Selection of a test format

(By: Hilde ter Horst (Zoëzi) and Riet Martens)

Each of a programme’s study units (= subjects) is followed by an exam. Exams involve an investigation of the students’ knowledge, understanding and skills, and an assessment of the outcomes of that investigation. It appears that the test format used is one of the main driving factors in students’ learning behaviour. For instance, students prepare differently for multiple-choice tests than they do for oral examinations. Which test format is best suited to your purposes depends on the subject’s learning objectives. When it comes to learning objectives for academic training, professional skills and complex skills, it is often difficult to select a suitable test format. Many opt for a combination of different test formats to investigate and assess whether a student has achieved all of the learning objectives.

Test selection usually involves a degree of compromise, as each test format has its pros and cons. The following aspects can help you to make an informed choice:

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Learning objectives

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Purpose of the test and quality requirements

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Applicability of various test formats

This also involves an exploration of

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Commonly used test formats

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The test schedule.

Learning objectives

When developing a subject, you set out what you want to achieve in terms of educating students (within the context of the programme’s attainment targets). You do this by creating a number of specific learning objectives describing the requisite knowledge that a student should acquire and the behaviour that a student must demonstrate after completing the subject in question. You use the examination to investigate and assess whether a student has achieved the learning objectives. The choice of test format must be in keeping with the goals (learning objectives) that you want to measure. For instance, you cannot use a multiple-choice question to assess a student’s ability to present research results: there are other test formats for that purpose.

Our programmes aim to provide students with the basic qualifications for a post in those professions for which a university education is required. It is, therefore, important that students know how to apply their theoretical knowledge in practice. If we are to assess students’ proficiency in this regard, then the test formats (and teaching methods) that we select must be in keeping with relevant situations in professional practice. Miller’s pyramid is a useful tool for identifying levels of competence.

Purpose of the test and quality requirements

Tests can be used for many different purposes, some of which are described below.

One of the most important purposes of testing is selection. The test is used to make decisions about whether or not candidates will be admitted, pass or fail. Tests that lead to an assessment, and provide evidence that a given level of knowledge or skill has been mastered (by awarding course credits) are referred to as summative tests.

Tests can also serve a diagnostic purpose. In such cases, the test is used to give students (and lecturers) insight into gaps in a student’s current knowledge and skill set. Alternatively, they can indicate precisely what the student needs to study, and to what level. The purpose of tests of this kind (formative tests) is to assess progress and to direct the learning process.

Tests can also be used to motivate students to exhibit effective studying behaviour.

Depending on the function of the test in question, certain test quality indicators should be prioritized. Most higher education examinations have a summative purpose, in that the test results determine whether or not students are awarded course credits. Accordingly, an examination result must provide objective evidence of a student’s knowledge and abilities. This means that examinations (or parts thereof) must be of the highest quality, and that they must actually measure what they are intended to measure (i.e. mastery of the learning objective).

Accordingly, when selecting a test format, you should also consider the minimum quality requirements to be met by a test, given the purpose of the test in question.

Applicability of various test formats

When deciding on a test format, you should also be aware of the range of options available, and of the uses of the various test formats. We have prepared a list of the uses, pros and cons of some test formats that are commonly used in the faculty.

Further, the book entitled “Toetsen in het hoger onderwijs” (Testing in higher education) by Henk van Berkel and Anneke Bax (ed.), (ISBN 90-313-4811-2) provides a useful summary of sixteen different test formats (purpose, development and tips). The website http://www.score.hva.nl/ provides twelve detailed examples of tests. Form, function, pros and cons are all given in detail in both student and teacher versions. You can visit the site or browse through the book and familiarize yourself with new test formats that focus primarily on measuring complex skills/competencies. Pilot* provides a summary of test formats that are suitable for measuring various academic competencies.

Commonly used test formats

Guidelines and tips are available for some commonly used test formats:

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Tests with closed-ended questions

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Tests with open-ended questions

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Diagnostic problem-solving tests

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Essay tests

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(Project) assignments

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Observations

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Graduation projects

The test schedule

You will often select a combination of test formats in order to determine whether a student has achieved the learning objectives. You can use a test schedule to indicate which learning objectives are being assessed using which test format. Here too, you can provide details of the contribution that each test component makes to the final grade.

Sources:

*Pilot, A., Toetsen van academische vaardigheden (Tests of academic skills). In: Berkel, H. van, and Bax, A. (ed.) (2006). Toetsen in het hoger onderwijs (Testing in higher education). Houten: Bohn Stafleu van Loghum

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