How Do I Design a Good Exam?

How Do I Design a Good Exam?

Black woman sitting at a desk taking a written test.

Faculty use assessments to determine how well students have learned what we want them to learn for the course (Nilson & Goodson, 2021). Exams are considered traditional assessments that are convenient to administer and grade, but designing a good exam can be a challenge! On this page, we will provide some guidance on how you can design exams that support student learning.



Consider Your Options

Reflect on Your Reasons for Testing. Students appreciate when you provide opportunities for them to demonstrate their learning in a variety of ways. Different forms of assessment encourage different types of learning (Arend, 2007). It is always helpful to ask yourself why an exam, as opposed to another type of assessment (e.g., projects, portfolios, papers, presentations), is appropriate for the type of learning you want students to demonstrate.

Consider Demonstrated Growth. When we make our exams “high stakes,” or counting for a significant portion of students’ overall grade, student anxiety and the desire to cheat will increase (Tobin, 2020). Is there a way you can adjust your grade distribution so you emphasize student growth (improvement over time) rather than heavily weighing a single exam?

Think about Your Capacity. For some classes, like large lecture courses, exams are an appropriate assessment given an instructor’s capacity and resources. In these cases, designing an exam that includes higher-order questions (items that move beyond recall and comprehension) can be effective in assessing students’ critical thinking skills.


Craft Higher-Order Questions

Include More Application Questions. If we want students to combine knowledge in new ways, then we need to ask questions that prompt this type of thinking. When students are recalling facts or defining concepts on exams, they are not using their knowledge in a complex way. By incorporating application questions—vignettes, problems, or situations that require students to apply what they know to a novel setting—we are able to test for higher-level thinking (for examples of application questions see Brame, 2013; Haladyna, 2018).

Ask for Explanations or Examples. If your grading capacity allows, consider asking students to include an explanation on their thought process for their answer on a multiple-choice item. If you are administering an exam in a large class, think about incorporating explanation questions for a small number of multiple-choice questions, which could also minimize cheating.

For short answer or essay exams, ask students to include in their response a personal or real-life example that reflects the concept to initiate the application of their thinking, which can also minimize cheating since each example could be unique.

Have Students Write Exam Questions and Answers. Instead of designing the exam yourself, have students create their own exam questions and provide the answers, based on what they perceive to be the critical content in the course. This activity provides you with valuable feedback on whether students are studying the material you want them to know and not focusing on superfluous or minor details. Keep in mind that you will want to model how to write a good exam question for this activity.


Give Practice Opportunities

Use Retrieval Practice. Building in numerous opportunities for students to retrieve concepts or facts from memory increases their ability to remember that content long-term and then later apply that information in an exam. It is important that students experience retrieval practice in the same format as the exam, so they become familiar with the types of questions you may ask. In a face-to-face class, you might do this with iClicker questions, Socratic questioning, or low-stakes quizzes. In an online class, you can incorporate retrieval practice using Zoom polling in synchronous sessions, interactive lecture questions in H5P for asynchronous courses, or quizzes counted as participation in your LMS.

Talk through Questions. While any sort of retrieval practice that provides students with immediate feedback (i.e., the correct answer) is beneficial, be sure to take some time to talk through the questions you ask. Why were certain distractors (incorrect answers) in a multiple-choice question problematic? Why did students think those distractors were feasible? You can talk through example exam questions in class, in synchronous Zoom sessions, create a short video that students watch on their own, or provide explanations in a discussion forum or course announcement in your LMS. If you teach a large lecture course, this an excellent activity to use in discussion sections with your TAs.

Offer a Practice Exam. By offering a practice exam to students, you are potentially decreasing their testing anxiety as they may feel a greater sense of agency. If you plan to administer your exam online, offering a practice exam that uses the same format as the actual exam would help familiarize your students with the type of technology they are going to use and how the test questions might look with that technology.


Clarify Testing Conditions

Offer Guidance on Effective Testing Environments for Online Exams. To ensure the best “distraction-free” atmosphere possible, encourage students to find a space that is as quiet as possible, declutter their testing area, ask for others not to interrupt them while they are taking the exam, turn off their cellphones, and close all other applications and notifications on their device.

Provide Flexibility in Testing Time for Online Exams. Students will find themselves in a variety of situations that make it difficult to take an online exam under a rigid time constraint (e.g., they may lose internet connection; they may have to take care of a sibling or parent). By providing a “testing window” to take the exam (i.e., 48 hours), students can plan accordingly. Alternatively, you could consider having students take a “take-home” exam for an extended period of time.

Share Your Expectations about Allowable Resources. If you’ve (re)designed your exam to include more higher-order questions that ask students to apply what they know (knowledge they’ve developed through repeated retrieval practice) in new situations, you should consider allowing students to collaborate and/or to use their notes or texts to complete the exam. Whatever you decide, be sure to be explicit about what is or is not allowed well before the scheduled exam and answer any student questions.


What about Cheating?

Many instructors have concerns about academic integrity when it comes to exams. The previous sections on this page give you many options to uphold academic integrity, including: changing your grading scheme to include other assessments or lower-stakes exams; incorporating higher-order questions that allow students to use resources or collaborate to answer; providing ample opportunities for students to practice answering exam questions; and clarifying your expectations for students. However, there are additional design strategies you can implement:

Include an Honesty Statement. Ask each student to sign an honesty pledge before accessing the exam questions. You could place the statement at the beginning of the exam or on a separate paper you collect. For an online exam, you could place the statement at the top of the exam before the questions are visible and require your students to check a box next to the statement.

Randomizing Items for Online Exams. If you have a large existing test bank of items, considering randomizing the items and creating different versions of the exam. For online exams, you can randomize the items for each individual test taker by reordering, randomizing, or shuffling questions using the quiz/exam function in your LMS.

Rewording Items for Online Exams. If you have a limited number of test bank items with question stems that feature easily changed numerical values or wording, consider rewording individual test items for online exams and create different versions of your exam in the LMS.

Delaying Feedback and Grades for Online Exams. When you create your online exam in the LMS, opt to delay releasing the student feedback (grades) until all students have submitted their exams (after the test window closes).



For more detailed information about supporting academic integrity, please see How Do I Support Students in Maintaining Academic Integrity?

Please contact the CTL with any question or for more details about the examples shared at

For questions on your LMS, Google, and other educational technology contact IDEAS at



Arend, B.D. (2007). Course assessment practices and student learning strategies in online courses. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 11(4), 3-17.

Brame, C. (2013). Writing good multiple-choice test questions. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved from:

Brame, C.J., & Biel, R. (2015). Test-enhanced learning: Using retrieval practice to help students learn. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved from:

Haladyna, T.M. (2018). Developing test items for course examinations. IDEA Paper 70. Retrieved from:

Nilson, L.B., & Goodson, L.A. (2021). Online teaching at its best. Jossey-Bass.

Tobin, T. (2020, March 25). Student agency in uncertain times. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from:

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