Writing an exam is almost as difficult as taking one, in my opinion.  There are so many things that need to be considered!  First off, you want to include a variety of question types, so that you can play to different students’ strengths.  The ones who are good at memorization will prefer fill-in-the-blanks, the ones who are good at getting the gist without the specifics will do better on the short answer, and some folks (like me) love multiple choice while others will overthink themselves into a tizzy with four possible right answers in front of them.  For my midterm exams, I simply skipped the multiple choice altogether this time around.

Next, you want to be sure you cover all the important points of the material you covered in class.  There is only so much space, so it takes some time to ensure that you are hitting all the high points and leaving out the less important details.  So I didn’t ask questions about planning your day, or have them put a hanging indent into a document.  Not as important as knowing the SQ3R reading strategy, or double-spacing text.

Phrasing a question can be the worst part.  You want to be sure to phrase things the same way you did in class or as they are in the book, to make sure that everyone knows exactly the answers you are asking for.  You need to be very specific.  Everyone has taken a test with a question whose phrasing was so vague or confusing that there were multiple correct answers, and the best you could do was to guess at the one the teacher was looking for.  We all know that insisting one of them is “the most correct” answer is the weasely way of getting out of a poorly phrased exam question.  In my case, I had one question on my computer exam that instructed students to change a certain word to bold.  Most students understood what I meant and changed the type to boldface, but one replaced the original word with the word “bold.”  I laughed, but I had to give her credit, because I had phrased the question too loosely.

You need to make sure you match the difficulty of your questions to your students’ abilities.  I know this sounds like the “dumbing down” of America, but it doesn’t make sense to ask beginning students to write critical essays if they haven’t learned these skills in class.  And you know that one or two of your students will, inevitably, fail, but not the majority of them.  The first college class I taught, several years ago, I had to add a 10-point curve to the midterm exam because it was simply written for third-year college students, like the ones I had been TAing, not for the first-year students that were taking my class.  And even with the curve, half of them dropped the class at that point.  Total teacher fail.

You also need to avoid “trick” questions.  I used to write a lot of these as a TA, usually in the form of a multiple choice question.  If, say, the professor noted in class that Darwin never called evolution “the survival of the fittest,” and it would more accurately be described it as the death of the least-fit,  I would put both options into a single multiple choice to make sure students had gotten the point and learned that their preconceptions were wrong.  They hated me for that.

The trickiest part, for me, is making sure that you time the exam properly.  If you have a total of 2 hours of time for students to complete an exam, you don’t want to write an exam where everyone will be done within an hour, or one where most students will be scrambling to finish in time.  Typically, the first students should complete the exam in about half the alloted time; the majority will need around 3/4 of the alloted time to finish; and just a few students will take the entire testing period.  I just subbed for a teacher who gave her students less than 2 hours to complete a 10-question essay exam.  They were expected to type the answers as they went (which slowed many of them WAY down), and I think she was asking for a total of 6 or 7 pages worth of answers.  In under 2 hours.  One girl finished 5 minutes before the end of class.  Everyone else was still typing until 10 minutes after when the next class came into the room.  Let me just say, they were PISSED.

The one thing I hadn’t considered sufficiently was the fact that my students couldn’t just leave after they had finished the exam, because we would have another 2 hours of class after the testing period was done.  Once the majority of the class is done, they have a tendency of wanting to chat with one another, which distracts the poor few that are still slogging away at it.  Next time, I’ll have constructive ideas for what they can do while waiting for everyone else to finish.

And then, just when you think you’re safe and your job is done, you realize that you should have checked that all of your computer students actually managed to properly attach BOTH parts of their midterm exam to the email they sent you BEFORE everyone left the classroom.  Because now you need to go through this all over again and write makeup exams, with the added pressure of making sure that the questions are different from, but no harder or easier than, the original exam.