Writing Short Answer Questions

This guide will consider the strengths and weaknesses of short answer questions alongside tips for writing them. Short answer questions are often used in exams to check students’ ability to provide specific information. A short answer question takes various forms, it may ask a student to complete a sentence, supply a missing word or words, or provide a short descriptive answer.This question can be easily constructed in Surpass.

  • They are simple and easy to write  
  • Achievement can be more easily discriminated 
  • A longer stem can be used 
  • Marking is often simpler and easier as an answer is simply right or wrong

  • Can encourage students to memorise information without understanding content 
  • Grading can be subjective  
  • Examiners will need to judge whether misspelt words should be accepted   

Tips for Writing Short Answer Questions

1) Don’t copy a question from a textbook – write an original.
2) Be sure that the test question clearly lays out what information the student is expected to provide. E.g. “Albert Einstein was…” is too vague, whereas “Albert Einstein was renowned in the field of…” is clear.
3) If a negative statement or question must be used, place the negative word or phrase in capitals, or bold or underline it e.g. “Name a type of fish that is NOT found in saltwater.”
4) Make it clear in the question how the student should answer, and what kind of answer they are expected to give. You can do this with keywords such as “describe” or “summarise” and if necessary, tell the student “you should phrase your answer as a…”
5) Avoid giving clues to the correct answer – if an answer needs an indefinite article before it, use a(n), and do not include ‘s’ at the end if the answer is pluralised.
6) Make it clear to students whether or not they will receive marks for showing their workings out and if they need to write their answer to so many decimal places or in a certain format, if this is relevant.
7) Keep the blank(s) the same length throughout the test so that the length of the blank does not serve as a clue to the student about the word or phrase needed.
8) If you are using a “fill in the blank” short answer question, try to place the blank at the end of the question or statement, so that the student can read the entire body of text first.

Note: The purpose of these articles is to provide you with general advice in the fields of assessment and testing. These articles are not intended to replace any regulations or instructions provided by your organisation, but may be used in conjunction with these materials to support the assessment process.

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For further information about setting up a Short Answer Question, visit the Surpass online Help page 'Short Answer'.

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