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Objective tests

A page within CATL Teaching Improvement Guide

Brief Description

The most common form of objective test uses multiple-choice items. Each item consists of a stem, which is a question or problem, followed by several response options. The response options include the correct or best answer and several foils that are plausible, but incorrect or inadequate answers to the stem.  


1. Test what you actually taught. Good tests cover the content and objectives the instructor actually taught—this is called content validity. For example, if you devote a lot of time to a particular topic in a unit you would use more test items on that topic than on minor topics. The same is true for objectives. If you devote a lot of time teaching a particular objective, say the ability to analyze the subject matter, then the test would include items that assess students’ ability to analyze the material.

Example: Create a Test Plan to guide item writing. As you write test items you classify each one according to the topic or concept it tests AND the objective it addresses. The plan helps insure that you create a test that represents what you actually taught. See the resource, Create a Test Plan.

2. Improve test items. There are well established rules and guidelines for writing good test items. Using a few simple rules can improve the quality of your tests.

Adopt standard rules for writing good test items. See the resource, Guidelines for Improving Multiple Choice Items.

3. Write items that assess complex learning objectives. A popular criticism of m-c tests is that they only measure what students remember (recall or recognize] about the course material. There is nothing wrong with testing for basic knowledge or familiarity with content, especially if it is important for students to have a working knowledge of terminology, facts, and principles, etc. But, instructors also address more complex objectives such as understanding, problem solving, application, analysis and evaluation of the material. Writing m-c items that measure higher-level objectives is challenging but attainable.
Example: For several example formats, see the resource handout section, Multiple Choice Items that Test Complex Learning Objectives.
4. Improve overall test construction and administration. Good test items are only one aspect of a good test. Additional considerations include the clarity of instructions, organization of items on the test, test length and time limits.

  • Organize blocks of test items according to topics. List all the items for Topic A followed by all the items for Topic B and so forth. This reduces the cognitive load on students during the test. If items appear randomly by topic, students must quickly switch back and forth through the material rather than focusing on a single topic before moving on to the next.
  • Provide sufficient time for students to complete the test. Students differ in how quickly they read, process information and formulate ideas. Pressure to complete tests quickly can disadvantage slower-responding students and underestimate their knowledge of the subject.
  • Improve test items by getting feedback.
5. Use feedback to improve test items. Revise test items based on feedback from colleagues, students and statistical analyses.


  • Feedback from colleagues. Several instructors who teach the same course can quickly review one another’s test items and develop a shared pool of good items.
  • Feedback from students. Review test results with students. This is an opportunity to give feedback to students, and also get feedback from them about test items.
  • Statistical Item Analysis. If you have tests scored by ITS, you receive an item analysis that provides item difficulty and item discrimination. 

Tips to Improve Objective Tests

  1. Writing good test items is a skill worth developing, especially if you intend to use multiple choice tests in your courses. Over time you can build a library of good items that can be used, revised and re-used.  

  2. The items included in publishers' test item banks can vary widely. You may find poorly-written items as well as items that simply do not fit your objectives. 

  3. Try to write several [2-3] test items on the most important material immediately after class while the topic is still fresh. If it is not feasible to write items after class then try to highlight or make a note about the key concepts from the class period.

  4. Try to write matching pairs of items, two items that test the same concept. One can be used for practice tests and the other for the exam. Or, you can use one item one term and the other item the following term.

  5. Test-taking accommodations. Students with disabilities must register with the Access Center to qualify for accommodations. The Access Center staff will let you know what kinds of accommodations a student needs for test-taking. In addition to more time, another common need is for a separate, quiet room. Hallways are poor choices because of distractions. 


Cerbin, W. (2015). Objective tests. In Teaching Improvement Guide. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from