RedNectar’s Guide for writing Exam Questions

I feel your pain. You are sitting another [insert name of favourite vendor here] exam, and you come across a question that is just not written clearly, where the examiner has not made the question clear.

And so, you begin the test of trying to telepathically communicate with the examiner to guess his/her intent when writing the question.

I also feel for the examiner, writing evaluation questions is a tricky process.

If you ever need to write exam questions, please at least follow these seven simple rules which should make life much better for the poor candidate when they sit your exam. Here they are:

  1. NEVER ask a question in the negative. E.g. NEVER ask “Which of the following does not apply”. Instead, ask “Which of the following do apply?” (Choose four [assuming 5 options]).  You are NOT trying to judge a person’s
  2. If practical, put a story around the question. See my examples below.
  3. In general, ask a question rather than “Do an action”.
  4. If some distractors are partially correct, make sure you include an instruction to “Choose the best answer”.  Often this is stated in an overall statement at the beginning of an exam, but adding it to any question never hurts.
  5. [This is the hardest one]. Have good distractors, items that sound reasonable but could never be true, or at least never be true given the wording of the question. But this is tricky, because you don’t want to list items that could be true in a slightly different circumstance.
  6. In general, test only one objective per question when conducting these types of tests. In other words, don’t ask questions that require skills that relate to multiple objectives.
    • Note: This does not exclude those puzzling questions that require the collation of several pieces of information to solve.  But by the same token, there should be a course objective that the question relates to that allows for this.
  7. Every question should be able to be mapped to a learning objective or learning/skills/knowledge criterion.

Here are some questions I wrote for a course I was involved with some time ago for a wholesale service provide, which I have named xxx™.  I’ve put some comments after each in italics.

Q1:      A manager wants to know how signals can be transmitted in both directions on a single fibre.

Which of the following would you use to describe the way light is used by the OLT in the xxx™ network? (Choose two)

    1. Two wavelengths in opposite directions for voice and data
    2. One wavelength for voice
    3. One wavelength for data
    4. One wavelength for video
    5. Two wavelengths in opposite directions for video

This is a straightforward theory question given context by relating it to a particular type of device (Optical Line Terminal) in the given network. Note how all the options seem reasonable to the casual user. For the record, the answer is A & D. There is an argument that this question crept beyond my criteria that you test only one objective per question given that the candidate would need to know the term OLT. However, in the context this would not have been an issue.

Q2:      The [model no] 18 slot shelf as sold by [vendor] can perform many functions.  A supervisor wants to know which of the following technologies are deployed in the xxx™ network using the [model no] 18 slot shelf.

Which answer should you give?

    1. ATM
    2. VDSL2
    3. Ethernet Access Network
    4. GPON
    5. DWDM

Specific knowledge of this piece of equipment was a course objective. Every one of the terms used in the distractors is a common term in the environment, but only option D was relevant to the named piece of equipment.

Q3:      You have been instructed to replace a line card in a [model no] ISAM. The card you have been given is a XXXX-C line card, but the card you have been instructed to replace is a XXXX-A line card.

What action should you take?

    1. Return the line card and request a XXXX-A line card because the XXXX-C line card is incompatible with the XXXX-A.
    2. Replace the XXXX-A line card with the NGLT-C line card following the instructions in the MOP because the XXXX-A line card and XXXX-C line card are interchangeable.
    3. Call the NOC to ask that the XXXX-A parameters be reconfigured for the XXXX-C line card. When instructed by the NOC, replace the XXXX-A line card with the XXXX-C line card following the instructions in the MOP.
    4. Call the NOC to ask for further instructions.

Again, a question aimed at a specific objective that required the candidates to realise that the XXXX-A and XXXX-C line-cards were interchangeable in the given model ISAM. So, the answer is B, and a specific Method Of Procedure (MOP) detailing the process would have been in the candidates required reading.

Q5: You have instructed to replace a fan tray in a [model no] ISAM.

What is the maximum recommended time you can leave the [model no] ISAM running without a fan tray?

    1. 5 minutes
    2. 10 minutes
    3. 15 minutes
    4. The [model no] ISAM has redundant fan trays, one can be removed without penalty.

I tend to avoid questions that require the memorisation of specific numbers without good reason. These candidates for this exam needed to know that they had only a five minute window to replace a fan tray (a reasonably regular occurrence in our harsh climate).


Special thanks to John Hattie who taught me most of this theory back in 1977

About RedNectar Chris Welsh

Professional IT Instructor. All things TCP/IP, Cisco or Data Centre
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