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Union University Center for Faculty Development
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Teaching & Advising > Grading & Assessment of Students

Qualities of an Effective Examination

Traditionally, experts in educational testing have emphasized the importance of three qualities of an effective examination.

  • Content validity refers to a test's ability to effectively evaluate what it is supposed to measure.  More specifically, did the test items, i.e., questions, elicit responses that demonstrated student mastery of a particular concept?  A "comprehensive" final exam that derived 50% of its questions from a single chapter in a textbook that was covered in its entirety would lack content validity.

  • Reliability refers to the dependability or consistency of students' scores.  Stated another way, if the test were repeated, would the scores remain essentially the same?  A test with questions that engender a great deal of guessing by most students would lack reliability, because results in a similarly prepared group of students would probably vary greatly.

  • Objectivity refers to a test's score flowing primarily from the student performance being measured, rather than the idiosyncrasies of the instructor constructing the exam.  Tests with many questions worded as if they were "fact," when they are actually the opinion of the test developer, lack objectivity.

These three general test properties should undergird your test development strategy.  Also, in order to create fair and effective examinations, you should consider the following principles:

  • An effective examination should be a learning, as well as an evaluative, experience.  It should serve as a thorough review of the content addressed, enabling students to deepen their mastery of the concepts included.

  • Each examination should be a win-win situation for students and the professor, rather that the battle of wits that has so often been the case.  If many students regularly must re-read test questions several times to clarify what the wording of the questions seeks to elicit, students are losing.

  • An effective examination should evaluate the most critical concepts and not blatantly trivial information.

  • An effective examination consistently differentiates levels of students mastery by including a mix of basic, intermediate, and difficult questions.  Your examinations should contribute to your teaching strategy of building meaningful rather than surface knowledge by including an appropriate ratio of higher-level questions.

  • An effective examination has no significant surprises for the well-prepared student.

  • A well-developed examination will reflect the time spent on the concept in class or otherwise emphasized by the instructor.  As students, we all hated it when questions not covered at all in class appeared on the examination.  Nearly as much, we felt cheated when an activity requiring a large chunk of class time was not included among the questions, and we probably paid less attention the next time such an activity was conducted.

Source:  Lyons, Kysilka, Pawlas, The Adjunct Professor's Guide to Success, Allyn & Bacon, Needham Heights, MA, 1999.

"Study is a specific kind of experience in which through careful observation of objective structures we cause thought processes to move in a certain way . . . When done with concentration, perception and repetition, ingrained habits of thought are formed."
-Richard Foster; Celebration of Discipline