Good afternoon,

Often times (in my experiences) tests questions are based upon irrelevant specific details that do not necessarily reflect a student's knowledge of the subject matter. For instance, I was once faced with a test on "The Once and Future King" that asked, "What was the name of the cow?"... I believe asking questions such as this does not accurately reflect a student's mastery of the subject.

In this light, are there any established best practices for formulating examinations that properly assess how well a student has grasped the concept of a subject?

P.S. - If you down-vote, please leave a reason so that I ask better questions in the future.

P.P.S. - I don't believe this question (singular) about examinations (specific) is too broad, since it has two very helpful (definitely adequate) answers with additional resources, which have been developed by Universities as best practices. These three qualities are what the 'too broad' hold explicitly asks the questioner to address. If, after these edits, Mods still think the question is too broad, please leave more feedback so that a better question can be formulated, or simply go ahead and close the thread. I think the two answers already given are adequate for anyone seeking an answer to this question.

  • 5
    I had a professor occasionally ask questions on trivial details to confirm we had read the assigned readings. The students who read summaries rather then the actual material would always miss those. Commented Dec 17, 2017 at 19:38
  • Good insight, @MichaelMolter
    – Free Url
    Commented Dec 18, 2017 at 17:45

2 Answers 2


I have found a couple of resources regarding the question of credibility of examinations.

The University of Michigan advocates that examinations should be:

  • Valid, (providing useful information about the concepts they were designed to test)

  • Reliable (allowing consistent measurement and discriminating between different levels of performance)

  • Recognizable (instruction has prepared students for the assessment)

  • Realistic (concerning time and effort required to complete the assignment) (Svinicki, 1999)

For others' reference:


http://www.crlt.umich.edu/P8_0 <- referenced UofM material above can be found here.

P.S. - The UofM website has further references, including the '(Svinicki, 1999)' that is listed above.


A good question is related to the learning goals of the course. Those goals should be clearly defined beforehand and if they are not it is time for the teachers to do so.

You say the test was "on The Once and Future King". On what exactly? What was the purpose of reading the book?

If the learning goals are:

  • to be able to reproduce the names of animals in literature, or
  • to correctly identify all cows by name in books written between 1950 and 1960, or
  • to develop a photographic memory,

the question about the cow is great. However, if the learning goals are:

  • to learn about the behavior of knights and squires in historical literature, or
  • to critically compare the writing styles of Sir Thomas Malory and Terence H. White, or
  • to identify irony and distinguish it from sarcasm

the question about the cow is not useful.

In other words: The teacher should consider what students should to be able to do independently after having read the book and followed the course, and the questions should be formulated to test whether they are indeed able to do so.

[ PS. I am a biophysicist, so my choice of literature learning goals may be terrible. I just decided to go with the original example instead of one from my own field. ]

  • thanks for the words of wisdom. At this point, I'm gonna leave the question open until I can accept my answer, only since it has references, further resources, and more up-votes (at this time). But I do appreciate your answer as I think it adds value to this post. =)
    – Free Url
    Commented Dec 17, 2017 at 23:44

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