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Two Types Of Essay Test Questions

Examinations are a very common assessment and evaluation tool in universities and there are many types of examination questions. This tips sheet contains a brief description of seven types of examination questions, as well as tips for using each of them: 1) multiple choice, 2) true/false, 3) matching, 4) short answer, 5) essay, 6) oral, and 7) computational. Remember that some exams can be conducted effectively in a secure online environment in a proctored computer lab or assigned as paper based or online “take home” exams.

Multiple choice

Multiple choice questions are composed of one question (stem) with multiple possible answers (choices), including the correct answer and several incorrect answers (distractors). Typically, students select the correct answer by circling the associated number or letter, or filling in the associated circle on the machine-readable response sheet.

Example: Distractors are:

A) Elements of the exam layout that distract attention from the questions
B) Incorrect but plausible choices used in multiple choice questions
C) Unnecessary clauses included in the stem of multiple choice questions

Answer: B

Students can generally respond to these type of questions quite quickly. As a result, they are often used to test student’s knowledge of a broad range of content. Creating these questions can be time consuming because it is often difficult to generate several plausible distractors. However, they can be marked very quickly.

Tips for writing good multiple choice items:

AvoidDo use

In the stem:

  • Long / complex sentences
  • Trivial statements
  • Negatives and double-negatives
  • Ambiguity or indefinite terms, absolute statements, and broad generalization
  • Extraneous material
  • Item characteristics that provide a clue to the answer misconceptions

In the choices:

  • Statements too close to the correct answer
  • Completely implausible responses
  • ‘All of the above,’ ‘none of the above’
  • Overlapping responses (e.g., if ‘A’ is true)

In the stem:

  • Your own words – not statements straight out of the textbook
  • Single, clearly formulated problems

In the choices:

  • Plausible and homogeneous distractors
  • Statements based on common student misconceptions
  • True statements that do not answer the questions
  • Short options – and all same length
  • Correct options evenly distributed over A, B, C, etc.
  • Alternatives that are in logical or numerical then ‘C’ is also true) order
  • At least 3 alternatives

Suggestion: After each lecture during the term, jot down two or three multiple choice questions based on the material for that lecture. Regularly taking a few minutes to compose questions, while the material is fresh in your mind, will allow you to develop a question bank that you can use to construct tests and exams quickly and easily.


True/false questions are only composed of a statement. Students respond to the questions by indicating whether the statement is true or false. For example: True/false questions have only two possible answers (Answer: True).

Like multiple choice questions, true/false questions:

  • Are most often used to assess familiarity with course content and to check for popular misconceptions
  • Allow students to respond quickly so exams can use a large number of them to test knowledge of a broad range of content
  • Are easy and quick to grade but time consuming to create

True/false questions provide students with a 50% chance of guessing the right answer. For this reason, multiple choice questions are often used instead of true/false questions.

Tips for writing good true/false items:

AvoidDo use
  • Negatives and double-negatives
  • Long / complex sentences
  • Trivial material
  • Broad generalizations
  • Ambiguous or indefinite terms
  • Your own words
  • The same number of true and false statements (50 / 50) or slightly more false statements than true (60/40) – students are more likely to answer true
  • One central idea in each item

Suggestion: You can increase the usefulness of true/false questions by asking students to correct false statements.


Students respond to matching questions by pairing each of a set of stems (e.g., definitions) with one of the choices provided on the exam. These questions are often used to assess recognition and recall and so are most often used in courses where acquisition of detailed knowledge is an important goal. They are generally quick and easy to create and mark, but students require more time to respond to these questions than a similar number of multiple choice or true/false items.

Example: Match each question type with one attribute:

  1. Multiple Choice a) Only two possible answers
  2. True/False b) Equal number of stems and choices
  3. Matching c) Only one correct answer but at least three choices

Tips for writing good matching items:

AvoidDo use
  • Long stems and options
  • Heterogeneous content (e.g., dates mixed with people)
  • Implausible responses
  • Short responses 10-15 items on only one page
  • Clear directions
  • Logically ordered choices (chronological, alphabetical, etc.)

