Preparing exam questions

I’ve been thinking about a question (based on a rather natural anxiety) that some of my students have asked me: “What will the questions in the final written exam look like?” and my spontaneous response was that I wouldn’t answer this question, or at least that I would not give a precise and concrete answer to this question. The reason is that I think that it’s important for students not to have a too narrow representation of what I want them to know and be able to do. Otherwise they will try to find out what they think I want them to know. If I gave them examples of questions that will be asked in the exam, then, I fear, they will prepare themselves too much and too narrowly to answer these questions… And I really want my exam questions to help me test their understanding and ability to flexibly use and apply the knowledge they have acquired/constructed throughout the semester… So the questions need to be NEW and unsuspected… It should not be possible to give a reasonable answer if you have not developed a deep understanding of the concepts and ideas.

However, I’ve recently come across a manifesto stating that There’s No Excuse for Trick Questions” and I was wondering whether the type of questions I’ve been asking so far could be seen as trick questions…

Let me briefly quote Tina Blue (

What possible pedagogical value can there be in trick questions on exams or quizzes?

Several young people I know, both in high school and in college, have run into teachers who introduce trick questions on tests in a deliberate attempt to stump the student, even when the student knows the material he is supposedly being tested on.


Other than making the teachers who design the exams feel clever and showing the students how powerless they really are, there is nothing to be gained by such test questions. The purposes of an exam are (1) to give the student an opportunity to demonstrate his knowledge of the material and (2) to create a certain amount of pressure so that the student will review a body of material intensively enough to integrate it and understand it at a higher level.

It would be nice if it were possible to achieve these ends without the pressure of exams, but of course it isn’t, and so tests are–or at least they can be–quite valuable teaching tools.

But when a student has quite thoroughly mastered the material, there is no justification for trying to ask questions in a way that will make it close to impossible for him to demonstrate that mastery.

So I do agree that we should avoid trick questions, because their pedagogical value is zero. It sends out the wrong signal to a student who’s got mastery of a certain knowledge domain and still gets a rather negative feedback.

I do however also think that we need to ask meaningful and difficult questions… real questions, where there is no easy, simple and obvious answer.

So finally, I want to ask you, my readers, to tell me what you think… Should I give my students exemplar questions from the last sessions for instance, so that they better know what to expect and to be able to get this comforting feeling of being (better) prepared or should I encourage to develop their own inquiries, i.e., “What questions would you ask if you had to construct an exam?”? Please use the comments function below to share your thoughts…

3 Feedbacks on “Preparing exam questions”

  1. Gudden Owend Här Reuter,
    also ech geif et och gudd fannen wann dir eis eng Beispillfro geift gin, well mir wessen definitif net wei mir eis op den Examen fierbereeden sollen. Et kann jo net nemen duer goen, dass mir “just” eis mandatory readings machen sollen.Do misst een jo secher mei weit goen.Mee mir wessen eben net wei wait mir do goen sollen an machen eis imens vill Gedanken.Mee dir musst do wessen wat dir fir richteg halt.Mir kennen just en Vierschlag man an dir kukt dann wat dir demno macht.:)

  2. Virun allem ass u sech jo main ziel, dass dir ALL, oder quasi all, ganz gudd vill wesst a verstidd a kennt uwenden zum thema “becoming an expert of learning”. Main ziel ass et net fir iech ze “datzen”, mee ech well awer och heigh usprech un iech stellen. Wann der dei “all” erfellt, dann soll och jidereen eng gudd evaluatioun kreien… Mee ech denken heigh usprech sin e bessi inkompatible mat einfach an predictible froen stellen… Kompetenz kann sech nemmen do entweckelen wou flexiblet denken an handelen verlaangt a gefördert get.

    Ech denken et waer mol gudd, wann der irch griff schlau maachen nei aeren kollegen aus dem 2., 3. an 4. Joer. Dei kennen iech ganz gudd schilderen wei der iech op meng examen kennt preparéieren… 😉

  3. Ech deelen hei är Meenung an fannen, daat wann mer wellen wessen weieng Art Froen an deenen Examen kommen, dann kennen ma daat jo einfach eraus fannen andeems mer anar Leit aus dem 2,3.. Joer froen gin. Daat fördert dann och eisen sozialen Kontakt mat anaren Leit an d’Eegeninitiativ. (Am fong wer et nach besser, der hett daat net geschriwwen, well dorop sollt een jo awa selwer kennen kommen) Souwisou mengen ech net daat engem daat super vill helleft fierun den Examen, well d’Froen souwisou net dei nemlecht werten sin an weieng Art froen kommen hudd der eis souwisou schon probeiert ze aklären. (Verglach fun ferschidden Methoden mateneen, Uwennung fun Wessen op nei Situationen.. an net Froen à la Waat steet op der Seit sou an sou an deem an deem Buch, oder bis weini huet den Vygotski gelierft..asw Also wann ech daat elo nach richteg an Arennarung hun)

Comments are closed.