How to Write a Test that Ensures Your Top Students SHINE

Writing tests can be daunting sometimes. Aside from the discussions on whether we should be ‘testing’ students at all, most institutions or courses that require certain compliance criteria require students to be tested, and for the testing to cover particular curricula.

The question here is, how do you make sure that the test suits the point of the material and is challenging enough that knowledge is tested at varying levels?

How do you help separate the top students from the ‘good’ students?

Here are some suggestions to help navigate writing test questions and ensure that your top students shine.

  1. Base the assessment on the course or unit objectives. What do you want the student to learn? Keep the questions focused on the broader learning objectives. Don’t ‘trip up’ students by asking them trivial details, these are not a true measure of the learning objective. Students should not have to guess what might be in the test.
  1. Mark the student on their ability to answer the questions asked, rather than bringing in extra supplementary information. Set expectations and tell students what you expect from them. This does not mean that they get high grades because they provide extra information. Going ‘above and beyond’ would mean doing this and still meeting the expectations for the course/unit.
  1. Make the questions easy to read and easy to follow. A number of students (and instructors) don’t fully read questions. Make the questions straightforward, keep the sentence structure the same throughout the test and don’t confuse with using things like double negatives. The sentences should be clean and unambiguous.
  1. Use unique examples and situations. Repeating phrases from the materials only lends to the students repeating information via rote learning rather than having gained knowledge.
  1. To separate the ‘stars’ from the just plain ‘good’ students, consider utilising higher order cognitive skills. For example, follow Bloom’s taxonomy’s different levels of learning.

Consider asking test questions that cover learning in Bloom’s higher order levels of learning. Think about the verbs, create, evaluate and analyse.


Depending on the subject matter or objective ask students to use different materials to create something specific. This doesn’t have to be a ‘hands on’ test, but students could be (for example) creating a formula or recipe for a hand soap out of specific ingredients.


Evaluate is often used in essay style questions, to give a summation of a document or procedure. Ask for a judgement based on different theories or scenarios.


Analyse could be to classify or establish connections, even the traditional ‘compare and contrast’ question could be used as an analysis of course materials. Analyse involves looking further into different elements that make a particular situation.

Using a variety of questions that focus on different levels of comprehension help ensure that all students have the opportunity to answer questions and that some students also have the opportunity to shine.

Test questions can be incredibly difficult to write, so the number one tip is to get someone to proof read everything and take the test themselves before you release it on students.

Good luck and enjoy.

Image by Alberto G. / CC BY

The End is the Best Place to Begin

Needs assessments are one of the first things we learn about in Instructional Design education and certification programs. But I’ve come to realize that many of my training industry colleagues have not had the luxury of formal education. Often they are developers, HR professionals or subject matter experts who are thrown into the instructional design world through interest or necessity.

How does a professional in this position know what they don’t know? Savvy folks often figure out a needs-assessment-like process along the way. But for the absolute beginner? Where do they even start?

When asked for advice, I always tell new IDs that basic needs assessment looks like this: start with the end in mind. I feel like this is a great reminder, even for seasoned designers. After all, it’s easy to get sidetracked from the original intent of training when we’re presented with a client’s or employer’s epic training wish list!

Starting with the end in mind simply means: what should learners be able to do, that they couldn’t do before, when they have completed the training? If we don’t have a specific, focused answer to that question, we are not on track.

On the other hand, knowing very clearly the knowledge we expect learners to gain means we can easily reverse engineer the design process. In other words, if I want learners to know how to perform “skill XYZ,” then I must present them with “instruction A,” “activity B,” and “quiz C” in order to facilitate that result.

I realize this simplistic approach to instructional design may not fully stand the test of formal learning evaluation models (sorry Dr. Kirkpatrick!), but it’s a solid rule of thumb that sure beats the disorganized and overly complex courses I’ve seen throughout corporate America.

Bottom line, we serve learners when we design educational content. If they walk away from a course without new skills because they were confused, or were presented with material that was irrelevant, we simply haven’t done our job!

Image by ComputerGuy – Wikipedia User Nico Cavallotto / CC BY