Without writing clear instructions on a test, students cannot do their absolute best on that test, regardless of how much they have studied and mastered the material. But different people process information and instructions in different ways. So how do we write clear test instructions that everybody can understand, and then, in turn, perform well on the test that they are taking?
According to an article in Thoughtco, not following directions on a test is one of the top ten mistakes students make on tests. While not a cure-all, writing clear instructions on a test will help to prevent that from happening.
Over the years I have written many tests and honestly, thought little about how clear the instructions that I wrote were. My focus was generally on the test questions themselves.
While many test instructions, such as for true/false answers, are pretty straight forward, there are others that are not so cut and dry. And it was for those that I often realized after the fact that I had not communicated my instructions clearly enough for all of the students to adequately answer the questions.
So I did some research and looked into how I could better formulate clear instructions for my students’ tests. While there is little information online for this subject, I did find a wealth of information in other subject areas that directly pertain to writing clear instructions for school tests.
Table of Contents
Here are the 6 biggest factors I found helpful:
- Specifically state the exact information you are seeking from the student.
- Keep in mind what your goal answers were in asking those questions.
- Encourage students to get any needed help by stating directly on the test that if any parts of the instructions are unclear, the student should request help from the teacher.
- Consider writing the instructions on some of the questions in the questions themselves, rather than having a set of instructions for several following questions.
- Don’t let the instructions become complex. Keep them simple and specific. Split up complex questions as separate questions with spaces for answers in each step.
- Remember to give context.
Make Your Instructions Specific
One of the primary ways to write clear test instructions is to be specific and concise at the same time in your wording. Saying “answer the following questions” may work for some questions. But for others, you may need to be more specific.
If you are asking a question based on information your class learned that was extensive or covered a large amount of time, you will most likely need to point to a particular subset of that subject. This will help their minds to drill in on exactly the part of the concept/subject you are referring to.
In addition to this, adding irrelevant items to your test questions or instructions can actually distract your students and cause them to answer the questions incorrectly, or not the way you wanted them to answer it. Being very concise will help you to avoid this problem with your students.
Note: For my examples, I will be using literature tests that I have issued in my studies on The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
Here is an example of how to be specific and concise in writing clear test instructions:
Based on our classroom discussion on what tactics the White Witch used to trick Edmund into believing her, answer the following questions:
This allows the students to see exactly what part of the text you are testing them on without dragging them down with too many details or being so vague that they don’t know exactly what you are asking for.
Clearly State Your Goals in Your Instructions
I can’t tell you how many times I have been in a study group and the moderator/leader asks a question, but nobody knows exactly where he/she is going with the question or how to answer it.
Often we think that we are communicating our points clearly because we know everything that we are thinking. Others don’t know everything that is in our brain, so the knowledge they bring in reading those instructions could be comprehending something totally different than what we communicated.
There are a couple of great solutions to this. First, read back over your questions as though you are a student, trying to see it as they would. That can help you determine if you worded it well enough. Second, you can ask a fellow teacher to quickly read over it to make sure that it is cohesive in thought and written well enough for students to answer correctly.
Here is an example of directly telling the students the goal that I have in the subsequent questions:
For the following questions, think about how Edmund responded to the White Witch after he enjoyed the Turkish Delight and hot drink. Then answer the questions in light of your notes and classroom discussion.
Provide a Note Encouraging Students to Seek Help for Instructions That Are Unclear to Them
Chances are you are not going to write perfect instructions on every test you write for your students over your whole teaching career. Actually, you are 100% guaranteed to not be perfect since we are all human.
One of the best ways we can solve this human error problem is to have a note on each test that reminds students to seek help if the test instructions are not clear to them.
This is a perfect solution because it allows you to dialog with the student until you are both confident that you are on the same page. And it also helps students to understand even if your instructions weren’t poorly written but student(s) are having a difficult time understanding.
I am just going to show you an example from the top of a test form that I used:
Provide Instructions Within the Test Questions
This is especially effective when your test is comprised of single or multiple sentence answers or essay questions. By putting the instructions for what you are looking for in their answer within the question, you are allowing them fresh perspective on that particular question.
They don’t have to look back for it. And they won’t be confused because they have all of the tools they need for that question right there.
There are several advantages to this technique. First, they won’t lose their place and become more confused. Second, they will save time because they don’t have to flip back to another part of the test to make sure they are doing it correctly. And third, they will understand the instructions and the question better if it is all in the same place with no distractions.
Here is an example of providing the instructions for answering the question within the question:
When you think about the White Witch trying to be nice to Edmund, but yet her evil tendencies emerge several times throughout her attempt to gain his trust, how do you think he was able to trust her without seeming to be affected by the evil that she couldn’t hide? __________________________________________________
Split Up Complex Test Instructions
If you have questions that need several steps to answer, the best way to do this is to split the sections up into digestible pieces for the students. This is more necessary in the younger grades. You wouldn’t necessarily need to do this for high school students.
If your question has multiple parts to it, go step by step and give your students room to answer the parts you have explained. This will allow them to see the progression of thought.
As they get older and tests no longer do this, they will still retain the knowledge of the thought process in multiple step test questions, even when those steps are no longer clearly separated. This is a great stepping stone to greater test taking. But it’s also a great way to get them to that place by showing them on paper what their brains will eventually do on its own.
While this is more effective in more complex subjects such as math or science, it is also effective in literature. Here is an example:
How did the White Witch counsel Edmund with regard to the position of the 4 human children’s roles in Narnia? __________________________________________________
How did Aslan counsel Peter, Susan, and Lucy with regard to the position of the 4 human children’s roles in Narnia?__________________________________________________
How do you think the Pevensie children came together in fulfilling their roles in Narnia in spite of the very different counsel they received? __________________________________________________
Remember to Give Context
I once took a test that would copy sentences from the text that I would need to fill in the blanks. The problem with that was that often the sentences had no context and I had no idea what section of study they were referring to. This was partially because the sentences were so general that I couldn’t tell the specific subject being covered. And it was also due to the same question being able to be asked across several subjects we had covered.
The problem with this was that the teacher was expecting a certain answer but there could have been multiple correct answers. And I couldn’t read his mind.
By giving a sentence of context leading up to the exact question, you are removing any confusion the student may have regarding what information you are looking for. They may not be able to recall the particular answer you are looking for, but at least there is no confusion on what you are talking about in your question.
Here is an example of how context helps the students to recall specifically what I wanted them to regarding the questions that followed:
From our discussion on Chapter 4, where the White Witch spent the entire chapter tricking Edmund into trusting her so he would be willing to do anything she bade him, answer the following questions:
You can do this with each section that you are testing on. This allows the students to clearly understand what you are generally talking about. And it can even help them with recall when you are specifically addressing things that you covered in class.
While these five tips and examples on how to write clear test instructions are a great start, I am sure that other teachers have come up with great tips as well in their own classroom experiences. I would love to hear more of them! Please feel free to comment your thoughts below.