Item Writing Guidelines
These guidelines are not intended to make the test items you write more difficult. As you may remember from your school days, a poorly written, confusing test can be frustrating and seem unfair. By adhering to the following suggestions, you will have a better chance of developing multiple-choice items that fairly test the knowledge of the test taker and avoid confusion and misinterpretation. Whenever possible, include your objectives as test items.
Avoid "trick" questions, and overly picky questions. The major point of evaluation is to assist the learner to determine whether or not he/she has grasped the major points of the selection. There is a section, included in this packet, to help you write your test questions. Multiple-choice formats are a good choice, but these may follow a case study, or other information-giving format.
Common Item Writing Terms:
- Item Stem: The part of the item that states the question.
- Alternatives: Lettered possible answers to the question.
- Distracters: Incorrect alternatives
I. Have a clear concept for your item
Each item should give the reader a clear idea about the intended answer. A good rule of thumb is that you should be able to cover up the alternatives and answer the question. Include as much of the item in the item stem as possible. The idea is to avoid giving the test taker a series of unrelated true/false items.
Example of a bad item:
- The actor who played Rick in Casablanca.
- The actor who starred in The Nutty Professor.
- The actor who played Rhett in Gone With the Wind.
- The actor who played George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life
Who played Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind?
- Clark Gable
- Humphrey Bogart
- Jimmy Stewart
- Frank Sinatra
II. Avoid direct and indirect clues for the test taker.
Make sure you don't give away the answer to the question by repeating words from the stem in the correct alternative. This is called a direct clue error.
Example of a bad item
The United States of America is on the continent of:
- North America.
Don't give away the answer to a question in subsequent items. This is an indirect clue error.
Item 1: Which of the following men was president of the United States?
- Ben Franklin
- Thomas Jefferson
- Aaron Burr
- Samuel Chase
Item 2: During Thomas Jefferson's presidential administration, the U.S. acquired:
- the Louisiana Purchase.
III. All answers should match the question in punctuation, grammar, and capitalization.
All alternatives should complete the item stem in a way that makes sense and is grammatically correct. A common problem is having singular verbs in the stem and one or more alternatives requiring plurals.
The inventor of the electric light is:
When reading this item, we are able to throw out "Watson and Crick" as an alternative because it does not agree with the singular verb "is" and the singular word "inventor". Use "s" or "is/are" to avoid this problem. End each alternative with a period if the alternative completes the sentence. Basically, the cardinal rule is that the stem and each alternative should read in a way that makes sense and is grammatically correct.
- Thomas Edison.
- Watson and Crick.
- Henry Ford.
- Ben Franklin
IV. Avoid negative (NOT) items.
Technically, "NOT" items should be avoided because they may be confusing. As previously stated, a multiple choice item should not be a series of true/false statements and should be understandable without looking at the alternatives. Items in this format should be used sparingly.
Which of the following is not a planet:
If you decide to write NOT items (I'm sure you will, because they are among the easiest to write!), make sure that you emphasize that it is a NOT item by using capital letters, underlines, bold type, or colors:
- the Moon
Which of the following is NOT a planet?
- The Moon
IV. Randomize alternatives unless they are numbers or another logical progression.
If you are using numbers as alternatives, they should be listed in ascending order.
Otherwise, randomize your alternatives so that you do not have an excess number of items with the same correct answer.
General Item Writing Guidelines:
Remember, you can rely on the CEU4U Directors of Education to assist you in the development of your course. Please feel free to contact us for technical, writing, or formatting assistance. All of us at CEU4U gratefully appreciate your work and contribution.
- Keep item stems as short as possible by including only information that is absolutely necessary to answer the question.
- Use 3 distracters and one correct alternative (Alternatives A-D).
- Number items and use letters for alternatives.
- Stay away from True and False items (in a short test, they are too vulnerable to guessing and can lead to too many arguments and differing interpretations).
- Write out an answer key.
- When you write an item, document the source by making a copy of the page or writing down the page, section and paragraph.
- Avoid All of the Above as an alternative.
- In general, it's less confusing to end an item stem with a blank than start the item with a blank.
- Write items that fairly sample the content of your source. If the test taker has been assigned three chapters, make sure they are tested on the content of all three.