Building KU's Teaching and Learning Community


Although assessing student learning means more than just assigning a number or letter grade to student work, as instructors we often struggle with how best to design, administer, and grade tests and writing assignments. On this page, you will find support for exactly these issues.

In addition to designing effective tests and writing assignments, it's also important to monitor the amount of time and energy you demand from students to complete those assignments. Developed by researchers Betsy Barre, Allen Brown, and Justin Esarey from Wake Forest University, the Course Workload Estimator linked in this section can help you gauge how much time students will have to spend to succeed in your course. 

Designing Tests

For testing to be as effective as possible for you and your students, consider the exams you’ll implement when you’re designing a course. If evaluation is considered only in hindsight, it’s likely your time will be used ineffectively and students will be confused as to how their learning was assessed.

Design tests that will measure the goals you set out to achieve in the course and be clear in your instructions. Walvoord and Anderson (1998) recommend teachers ask themselves the following question: “By the end of the course, I want my students to be able to (fill in the blank).” Use your responses to guide assessment design.

It’s often advantageous to mix types of items (multiple choice, essay, short answer) on a written exam or to mix assessments throughout the course (e.g., a performance component with a written component). It’s also useful to ask how students in the future would be likely to use what they are learning in your course. If they’ll be expected to recognize an example of a phenomenon or category, then give them opportunities to attempt such recognition in your course. If they’ll be asked to evaluate the evidence for a claim relevant to your field, then your assignments should give them practice in such evaluation and graded feedback on their skill at it. Be sure that your assignments (both for practice and for grading) engage students in the kind of knowing or understanding that will be useful to them in future courses and in application to real life.

The process of placing a category judgment—such as a grade—on student work is rarely easy. In some cases, you can simply count the number of factual or simple items done correctly, but understanding measured by a more complex performance will need to be judged. Walvoord and Anderson (1998) claim that establishing a set of clear criteria ahead of time will make grading easier for the teacher, more consistent across students, and even faster to get done.

The key is to think through the range of feedback you want to give (e.g., points from 1 to 10 or letters from A to F) and identify how you would recognize or characterize a performance in each category. What are the strengths of an answer at each level, and what might be missing that would keep it from being in a higher category? What are the habits of mind or the kinds of knowledge demonstrated that characterize various levels of understanding?

When you engage in this kind of thinking, giving feedback should become less challenging and more efficient. If you then share those criteria with your students, they can learn more clearly what you mean by “understanding,” and there will be fewer occasions for disagreement about feedback. Ambiguous or unstated criteria are a common cause of conflict and frustration for students. Investing time up front to think through your grading criteria will pay dividends in efficiency later in the semester.

Administering Tests

Time-limited assessments such as tests or presentations can be very stressful for all concerned. Especially in large classes that play a role in sorting out students’ future careers, there can be tension and challenges to academic honesty. Whenever possible, it’s best to create testing occasions that avoid some of the potential for cheating.

If your tests are mostly at the rote end of Bloom’s framework for understanding, students will perceive that their primary job is to memorize and regurgitate bits of knowledge; these are the kinds of tests that are most amenable to various forms of unacceptable collaboration or information transfer. Whenever possible, include items that ask students to do more than merely memorize. You can even provide the basic information in the question, but ask students to demonstrate their ability to use intellectual skills to analyze the information given. Items that involve written answers present fewer issues than items with multiple choice formats. Exam items that are more complex in the Bloom framework are not as amenable to academic misconduct. This strategy will relieve your testing situation of some tension due to mistrust and avoid the necessity for maximum security procedures.

If you decide to use test performances that lend themselves to various forms of misconduct, then you’ll need to adopt a more skeptical attitude. There are many resources of practical advice—alternating forms, mixing bluebooks, etc. See Davis’ (2001) guidelines in Tools for Teaching for more suggestions. We also have a Two-Minute Mentor video with KU faculty members Anton Rosenthal and Sonya Lancaster on how to handle cases of plagiarism

Exam redesign

Ben Eggleston, of the KU Department of Philosophy, redesigned his introductory ethics tests to avoid simply testing memorization while still making his exams easy to grade. His tests retained their multiple-choice format but required students to apply knowledge and definitions instead of simply restating them.

Unlike questions that test only memorization of definitions, the new questions, which are set up as conversations in which students are asked to choose certain statements that reflect particular ethical positions, require students to apply deeper understandings of concepts to new situations. The advantages of the conversational format are that the student has to grasp the content rather than merely recall a phrase or expression that he or she could remember from the book or class notes. Moreover, this format better tests the kind of understanding that will serve students well outside the classroom.

Old question: What is the main idea of cultural relativism?

  1. Moral beliefs vary from one culture to another.
  2. Morality itself (not just moral beliefs) varies from one culture to another.

New question: In the following dialogue, which of the following statements is incompatible with cultural relativism?

  1. Some countries rely heavily on child labor, and would suffer devastating economic consequences if they were forced to give it up.
  2. Despite these consequences, the harms to children are too great to ignore. It is wrong of those cultures to force children to work.

