The Art of the Assessment Question


When it comes to creating an effective assessment, the greatest challenge lies not so much in the questions themselves but in the form they take. An assessment composed of well-crafted questions has the power to determine study habits, influence knowledge retention, and prepare students for summative assessments down the road.

Depending on course material and field of study, some questions are better suited than others for achieving learning objectives. There is, however, an occasion for every question type, and it is important to know the strengths of each before putting them to use.

Get to know some of the most common question types and the roles of each in the realm of assessment:

Multiple Choice

What Sets This Question Type Apart?

While some propose that multiple-choice questions may result in surface-level study habits, this question type can be useful in testing reading comprehension and practical knowledge of learned principles. In response to criticism surrounding the inclusion of multiple-choice questions on the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE), The Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center at Touro College cites the “case file” format of a 1983 performance test in California, a multiple-choice exam paired with documents typical of a legal case file. Successful completion of this exam did not rely on rote memorization of rules. Rather, this exam used a series of multiple-choice questions to assess the application of relevant theories and practices to true-to-life scenarios presented in the mock case file.

Those considering the value of multiple-choice questions should also keep in mind any summative assessments that lie ahead for students, beyond the scope of a single course. In a recent webinar on the subject of multiple response type questions in nursing programs, Assistant Professor Cheryl Frutchey noted that many of her students at Oklahoma City University’s School of Nursing have been reporting that 70-75% of NCLEX questions are now the “select all that apply” format. In weighing the benefits of a particular question type in determining student success, field-related insights like these may help tip the scale.


What Sets This Question Type Apart?

While a true-false question may be similar in structure to a multiple-choice item, it goes a step further in asking the exam-taker to judge a statement’s validity. Rather than calling upon powers of memorization, the exam-taker must demonstrate their command of verbal knowledge and a working knowledge of a given subject by converting abstract principles to a specific application.

The multiple-true-false question is an adaptation of the true-false question that incorporates (and improves upon) elements of the multiple-choice question type, requiring the test-taker to consider all answer options in relation to a given question stem. This hybrid question type differs from “select all that apply” in asking the test-taker to identify both correct and incorrect statements rather than just the “true” ones, shedding light on incorrect or incomplete understandings.

Extended Matching Sets

What Sets This Question Type Apart?

Particularly helpful for the usual format of clinical assessments, this item type provides a series of individual questions and a longer list of possible answers for the test-taker to choose from. By design, extended matching set questions prioritize an understanding of the question stems before a correct selection can be made, making it difficult to quickly eliminate incorrect answers from the list.

With an extended list of answers to accompany perhaps only a handful of question stems, this question type encourages the test-taker to process information within each question before parsing relevant answers from the provided list, emphasizing a deeper subject mastery than simple memorization can provide.

Fill in the Blank

What Sets This Question Type Apart?

A known benefit of free response question types like fill-in-the-blank is the decreased possibility of guessing the correct answer. Since the exam-taker must provide an answer that fits contextually within the provided question stem, fill-in-the-blank questions are more likely to exercise language skills.

In a recent study composed of 134 final-year undergraduate dental students at the University of Peradeniya, 90% found fill-in-the-blank questions more challenging than the same question in multiple-choice format, and only 19% reported encountering fill-in-the-blank questions during their time in the program. By withholding answer choices that lead to quick answer recall, fill-in-the-blank questions can effectively gauge an exam-taker’s understanding. Though, as revealed above, the prevalence and/or feasibility of this item type may vary from program to program.

Short Answer

What Sets This Question Type Apart?

Short-answer questions are valuable for measuring a test-taker’s understanding of a subject beyond simple recall. Preparing for an assessment with this question type promotes study habits that reinforce comprehension over memorization, thus increasing the likelihood that the test-taker will retain this knowledge.

After using ExamSoft to convert their assessment format from multiple-choice to short-answer questions, the Donald & Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell conducted a survey to measure student attitudes about the switch. Sixty-four percent of the 274 students surveyed thought that short-answer questions better equipped them for a clinical setting. By exercising abilities in critical thinking, reasoning, and communication, the free-response format of this question type allows the cultivation of skills necessary for the workplace.

Creating Assessment Questions with ExamSoft

Beyond building assessments using all of these common question types, ExamSoft users can:

  • Supplement individual questions with audio, video, or image attachments
  • Create “hotspot” questions for exam-takers to select an area of an image as an answer
  • Tag questions with categories, including learning objectives and accreditation criteria

In addition, Examplify, ExamSoft’s test-taking application, offers several built-in exam tools for test-takers to use, including:

  • Highlighter and notepad
  • Programmable spreadsheet
  • Scientific and graphing calculators

To learn more about creating assessments with ExamSoft and available features with Examplify, request a demo today!


CBE Life Sciences Education: How Question Types Reveal Student Thinking: An Experimental Comparison of Multiple-True-False and Free-Response Formats

Jacob D. Fuchberg Law Center, Tauro College: How to Build a Better Bar Exam

ExamSoft Webinar: Using ExamSoft Data to Evaluate Those Pesky “Select All That Apply” Questions

National Institute of Education: Relationship Between Free-Response and Choice-Type Tests of Achievement: A Review of the Literature

The School Review: The Case for True-False Test Items

BioScience: Multiple-True-False Questions Reveal the Limits of the Multiple-Choice Format for Detecting Students with Incomplete Understandings

Bioscience Education: What are Extended Matching Sets Questions?

Bioscience Education: MCQ, EMSQ or Multiple True/False Questions?

Educación Médica: Effectiveness of “Fill in the Blanks” Over Multiple Choice Questions in Assessing Final Year Dental Undergraduates

Published: August 26, 2020

Updated: January 12, 2022

Related Resources