Preparing tests and exams

Student playing with headphone cord while studyingWe generally think of exams as a way to test students’ comprehension of material taught in class. Exams can, however, serve more than one purpose, and being aware of why we are testing students and what exactly we want to test can help make students’ experience of exams – as well as our own – a more useful one. The following tips will gear you towards issues you should think about during the entire exam process – from planning to reflection. Remember that some exams can be conducted effectively in a secure online environment in a proctored computer lab or assigned as paper based or online “take home” exams.

Before you start preparing an exam

Why are you giving an exam to your students?

  • To evaluate and grade students. Exams provide a controlled environment for independent work and so are often used to verify the state of students’ learning.
  • To motivate students to study. Students do tend to open their books more often when an evaluation is coming up. Exams can be great motivators.
  • To add variety to student learning. Exams are a form of learning activity. They can enable students to see the material from a different perspective. They also provide feedback that students can then use to improve their understanding.
  • To identify faults and correct them. Exams enable both students and instructors to identify which areas of the material taught are not being understood properly. This allows students to seek help, and instructors to address areas that may need more attention, thus enabling student progression and improvement.
  • To facilitate students’ choices. Certain options sometimes demand that students obtain high results in specific courses (for example, one may need high grades in math to enter an engineering program). The pre-requisites often indicate that the particular option will build on the knowledge obtained in the course. High / poor grades will indicate whether a student should pursue an option or not.
  • To obtain feedback. You can use exams to evaluate your own teaching. Students’ performance on the exam will pinpoint areas where you should spend more time or change your current approach.
  • To provide statistics for the course or institution. Institutions often want information on how students are doing. How many are passing and failing, and what is the average achievement in class? Exams can provide this information.
  • To accredit qualified students. Certain professions demand that students demonstrate the acquisition of certain skills or knowledge. An exam can provide such proof – for example, the Uniform Final Examination (UFE) serves this purpose in accounting.

What do you want to assess?

This should be related to your learning outcomes for the course.

  • Knowledge or how it is used. You can either directly test knowledge or you can gear exam questions to test students’ application of material taught in class.
  • Process or product. You can test students’ reasoning skills and evaluate the process by focusing the marks and other feedback on the process they follow to arrive at a solution. Alternatively, you can evaluate the end product.
  • The communication of ideas. You can evaluate students’ communication skills ­their ability to express themselves - whether this is by writing a cogent argument, or creating an elegant mathematical proof.
  • Convergent thinking or divergent thinking. You can test your students’ ability to draw a single conclusion from different inputs (convergent thinking). Or you may alternatively want them to come up with different possible answers (divergent thinking). Do you expect different answers from students, or do you expect all of them to provide the same answer?
  • Absolute or relative standards. Is student success defined by learning a set amount of material or demonstrating certain skills, or is student success measured by assessing the amount of progress the students make over the duration of the course?

How do you decide what to test and how to test it?

The overall exam should be consistent with your learning outcomes for the course. There are a number of ways to review and prioritize the skills and concepts taught in a course. You could:

  • Use the topics list provided in your course outline
  • Skim through your lecture notes to find key concepts and methods
  • Review chapter headings and subheadings in the assigned readings.

What are the qualities of a good / fair exam?

  • A good exam gives all students an equal opportunity to fully demonstrate their learning. With this in mind, you might reflect on the nature and parameters of your exam. For example, could the exam be administered as a take-home exam? Two students might know the material equally well, but one of them might not perform well under the pressure of a timed or in-class testing situation. In such a case, what is it that you really want to assess: how well each student knows the material, or how well each performs under pressure? Likewise, it might be appropriate to allow students to bring memory aids to an exam. Again, what is it that you really want to assess: their ability to memorize a formula or their ability to use and apply a formula?
  • Consistency. If you gave the same exam twice to the same students, they should get a similar grade each time.
  • Validity. Make sure your questions address what you want to evaluate.
  • Realistic expectations. Your exam should contain questions that match the average student’s ability level. It should also be possible to respond to all questions in the time allowed. To check the exam, ask a teaching assistant to take the test – if they can’t completed it in well under the time permitted then the exam needs to be revised.
  • Uses multiple question types. Different students are better at different types of questions. In order to allow all students to demonstrate their abilities, exams should include a variety of types of questions (See the tips sheet “Asking Questions: 6 Types).
  • Offer multiple ways to obtain full marks. Exams can be highly stressful and artificial ways to demonstrate knowledge. In recognition of this, you may want to provide questions that allow multiple ways to obtain full marks. For example, ask students to list five of the seven benefits of multiple-choice questions.
  • Free of bias. Your students will differ in many ways including language proficiency, socio-economic background, physical disabilities, etc. When constructing an exam, you should keep student differences in mind to watch for ways that the exams could create obstacles for some students. For example, the use of colloquial language could create difficulties for students for whom English is a first language, and examples easily understood by North American students may be inaccessible to international students.
  • Redeemable. An exam should not be the sole opportunity to obtain marks. There should be other opportunities as well. Assignments and midterms allow students to practice answering your types of questions and adapt to your expectations.
  • Demanding. An exam that is too easy does not accurately measure students’ understanding of the material.
  • Transparent marking criteria. Students should know what is expected of them. They should be able to identify the characteristics of a satisfactory answer and understand the relative importance of those characteristics. This can be achieved in many ways; you can provide feedback on assignments, describe your expectations in class, or post model solutions on a course website.
  • Timely. Spread exams out over the semester. Giving two exams one week apart doesn’t give students adequate time to receive and respond to the feedback provided by the first exam. When possible, plan the exams to fit logically within the flow of the course material. It might be helpful to place tests at the end of important learning units rather than simply give a midterm halfway through the semester. 
  • Accessible. For students with disabilities, exams must be amenable to adaptive technologies such as screen-readers or screen magnifiers. Exams that have visual content -- such as charts, maps, and illustrations -- may need to be rendered by Waterloo's AccessAbility Services into a format that works for a given student. 

