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An exam is a formally-assessed test, usually written, designed to measure students’ progress and understanding of the subject. Types of exams can include: 

  • Closed-book written exams – no material can be taken into the exam room or used during an online exam; students free-write their responses. 
  • Open-book exams – texts can be used during the exam, typically for written exams.
  • Seen questions – students are told in advance what the exam questions will be; exam conditions can be closed- or open-book. 
  • Multiple choice exams – closed-book tests. 
  • Crib sheet exams – a carefully constructed concise set of notes can be used during the exam. 
  • Portfolio exams – the student presents a portfolio of evidence showing the level of their work. 
  • Performancebased exams – practical exams often used in laboratory-based subjects (sciences) or performing arts. 
  • Oral exams – students respond to questions orally, usually in a closed-book scenario; typically used in subjects like language. 
  • Case study-based exams – questions may be known in advance and need to be applied to an unseen case study during the exam. 

Writing exams can be a challenging aspect of designing a course. It is important to remember that the purpose of exams is to test students’ understanding. This means that exams need to be carefully designed in accordance with the learning outcomes of the class/module. Depending on what you are testing, you should design the assessments accordingly. For factual information, perhaps short answer or multiple choice would be most appropriate. For more interpretive subjects, essaybased exams might be more in line with the learning outcomes. No matter the type of assessment, exams should be reliable, valid and free from bias.

Best Practice Tips

  • Design exams with the learning outcomes in mind. 
  • Ask colleagues to provide feedback on your exam design. 
  • All students should have the opportunity to demonstrate their learning. 
  • The questions should assess what you want to evaluate. 
  • Pitch the level at the average student. 
  • Allow students enough time to answer the questions. 
  • Include a variety of types of questions. 
  • Remove bias – ensure language used in the question can be understood by all students. 
  • Develop a marking scheme and create model answers. 

Further Reading

Banta, T.W. & Palomba, C.A. (2015). Assessment essentials: Planning, implementing, and improving assessment in higher education (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.