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How to Construct a Midterm

With midterm exams just around the corner, it is important to begin thinking about test construction.  Regardless of question format (multiple choice, short answer, essay, etc.), the best tests are constructed using “backwards design.”  This assessment philosophy is driven by well-developed learning goals/objectives (for either a teaching unit, course, or program) that state with clarity what the student should understand and be able to do.  Therefore, questions on an exam should be used as supportive evidence of whether students are meeting unit or course goals/objectives outlined in the syllabus.  In other words, exam results should provide acceptable evidence of student competency of leading to completion of course outcomes.  With this idea in mind, we have compiled a list of short tips and resources to help you construct your midterm exam.



  • Write an exam to assess what students do know, not what they don’t.  When designing an exam, focus on what you want students to have learned, rather than trying to find holes in their understanding.  Take some time to think about the most important concepts or skills from your course (e.g., ones you hope your students will still remember in 5 years) and formulate questions to assess students’ knowledge of those.
  • Use the course goals/objectives from your syllabus as a starting point.  Since the course goals in your syllabus outline what students should be able to do or what they should learn by the end of your course, design your test to assess their progress with these objectives.  Direct assessment of students’ progress will also allow you as the instructor to see where they’re at on this journey and what (if anything) needs more work to help students get there.
  • Consider adding a performance task.  Performance tasks, as noted by Jay McTighe, require students to apply their knowledge to new situations as a means of measuring whether or not they understand underlying concepts.  Therefore, rather than asking students to produce a definition or formula, have them apply what they learned by interpreting new data or in a new context.  When students can extend their understanding to new situations, they likely have gained a deep understanding of course material and by using a performance task, we can assess whether or not they have done so.
  • Decide on whether to use a objective or subjective test method.  Callahan and Meixner note that objective methods (multiple choice, true-false, matching) and subjective methods (essay, short answer) each have their advantages and disadvantages.  Considering such, it is up to you as the instructor to determine which (or which combination) best suits your course objectives.  Also make sure that whatever test you design can be completed during your designated testing period.


Additional Resources


For more on backwards design, also check out our blog post on the Fundamentals of Course Design.

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