Test Question Writing Activities May Not Just Be For Students

Today’s author is Cherie Lynn Ramirez, PhD (Curriculum Fellow, Harvard Global Health Institute)

Bok Blog Editor Stephen A. Walsh recently reflected on Dr. Maryellen Weimer’s Faculty Focus piece offering some practical advice on how to get students to write their own test questions in a way that stimulates metacognition about learning and assessment. One particularly helpful observation she made, echoed by Walsh, was that students are unlikely to write brilliant test questions right off the bat. Although this limits how useful the exercise can be for formulating actual test questions, students will learn immeasurably from the opportunity not only to write, but also to answer one another’s questions and think of ways they can be improved, a subject on which Walsh elaborates.

The subject of test question writing reminded me of one of my father’s medical school anecdotes. To survive the midterm for biochemistry a class no one excelled in and which was taught by a notoriously tough professor they banded together to write challenging test questions and learn the material backwards and forwards. However, upon taking the exam, none of them felt they had done particularly well. The professor noticed they looked distressed and asked what was going on. They explained they had studied very hard, except they had used the version of the test they had created. Intrigued by this, the professor asked to see it. He was visibly impressed by their efforts (and the quality of their questions), so much so that he let them re-take a different version of the exam a few days later.

An important point implied in this story, yet not explicitly made by Weimer or Walsh, is that a question-writing activity is likely to contribute not only to student learning, but may also prove enlightening for the instructor. Had the biochemistry professor and the students worked together on a mock question-writing assignment prior to the exam, they would have likely come up with a more exhaustive list of important concepts and ways to assess them than they could have alone. In addition, mismatches between the professor’s learning goals and the students’ perceptions of them (based on course activities) may have become apparent, which could help guide future course planning decisions.

As is so often the case in education, test-writing assignments can be a powerful tool if used wisely.

Happy reading and good luck with implementation!


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