For more information, see Professor Eggleston’s course transformation portfolio. You can also watch this Two-Minute Mentor video with CTE Director Andrea Greenhoot and Nancy Brady, of the KU Speech-Language-Hearing Department, in which they discuss strategies for creating effective assignments. 

Test drives

Robert Magnan (1990) suggests taking your students on a “test drive” to help them prepare for your exams. When you design a test, save items you decide not to use. Make a practice test with these items along with instructions for the exam, including the percentage or points for each section or exercise, and have students complete this practice test in class.

This technique has two advantages: You can test your exams and expose students to instructions. If an exam structure is weak, you can improve it before the exam. If instructions are unclear, you can clarify them.

The test drive should include only a sample of test items. If there are several possible answers to a given question, indicate which are better and why. If you’ve included essays, ask students to list the essential points they think should be included when they answer the essay question, and then evaluate their responses.

Grading Tests

What does it mean to grade? Grading is a context-dependent, complex process that is at its best when teachers recognize the opportunity it offers to enhance student learning. Walvoord and Anderson (1998) identify four major roles of the grading process:

  1. It works as a means of evaluating student learning in relation to course material and goals.
  2. It can communicate the level of learning to the students, as well as to employers and others.
  3. It functions as a motivation device in that it affects what students focus on in their studies.
  4. It helps organize course components by marking transitions between topics and by bringing closure to particular segments of the class.

In order for grading to be as effective and worthwhile to yourself and your students as possible, make sure that you consider the tests you will implement when you are designing the course (see our Preparing a Course page for more information). Design tests that will measure the concepts and learning that you set out to achieve in the course, allow student input when designing course goals, and be clear in your instructions. Walvoord and Anderson (1998) provide examples from professors of several disciplines:

At the end of Western Civilization [a 100-level general education course for first-year students], I want my students to be able to:

  • Describe basic historical events and people.
  • Argue as a historian does: Take a position on a debatable historical issue, use historical data as evidence for the position, raise and answer counterarguments.

At the end of this math course, I want my students to be able to:

  • Solve [certain kinds] of mathematics problems.
  • Explain what they’re doing as they solve a problem and why they are doing it.

Resources: Walvoord, B. & Anderson, V.J. (1998). Effective Grading. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Designing Writing Assignments

John C. Bean (2011) states that writing assignments, particularly essay exams, can help students exhibit their mastery of material, synthesize course material, and better understand the goals and direction of the course, thus increasing overall retention and understanding of material. He states, “essay exams send the important pedagogical message that mastering a field means joining its discourse, that is, demonstrating one’s ability to mount effective arguments in response to disciplinary problems.”

In order for students’ writing in assignments and exams to improve, students need to be taught how to write essays. One strategy is to provide students with copies of essays from previous years’ classes, without any instructor comments. Have students rank the essays from best to worst, and ask the class to list which factors they think distinguish an A paper from a B, C, and so on. After that, explain your grading criteria and discuss them with the class. In that way, students are more likely to internalize these criteria and apply them to their own work.

Allowing students to assess previous writing assignments could also be used with a Primary Trait Analysis-designed rubric. With PTA, the teacher determines criteria for each score within the rubric and describes this in a handout given with the assignment or included in the syllabus. Having students work with the rubric to assess another student’s work will help them understand the assignment and hopefully aid them in their own work. Here's a sample rubric that you can modify to fit your assignments. 

As Stevens and Levi explain in Introduction to Rubrics, rubrics "divide an assignment into its component parts and provide a detailed description of what constitutes acceptable or unacceptable levels of performance for each of those parts." Although we generally associate rubrics with writing projects because they limit they amount of subjectivity inherent in assessing student writing, rubrics "can be used for a large variety of assignments and tasks: research papers, book critiques, discussion participation, labratory reports, portfolios, group work, oral presentations, and more." No matter what kind of assignment you ask students to complete, providing them with a rubric increases your transparency as an instructor and provides students with a framework for how their work will be graded, evaluated, and assessed. In keeping with the principles of backward design, we encourage you to create your rubric before you introduce the assignment, so that your rubric reflects the goals of the course as well as the level of performance you expect from your students.

Other ideas for teaching students how to write essay exams include allowing students to practice writing cogent thesis statements in small groups, thus gaining insight and guidance from others, and allowing students to revise an essay, so they receive guidance and learn strategies for future writing assignments.

As you design your writing projects, consider how you will implement peer-review as a way to scaffold writing and revision. As Bean explains in Engaging Ideas, in peer review workshops "students read and respond to each other's work in progress. The goal of these workshops is to use peer review to stimulate global revisions of drafts to improve ideas, organization, development, and sentence structure." Peer review workshops require careful planning, however: "unless the instructor structures the sessions and trains students in what to do, peer reviewers may offer eccentric, superficial, or otherwise unhelpful advice." On the other hand, peer review can be beneficial to the writer receiving feedback as well as the student providing the critique, becuase flaws in one paper often take a similar form in another. You can organize peer-review to take place either in class or online via Blackboard's Discussion Board feature. Either way, it's important to provide students with guidelines and expectations for their work during peer review. 

