the exam addresses

  • Decide how many chapters/units/lessons you want to cover

  • Consider what level of knowledge do you hope to measure?

Types of Questions

  • Create assessment items that (a) align with your learning goals (b) allow students to demonstrate their true mastery of the learning goals

  • Though multiple choice is probably the most popular type of question, consider the role of short answer or essay questions and combine those with multiple choice questions as appropriate.

  • Match your assessment with your learning objectives. For example, if you want students to articulate or justify a medication selection, then multiple-choice questions are a poor choice because they do not require students to articulate anything. On the other hand, M/C questions (if well-constructed) might effectively assess students’ ability to "recognize a dose" or to "distinguish it from an illogical one"

  • There is no “best” question type, but the type and design of the question needs to appropriately match your learning objectives

Number of Questions

  • Include at least one test item per objective being assessed

  • Consider a minimum of one test item for each sub-task and/or prerequisite skill, or at least for those that represent common misconceptions

  • Include one or two more items to test mastery of that objective because students can guess the answer to an individual test item

Structure and Ordering

  • Order questions by sequence of content, type of question, and then by difficulty.

  • Ensure that instructions are clear and concise

  • Have a GA or colleague review the exam for obvious errors.


  • Take it yourself. Give students twice as much time as it would take you to complete it.


  • Announce the dates of all major graded assessments in your syllabus.

  • Time major assessments to logical sections of the content in the course.


  • Determine if a point value of questions are all equal or based on difficulty of question types, length of time to take, importance of skill assessed etc.

  • Think ahead about scoring - will you give partial credit?

  • Determine how long it will take to grade the test

  • Most important, creating tests, your professional responsibility, can accurately reflect student knowledge and skill

References and Further Readings

Bull, J. & McKenna, C. (2002). Computer Assisted Assessment Centre. Retrieved 8 February 2009

Brown, G. & Pendlebury, M. (1992). Assessing Active Learning. Sheffield: CVCP, USDU.

Carnegie Mellon’s Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence from

Cohen, A., & Wollack, J. (2000). Handbook on test development: Helpful tips for creating reliable and valid classroom tests. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin, Center for Placement Testing. Retrieved 13 October, 2003 from

Lovett, M. (2013). Make Exams Worth More Than the Grade: Using Exam Wrappers to Promote Metacognition. In Kaplan., M., Silver, N., and LaVaque-Manty, D. (Eds.), Using Reflection and Metacognition to Improve Student Learning Across the Disciplines, Across the Academy.

Nitko, A. J. (2001). Educational assessment of students. (3rd Ed.). Columbus, OH: Merrill Prentice Hall.

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