Expert Advice on Developing Test Questions

Before you begin writing a test, it is very important to consider your purpose i.e. what it is you intend to test. It is also essential to distinguish among the different test types e.g. do you want to test achievement or proficiency or do you want to test diagnostic and/or prognostic skills? Achievement tests are those that test a student’s subject knowledge, e.g., how well he or she understands the material covered on the course they are taking.  Proficiency tests are those tests designed to measure a student’s ability in a particular area such as, say, one’s language proficiency. These tests are not specific to any particular course. Diagnostic tests are designed to draw out a learner’s strengths and weaknesses in a given area or field of study.   

Prognostic tests are tests that try to predict a student’s performance in a particular subject or on some course, they are taking, e.g., how well they are likely to do. Of course, there are many more categories of exams and tests. The important thing is to choose your methods and techniques very carefully when preparing any of the types of tested described above.    

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Task Types

There are a number of different elicitation methods or techniques available for writing tests. The following list sets out some of the most commonly used techniques with guidelines on their strong and weak points. It is very important to use the most suitable types of questions and tests at the appropriate time if you are to properly understand your students’ skills and abilities. However, you also need to understand that each type of task or question has certain limitations so that you are in a position to choose the one that is most appropriate for the circumstances.  

Multiple-Choice Questions

Example: Select the word that is the best fit for completing this sentence …

You can use multiple-choice style questions to test a great many things, e.g., reading skills, listening ability, vocabulary, grammar, and so on. However, you should remember that students might just hazard a guess when they do not actually know the right answer.


Example: Fill in the missing word in this sentence …

You can also use gap-fillers to evaluate a number of different areas such as grammar and vocabulary. They are also very good for testing a student’s ability to listen out for particular words. 

Transformation Test Questions

Example: The second sentence needs to be completed so that it means the same thing as the first one …  

Transformation questions are especially useful for evaluating grammar skills and how well the student understands form. This type of question would not be suitable for testing listening, reading and certain other types of skills.  

Match the Word Questions

Example: The word in the left-hand column needs to be matched to the word that means the opposite …    

Match the word questions are frequently used for vocabulary testing.

True or False Questions

Example: Answer true or false for the following statements …

Questions of this type are most frequently used for evaluating a student’s reading and listening skills.

Open-Ended Questions

Example: Please answer the following questions...

Questions in this category are very good for evaluating any or all of the four primary skills. However, they are not so good for evaluating a student’s vocabulary or grammar.

Cloze-Type Questions

Example: Add a suitable word where there are gaps to complete the sentence/phrase …

Test questions of this type are good for evaluating reading, vocabulary and grammar skills.  

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