Another method for increasing processing of information through the design of in-class essays is including time for pre-writing and synthesis before the essay is given. Some ways to achieve this include providing students with a list of all potential essay questions before the day of the exam, requiring students to create and bring to the exam a crib sheet for each essay question, which they can use to answer the essay questions, or assigning take-home essay exams. All these methods allow students time for deeper critical thinking and organization of their arguments.

Grading Writing Assignments

When you’re grading a stack of papers, it’s easy to mark mistakes or note negative points and give a grade—nothing more. But a positive word or two might make a big difference to students. When you need to point out an error, telling students to “clarify this” is similar to telling them to “be tall;" they might not know how to do what you ask. Consider how you can help students see why they made the error, and help them focus their thinking on areas where they need the most work.

Bean (2011) offers four recommendations for grading essay exams:

Don’t look at students’ names when you read the exams, or have students write an ID number (not a Social Security Number) on the test instead. This way, you’ll be able to eliminate grader bias.
Grade the exam one question at a time, rather than reading the whole exam of each student. This will help with grading reliability.
Shuffle the exams after you complete each question so that you read them in a different order. Record scores in such a way that you don’t know what a student received on Question 1 when you grade Question 2.
Finally, if time permits, you should skim a random sample of exams before you make initial decisions about grades. Your goal is to establish anchor papers that represent prototype A, B, and C grades. Then, when you come to a difficult essay, ask yourself, “Is this better or worse than my prototype B or C?”

Instead of using anchor papers to determine grades, you may find it beneficial to use a scoring rubric to grade essays and papers through Primary Trait Analysis (PTA). The advantage of using rubrics or PTA is that, rather than writing out extensive comments, you score the essay or assignment using the rubric, making this an efficient way of grading. Students can refer to the rubric when writing the assignment, as well as use their scored rubric to examine their work’s strengths and weaknesses. This method also increases inter-grader reliability when multiple individuals grade assignments.

Four steps to creating a rubric

  1. Choose a test, assignment or group of assignments that you’ll evaluate. Clarify your objectives.
  2. Identify the criteria or traits that will count in this evaluation. These are usually words or phrases such as “thesis,” “use of color,” or “use of relevant examples.”
  3. For each trait, construct a two- to five-point scale. Each point relates to a descriptive statement; e.g. “A 5 thesis is clear and appropriate for the scope of the essay; it neither repeats sources nor states the obvious.”
  4. Try out the scale with a sample of student work and revise as needed.

For more information on mangaging the time you spend preparing for class and grading assignments, watch this Two-Minute Mentor video for the perspecitves of current KU faculty. 

Writing Effective Multiple Choice Questions

In Connecting the Dots: Developing Student Learning Outcomes and Outcomes-Based Assessments (Stylus Publishing, 2016), Ronald S. Carriveau offers several guidelines for creating clear and effective multiple-choice (MC) questions.

Regarding terminology, Carriveau defines the overall test “item” as including the question the students must answer as well as “all the answer choices and any special instructions or directions that are needed.” Next, the question can also be called the “stem” or “stimulus.” The different answers students can select are referred to as “choices” or “options,” and the options that are incorrect are referred to as “distractors” or “foils.” This terminology will be helpful as you read the following guidelines Carriveau offers for creating MC questions and answers.

Guidelines for Writing the Item Stem
  • Write the stem as a question
  • Make the stem as clear as possible so the student knows exactly what is being asked
  • Place any directions that you use to accompany text or a graphic above the text or graphic
  • Word the question positively. Avoid negatives such as “not” or “except.”
  • Make sure that something in the stem doesn’t give a clue (cue) that will help the student choose the correct answer.
  • Don’t make the item opinion based.
  • Don’t write trick questions.
Guidelines for Writing Answer Choices
  • Traditionally, four (or more) answer choices are used, but in most cases, three options will work better.
  • Make sure that only one of the answer choices is the absolutely correct answer.
  • Ideally, the distractors should be equal in plausibility.
  • Ideally, keep the length of answer choices about equal.
  • Avoid using the choice “none of the above” or “all of the above.”
  • Avoid the choice “I don’t know.”
  • Phrase answer choices positively as much as possible.
  • Avoid giving clues to the right answer in the item options.
  • Using a stem that asks for a “best” answer requires careful wording for the distractors as they all may have a degree of correctness (thus the term “best”) but the correct answer has to be the “best” choice.
  • Don’t make a distractor humorous.
  • Don’t overlap choices. This applies primarily to ranges in numerical problems.
  • Keep the content of the answer choices as homogeneous and parallel as possible.
Guidelines for Item Format
  • Choose an item format style and follow it consistently.
  • Avoid true-false and complex MC formats.
  • List the answer choices vertically rather than horizontally.
  • Use three-option MC items.

Join us at the Teaching Summit

KU's annual Teaching Summit will be held on Aug. 18 from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

This year's theme is What Next? Envisioning Teaching and Learning for the Next 25 Years. The Center for Teaching Excellence will celebrate its 25th birthday this fall, and the Summit theme reflects that special milestone.

Dr. Michael Dennin of the University of California, Irvine, will present the keynote, which will focus on how higher education can open new paths to success for students by building on strengths and breaking down barriers.