Suggestion: You can use some choices more than once in the same matching exercise. It reduces the effects of guessing.

Short answer

Short answer questions are typically composed of a brief prompt that demands a written answer that varies in length from one or two words to a few sentences. They are most often used to test basic knowledge of key facts and terms. An example this kind of short answer question follows:

“What do you call an exam format in which students must uniquely associate a set of prompts with a set of options?” Answer: Matching questions

Alternatively, this could be written as a fill-in-the-blank short answer question:

“An exam question in which students must uniquely associate prompts and options is called a
___________ question.” Answer: Matching.

Short answer questions can also be used to test higher thinking skills, including analysis or
evaluation. For example:

“Will you include short answer questions on your next exam? Please justify your decision with
two to three sentences explaining the factors that have influenced your decision.”

Short answer questions have many advantages. Many instructors report that they are relatively easy to construct and can be constructed faster than multiple choice questions. Unlike matching, true/false, and multiple choice questions, short answer questions make it difficult for students to
guess the answer. Short answer questions provide students with more flexibility to explain their understanding and demonstrate creativity than they would have with multiple choice questions; this also means that scoring is relatively laborious and can be quite subjective. Short answer
questions provide more structure than essay questions and thus are often easy and faster to mark and often test a broader range of the course content than full essay questions.

Tips for writing good short answer items:

Type of questionAvoidDo use
All short-answer
  • Trivia
  • Long / complex sentences
  • Your own words
  • Specific problems
  • Direct questions
  • Taking out so many words that the sentence is meaningless
  • Prompts that omit only one or two key words at the end of the sentence

Suggestion: When using short answer questions to test student knowledge of definitions consider having a mix of questions, some that supply the term and require the students to provide the definition, and other questions that supply the definition and require that students provide the term. The latter sort of questions can be structured as fill-in-the-blank questions. This mix of formats will better test student knowledge because it doesn’t rely solely on recognition or recall of the term.


Essay questions provide a complex prompt that requires written responses, which can vary in length from a couple of paragraphs to many pages. Like short answer questions, they provide students with an opportunity to explain their understanding and demonstrate creativity, but make it hard for students to arrive at an acceptable answer by bluffing. They can be constructed reasonably quickly and easily but marking these questions can be time-consuming and grader agreement can be difficult.

Essay questions differ from short answer questions in that the essay questions are less structured. This openness allows students to demonstrate that they can integrate the course material in creative ways. As a result, essays are a favoured approach to test higher levels of cognition including analysis, synthesis and evaluation. However, the requirement that the students provide most of the structure increases the amount of work required to respond effectively. Students often take longer to compose a five paragraph essay than they would take to compose five one paragraph answers to short answer questions. This increased workload limits the number of essay questions that can be posed on a single exam and thus can restrict the overall scope of an exam to a few topics or areas. To ensure that this doesn’t cause students to panic or blank out, consider giving the option of answering one of two or more questions.

Tips for writing good essay items:

AvoidDo use
  • Complex, ambiguous wording
  • Questions that are too broad to allow time for an in-depth response
  • Your own words
  • Words like ‘compare’ or ‘contrast’ at the beginning of the question
  • Clear and unambiguous wording
  • A breakdown of marks to make expectations clear
  • Time limits for thinking and writing

Suggestions: Distribute possible essay questions before the exam and make your marking criteria slightly stricter. This gives all students an equal chance to prepare and should improve the quality of the answers – and the quality of learning – without making the exam any easier.

Oral Exams

Oral examinations allow students to respond directly to the instructor’s questions and/or to present prepared statements. These exams are especially popular in language courses that demand ‘speaking’ but they can be used to assess understanding in almost any course by following the guidelines for the composition of short answer questions. Some of the principle advantages to oral exams are that they provide nearly immediate feedback and so allow the student to learn as they are tested. There are two main drawbacks to oral exams: the amount of time required and the problem of record-keeping. Oral exams typically take at least ten to fifteen minutes per student, even for a midterm exam. As a result, they are rarely used for large classes. Furthermore, unlike written exams, oral exams don’t automatically generate a written record. To ensure that students have access to written feedback, it is recommended that instructors take notes during oral exams using a rubric and/or checklist and provide a photocopy of the notes to the students.

