I recommend this excellent “Assessment Editing” blog post at the ACES website. Evelyn Mellone and David Pisano are language proficiency test editors at the U.S. Defense Language Institute. They presented a workshop on editing assessments to ACES members, and their PowerPoint notes offer best practices and areas of concern that will be useful for anyone editing exams.
They suggest multi-level editing that starts with copy editing and moves substantive editing. They warn that textual and grammar cues (or clues) could make a test question invalid for assessing students’ knowledge. Partial truths, vague or ambiguous pronouns, or trick questions are equally to be avoided.
Among the many excellent tips they offer, the following copy editing concerns jumped out at me as relevant for our courses:
- Incorrect grammar, spelling, punctuation, and usage
- Lack of parallel structure
- Grammar or textual variations that could signal a correct or incorrect answer
Substantive editing concerns to keep in mind:
- Questions or answers containing partial truths, overstatements, or ambiguity.
- Unclear pronoun references; e.g., the pronoun it in answer choices without signalling which noun is referenced in the question.
- Grammar cues, such as verb tense, signalling the correct answer; e.g., a question using a plural verb has only one answer suitable for the verb conjugation.
- A word or a phrase in the question is repeated in one of the possible answers.
- Notable differences in answer length; e.g., one answer is much longer or shorter than the others.
- Qualifiers (all, always, commonly, no) signalling the answer or blurring distinctions between answers.
This is a good opportunity to share some of my own tips:
- Move the article (a, an, the) to the question stem so answers start with the noun or verb.
- Check our style guide’s rules for displayed lists.
- Use bold font to draw attention to key word(s) needed to respond to the question successfully. Test takers are under time pressure, so they might have time only to skim the questions. For example, bold any words used as key terms. “The suffix -gravida means:”
- Use bold or capital letters to draw attention to negative questions. Words like NOT or EXCEPT are easy to miss if reading quickly. For example, “XYZ is NOT associated with which of the following?”
- Indicate how many marks each question or section contributes. This helps students pace themselves to have enough time for the more difficult or time consuming questions.
- Include instructions; for example, “select the best answer” or “select all correct answers”.
- Flag questions that rely on prior knowledge or information not taught in the course.
- Avoid gendered language and pronouns if possible.
- If students respond in a test booklet, make the answer fields large enough for the answers.
- And, last but not least, check that marks for each question add up to the total marks for the exam or assignment.