After the exam is ready

Prepare a marking scheme or rubric

Preparing a marking scheme ahead of time will allow you to review your questions, to verify that they are really testing the material you want to test, and to think about possible alternative answers that might come up.

  • Look at what others have done. Chances are that you are not the only person who teaches this course. Look at how others choose to assign grades.
  • Make a marking scheme usable by non-experts. Write a model answer and use this as the basis for a marking scheme usable by non-experts. This ensures that your teaching assistants and your students can easily understand your marking scheme. It also allows you to have an external examiner mark the response, if need be. A rubric can be an effective tool to help you -- or teaching assistants assess quickly and accurately. Sharing the rubric with your students as they begin to study for the exam is also a good idea. 
  • Give consequential marks. Generally, marking schemes should not penalize the same error repeatedly. If an error is made early but carried through the answer, you should only penalize it once if the rest of the response is sound.
  • Review the marking scheme after the exam. Once the exam has been written, read a few answers and review your key. You may sometimes find that students have interpreted your question in a way that is different from what you had intended. Students may come up with excellent answers that may be slightly outside of what was asked. Consider giving these students partial marks.
  • When marking, make notes on exams. These notes should make it clear why you gave a particular mark. If exams are returned to the students, your notes will help them understand their mistakes and correct them. They will also help you should students want to review their exam long after it has been given, or if they appeal their grade.

Inform students of the purpose and parameters of the exam

Clearly communicate with students about what your goals are for any test or exam.  Don't assume that students know what the pedagogical purpose of the test or exam is.  Have a discussion about your goals and desired outcomes, and help students understand how specific aspects of the test or exam fit these goals.  Be open to making some changes if students have ideas to offer. 

Point out the important sections in course plans, textbooks, and readings to guide test and exam preparation; where possible, provide multiple samples of tests and exam questions and answers.

Although you might not provide students with exam questions in advance, you should be prepared to answer questions such as:

  • What will the exam cover?
  • How much emphasis should I put on the textbook / lectures / etc…?
  • What material (if any) am I allowed to bring into the exam room?
  • When will I get my mark?
  • What happens if, for a good reason, I can’t attend the exam? Do I get to re-write?
  • Will I be given the chance to choose the topics on which I do questions?
  • Will I be told which criteria I am being assessed on?
  • If I disagree politically or philosophically with the marker, will I get poor marks?
  • Will allowances be made if English is not my first language?

After your students write the exam

Monitor the quality of your exams

Exams provide you with the opportunity to obtain feedback on student learning, your teaching methods, and the quality of the exam itself.

  • Write impressions on your exam and keep them. During the exam and the marking of the exam, keep track of which questions seem to be well understood, and which questions were frequently misunderstood.
  • Collect numerical data. If you have machine-scorable exams, you can get statistics on your questions, such as which questions were missed most often or which distracters were most often chosen. In other cases you can collect an overview of the marks.
  • Get student feedback. You can leave space specifically for feedback on exams, or you can obtain feedback in class after the exam.

Reflect on the gathered information

Reviewing examination results can help you identify concepts and methods that students are having difficulty with – questions that were missed – as well as concepts and methods that were well understood – questions generally successfully answered. Or it may highlight well constructed or poorly­constructed exam question. Consider using this information to:

  • Change how you teach the remainder of the term
  • Check for improvement on specific topics or methods over a term
  • Redesign the course or the examination for future classes
  • Assess your teaching practice – what is working especially well and what can be improved upon


  • Brown, S., Race, P., & Smith, B. (1996). 500 Tips on Assessment. London, UK: Kogan Page.
  • Brown, S., & Smith, B. (1997). Getting to Grips with Assessment. Birmingham, UK: staff and Educational Development Association.

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