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Midterm season is fast approaching (if it hasn’t arrived already) and you may now face the challenge of designing one or more exams that will fit the students, the material, and the goals of the class. You probably touched on some of these elements when designing the course or creating the syllabus, but the actual work of crafting a satisfactory exam can still be a daunting prospect. With that in mind, here are some tips to help you plan:

  • Consider the exam in light of course objectives. How will you describe this test to your students in terms of the overall goals of the course? Maybe it is a tool to measure how much content they remember at this point in the semester. Or it can be a chance to draw out students’ creative abilities by encouraging new ideas and new applications of the material they’ve learned by this time–as long as everything on the test is material they have already covered. This is not a time for surprises! In either case, use this midterm as an opportunity. It can be more than a routine checkup; it can actually work toward achieving some of the goals of the course.
  • Use appropriate methods of assessment. Depending on what you hope your students will gain or demonstrate through this exam, you will want to choose the format of the test carefully. Multiple choice and true or false questions are work well if you need your students to demonstrate knowledge of discrete technical terms or other data retrieval. It is possible to measure more complex thinking with multiple choice questions, but it requires a high level of effort and skill on the teacher’s part to create these kinds of questions. (See here for more information on creating good multiple choice questions.) Typically, if you need your students to establish their ability to construct and defend arguments, essay questions demand the more complex level of thinking needed.
  • Think ahead to grading. It’s never too early to start building a grading rubric! As you go over your questions, break the desired answers down into their component parts so you can decide how many points to award for each part. This will make it easier to give partial credit to an answer that still falls short. Once you make your decisions about how many parts and how many points go with each questions, distribute this rubric to the students. While this rubric should not give away any answers, it can guide their study. Not only will it help them prepare for the exam, it will make grading far quicker and easier.
  • Consider how long it will take to finish. It is important to design exams that can be reasonably completed within the set time limit. There can be a disconnect sometimes between what an expert in the field can do or answer and what a student should be able to do in the same amount of time. You might consider taking your own midterm to see how long it takes you; then double or triple the time you needed to get a sense of what your students will need. Give your students a sense of how long they should spend on each section by letting them know the number of points they can earn per question. For example, if the short answers are worth 5 points each and the essay questions are worth 15 points each, they will have the information they need to manage their time effectively.
  • Ask a colleague or a friend to read through the exam. As with other writing projects, it’s easy to miss mistakes or misjudge how well an exam is constructed without some outside feedback. Asking someone else in your discipline to review your questions will help you judge if the exam is an adequate and accurate tool to measure student progress. Even getting a friend a from another field to look it over can help you ensure the exam is unambiguous in what is asks of the students.



Here is a good resource for different types of grading rubrics that can prompt you ask specific kinds of questions.

We have previously talked about how to design a final exam here. There are many similar points to be made, and you may find the perspective of the final helpful here as well.

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