In many departments, oral exams are rare. Students may have difficulty adapting to this new style of assessment. In this situation, consider making the oral exam optional. While it can take more time to prepare two tests, having both options allows students to choose the one which suits them and their learning style best.


Computational questions require that students perform calculations in order to solve for an answer. Computational questions can be used to assess student’s memory of solution techniques and their ability to apply those techniques to solve both questions they have attempted before and questions that stretch their abilities by requiring that they combine and use solution techniques in novel ways.

Effective computational questions should:

  • Be solvable using knowledge of the key concepts and techniques from the course. Before the exam solve them yourself or get a teaching assistant to attempt the questions.
  • Indicate the mark breakdown to reinforce the expectations developed in in-class examples for the amount of detail, etc. required for the solution.

To prepare students to do computational questions on exams, make sure to describe and model in class the correct format for the calculations and answer including:

  • How students should report their assumptions and justify their choices
  • The units and degree of precision expected in the answer

Suggestion: Have students divide their answer sheets into two columns: calculations in one, and a list of assumptions, description of process and justification of choices in the other. This ensures that the marker can distinguish between a simple mathematical mistake and a profound conceptual error and give feedback accordingly.

Selected references:

Cunningham, G.K. (1998). Assessment in the Classroom. Bristol, PA: Falmer Press.
Ward, A.W., & Murray-Ward, M. (1999). Assessment in the Classroom. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co.

This Creative Commons license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon our work non-commercially, as long as they credit us and indicate if changes were made. Use this citation format: Exam questions: types, characteristics and suggestions. Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo.

This article reviews the different question types on test/quizzes, as well as question-level settings:

Question Types

Question-level Settings

Question Types


True/False question types are useful for assessing whether your students understand the validity of a statement, or to ask a question with binary answer options.

Customize the text displayed for the 'true' and 'false' options by clicking into the Text for "True" and Text for "False" text boxes to enter alternative binary answer choices.

Check Require a correction if False to require students to provide a correction when selecting false. Students who correctly mark false but do not enter the correct update receive 50 percent credit for the question.

Multiple Choice

Type your question into the text box, and enter the possible answers into the Choice fields below. Check the box for each Correct Answer to the right of each choice.

  • Randomize Choices: Check this box to scramble the order in which the answer choices appear for each student. 
  • Allow partial credit: Check this box if you've selecting more than one correct answer for a question and want to provide partial credit for students who select one, but not all, correct answers. 

    Note: For students to receive partial credit on a question, they must select a correct answer choice. For example, if there are two correct answers and a student answers only one correctly, but leaves the rest blank, then the student will receive half credit.
    However, if the student provides one correct answer, and one incorrect answer, then the student receives zero credit. Each correct answer choice gains one point, and each incorrect answer loses one point, resulting in a score of zero. Instructors can manually override this score from within the quiz.

  • Click Timed question to set a time limit for the question.
  • Click the pencil icon to the right of any answer to add formatting elements using the rich text editor.


Ordering questions evaluate students' ability to put items in a sequential order. 

Ordering questions only marks the group of answers with the highest number of consecutive correct answers.

 For example, if there are 10 items and the student orders:

  • The first five correct
  • The middle two incorrect
  • The last three correct

As long as you have partial credit enabled, Schoology will grade the response as 5/10, since five is the largest number of consecutive correct answers.

If you do not have partial credit enabled, the student would receive a zero.

 When partial credit is enabled, you have the option to set a minimumcontinuous sequence.

If your minimum continuous sequence is two, for example, and the student correctly guesses that the first answer is A and the last answer is Z, but all of the answers in between A-Z are wrong,  the answer will be marked incorrect and the student will receive a zero because the student was unable to get two consecutive correct answers. (Even though he or she correctly identified A as the first item and Z as the last).

