Item authoring is a science as well as an art, and if you have done it, you know just how challenging it can be! You are experts at what you do, and you want to make sure that your examinees are too. But it’s hard to write questions that are clear, reliable, unbiased, and differentiate on the thing you are trying to assess. Here are some tips.
What is Item Authoring?
Item authoring, aka item writing, is the process of creating test questions. You most likely have seen “bad” test questions in your life, and know firsthand just how frustrating and confusing that can be. Fortunately, there is a lot of research in the field of psychometrics on how to write good questions, and also how to have other experts review them to ensure quality. It is best practice to make items go through a workflow, so that the test development process is similar to the software development process.
Because items are the building blocks of tests, it is likely that the test items within your tests are the greatest threat to its overall validity and reliability. Here are some important tips in item authoring. Want deeper guidance? Check out our Item Writing Guide.
Item authoring tips: The Stem
To find out whether your test items are your allies or your enemies, read through your test and identify the items that contain the most prevalent item construction flaws. The first three of the most prevalent construction flaws are located in the item stem (i.e. question). Look to see if your item stems contain…
Nowadays, we tend to think of bias as relating to culture or religion, but there are many more subtle types of biases that oftentimes sneak into your tests. Consider the following questions to determine the extent of bias in your tests:
- Are there are acronyms in your test that are not considered industry standard?
- Are you testing on policies and procedures that may vary from one location to another?
- Are you using vocabulary that is more recognizable to a female examinee than a male?
- Are you referencing objects that are not familiar to examinees from a newer or older generation?
We’ve all taken tests which ask a negatively worded question. These test items are often the product of item authoring by newbies, but they are devastating to the validity and reliability of your tests—particularly fast test-takers or individuals with lower reading skills. If the examinee misses that one single word, they will get the question wrong even if they actually know the material. This test item ends up penalizing the wrong examinees!
3) EXCESS VERBIAGE
Long stems can be effective and essential in many situations, but they are also more prone to two specific item construction flaws. If the stem is unnecessarily long, it can contribute to examinee fatigue. Because each item requires more energy to read and understand, examinees tire sooner and may begin to perform more poorly later on in the test—regardless of their competence level.
Additionally, long stems often include information that can be used to answer other questions in the test. This could lead your test to be an assessment of whose test-taking memory is best (i.e. “Oh yeah, #5 said XYZ, so the answer to #34 is XYZ.”) rather than who knows the material.
Item authoring tips: distractors / options
Unfortunately, item stems aren’t the only offenders. Experienced test writers actually know that the distractors (i.e. options) are actually more difficult to write than the stems themselves. When you review your test items, look to see if your item distractors contain…
The purpose of a distractor is to pull less qualified examinees away from the correct answer by other options that look correct. In order for them to “distract” an examinee from the correct answer, they have to be plausible. The closer they are to being correct, the more difficult the exam will be. If the distractors are obviously incorrect, even unqualified examinees won’t pick them. Then your exam will not help you discriminate between examinees who know the material and examinees that do not, which is the entire goal.
5) 3-TO-1 SPLITS
You may recall watching Sesame Street as a child. If so, you remember the song “One of these things…” (Either way, enjoy refreshing your memory!) Looking back, it seems really elementary, but sometimes our test item options are written in such a way that an examinee can play this simple game with your test. Instead of knowing the material, they can look for the option that stands out as different from the others. Consider the following questions to determine if one of your items falls into this category:
- Is the correct answer significantly longer than the distractors?
- Does the correct answer contain more detail than the distractors?
- Is the grammatical structure different for the answer than for the distractors?
6) ALL OF THE ABOVE
There are a couple of problems with having this phrase (or the opposite “None of the above”) as an option. For starters, good test takers know that this is—statistically speaking—usually the correct answer. If it’s there and the examinee picks it, they have a better than 50% chance of getting the item right—even if they don’t know the content. Also, if they are able to identify two options as correct, they can select “All of the above” without knowing whether or not the third option was correct. These sorts of questions also get in the way of good item analysis. Whether the examinee gets this item right or wrong, it’s harder to ascertain what knowledge they have because the correct answer is so broad.
Item authoring is easier with an item banking system
The process of reading through your exams in search of these flaws in the item authoring is time-consuming (and oftentimes depressing), but it is an essential step towards developing an exam that is valid, reliable, and reflects well on your organization as a whole. We also recommend that you look into getting a dedicated item banking platform, designed to help with this process.
Nathan Thompson, PhD, is CEO and Co-Founder of Assessment Systems Corporation (ASC). He is a psychometrician, software developer, author, and researcher, and evangelist for AI and automation. His mission is to elevate the profession of psychometrics by using software to automate psychometric work like item review, job analysis, and Angoff studies, so we can focus on more innovative work. His core goal is to improve assessment throughout the world.
Nate was originally trained as a psychometrician, with an honors degree at Luther College with a triple major of Math/Psych/Latin, and then a PhD in Psychometrics at the University of Minnesota. He then worked multiple roles in the testing industry, including item writer, test development manager, essay test marker, consulting psychometrician, software developer, project manager, and business leader. He is also cofounder and Membership Director at the International Association for Computerized Adaptive Testing (iacat.org). He’s published 100+ papers and presentations, but his favorite remains https://scholarworks.umass.edu/pare/vol16/iss1/1/.