Dear Instructor—Take This Test

The next time you sit down to write a test, to place a quiz in your online course, or send off a test key to your instructional designer, ask YOURSELF some questions:

  • Will the quiz motivate your students?
  • Can you explain why each question is on the test?
  • Are you using your test to promote learning?

Punitive to Positive

Which of those words has a better ring to it? Consider making the quiz a vehicle for delivering a sense of purpose and motivating your students.

Maryellen Weimer, author at Faculty Focus, shares a story of a few accounting faculty who made some adjustments in the way they quizzed students in their face-to-face classrooms. Instead of punishing them for NOT reading the assigned material, they encouraged students to read AND take notes while reading. Here’s how they did it:

Students are allowed to use their notes taken from reading the assigned chapters as they complete the quiz. This gave students a purpose for reading—rather than just skimming through, they wrote down key ideas and concepts from the text. When they came to class and picked up the quiz—they had a collection of notes to refer to as they answered the questions.

Key concepts: metacognition; active learning; motivation.

Why Even Ask the Question?

Eric Montag, training coordinator for Neenah, Inc., writes that “the test writer should be able to answer why the test taker needs to know the information that is presented in the question.” Sounds like common sense, right?  But the temptation to include filler questions to reach the magic 25, or download from a publisher’s test bank, can be all too real.

He adds that, often test writers are set on making the test “challenging” so they use trickery and distractors as they develop questions and answers. These practices add to learner-anxiety and sure frustration. Instead, he says, focus on fairness and accurately measuring whether learning has occurred. Here are three of his tips:

  • Focus on important information. Questions like “What is the diagram on page 3 showing?” is irrelevant and demoralizing for students. Instead, help your students think: What did the author of our text discover regarding college student’s perceptions of emotional intelligence?
  • Avoid Trickery. Questions should only have one answer. Allow your students to demonstrate what they have learned—not how they can avoid tricky pitfalls by selecting “the best” answer from several partially-accurate answers.
  • Listen to feedback from test takers. Students will tell you when something isn’t clear, when they feel misled, or when they’re unable to demonstrate their knowledge. Listen carefully to their feedback; sometimes a small adjustment in wording makes the question more effective.

Key concepts: fairness; stimulate learning through recall; purpose

Thinking About Thinking

Metacognition is becoming a household word among educators. It’s a good thing, too—understanding its value can turn our teaching and learning strategies around for the better. In 2000, Bransford, Brown, and Cocking, authors of How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, declared metacognition to be a key learning principle that should be included in all curriculum. Guiding students to think about what they are reading, what they are thinking about their reading, their writing, their experiences, is a giant step toward active learning, and set-up for successfully reaching learning outcomes.

How can you employ metacognition in your online course? Give quizzes! Among other strategies, Barbara Millis describes the value of testing students over material even if the tests do not “count” toward a final grade. Some ideas:

  • Develop short multiple-choice quizzes with questions that direct students to the “meat” of the assigned reading or activity. They either remember it from their reading (gold star level) or discover it by going back to the text to find it (gold star level)
  • After an assignment or activity, ask students to reflect on a few questions. Develop reflection prompts that guide students to think about what they know and what they don’t know. A couple example questions are: “What was the most important thing you learned while conducting the interview?” or “What important question do you still have?
  • Give a “knowledge survey” at the beginning of an online course. This is an opportunity for students to “indicate their perception of their knowledge of course-related topics” in a safe activity that doesn’t require them to prove anything. Possible responses to each question could be:
  1. I know this;
  2. I know at least 50% of the answer or know exactly where to find the answer;
  3. I don’t know.

The beauty of this activity is that students will consider what they already know and what they will need to know from the course.

Key concepts: self-assessment; reflection; metacognitive awareness

Did you pass the test? Are you thinking about moving from “punitive” to “positive?” What strategies will you use? We’d love to know.


Maryellen Weimer, PhD (December 19, 2013). A Quiz Design that Motivates Students [blog]. Retrieved from

Montag, E. (January 2019). Write Effective Tests. Training. p. 14.

Cook, B. R., & Babon, A. (2017). Active learning through online quizzes: Better learning and less (busy) work. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 41, 24-38.

Mills, B. J. (2016). Using metacognition to promote learning. IDEA Paper #63.

Author: Gwen Hersha, Assistant Professor & Instructional Designer

Gwen is fascinated with teaching and learning and loves designing ways of "doing it better." She finds joy in the everyday practicality of life: writing, teaching, gardening, and trying new things.

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