However, if you would like to consider this as a correct answer, you can override the score.

In the example below, partial credit is enabled on this Ordering question. There are seven items that the student must correctly order, with the minimum continuous sequence set to 3, and the overall question is worth 10 points. Since the student put 4/7 of the items in the correct order, this score is multiplied by the 10 total points of the question for a score of 5.71/10.

Short Answer/Essay

Add a short answer/essay question to asses your students' abilities to reason, create, analyze, synthesize, and/or evaluate the material.

When creating a Short Answer/Essay question, check Character Limit to put a cap on the length of students' responses.

Check Allow rich-text answers for students to give access to Rich Text features like the Equation Editor to students while they are taking the test. 

Enterprise users can enable Allow video or audio answers for students to allow for audio or video recordings in question responses. 

Note: Video and audio answers are only available to Enterprise users who are using a browser to access Schoology. This feature is not available on the mobile app.

Grading Short Answer/Essay Questions

Short Answer/Essay questions are subjective questions, and are the only question type that will not be automatically graded by default. As the Course Admin, you must manually enter a score for each student's response on each short answer/essay question.

Add a rubric to a Short Answer/Essay question to evaluate your students' responses on the individual essay question. Select an existing rubric from the dropdown menu on the question, or select Create New.

Check Show to students if you would like your students to be able to view the rubric while answering the question.

If you check Show to students, when your students are taking the test, they can click Show Rubric when they get to the Short Answer/Essay question to see the criteria on which they will be graded. See the student's perspective of a short answer/essay question with a rubric below:

Grade students’ answers by clicking on the Results tab of the test/quiz. Click View Attempts next to a student’s name. Then click the gear icon to the right of the submission and select View/Edit.
Click the rubric icon next to the short answer/essay question to grade the question using the rubric. Click each cell to grade each criterion, and then click Save.

The student’s answer will then have a rubric score, which will be the sum of the scores on each criterion on the rubric out of the total number of possible points on the rubric. The rubric score will then be converted to an equivalent percentage of the question’s points to score the question.


In order to generate a blank when creating this question type, type one underscore into the textbox. Each underscore in the text box will correspond to an answer blank below.

 Add additional underscores if you want to have multiple blanks in the question.

Click Add an Answer below the answer blank to add additional possible answers for one blank in the question.


Use matching question to assess your students' abilities to identify pairs.

Enter instructions in the text box, and then enter each question/answer pair in the rows below.

  • Click the up/down arrows to the right of the question to rearrange the order of the question/answer pairs
  • If an answer is used more than once, it will only be displayed once to the student (for example, if you want multiple questions to point to the same answer).
  • Questions will appear in the order you define; answers will be shuffled.

Note: When exporting tests or quizzes from your Resources area–for example, if you aren't teaching the same course at the same school again next year, and want to take your content with you–the following question types are not available in the current version of Common Cartridge that is exported:
  • Ordering questions
  • Fill-in-the-blank questions that include more than one blank 
  • Matching questions that include more than one blank

Question-Level Settings

Timed questions

All question types have the option to be timed questions. By checking this box, you can set a time limit, in minutes, to require that students answer a specific question within a set amount of time. 

Checking Timed Question while creating a question will automatically format your test/quiz test so that there is only one question per page.

After the time limit passes, the test automatically goes to the next question. When a test/quiz has at least once question with a time limit, students no longer have the ability to review any of the questions before they submit. If students click the Back button in the browser to attempt to go back to the timed question after the time limit has passed, they will be forced to either start over (if multiple attempts are enabled) or submit the test/quiz prematurely.

If the last question of a test is a timed question, the test is automatically submitted once the time runs out. 

Show feedback 

To incorporate automated feedback or provide explanations to students about the correct and incorrect answers to students on each question after they submit a test/quiz, check Show Feedback on individual questions. 

You must set View Submissions in the test/quiz Settings to Yes in order for students to be able to view feedback. 

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