Designing Quantitative Tests: Remember the "Golden Rule"

By Peter Connor

How would you feel if you were in the shoes of one of your students and you had just received a mediocre grade on a test of your own design? Would you feel you had been treated fairly? Justly?

This is the unspoken question addressed by Richard M. Felder, chemical engineering professor at North Carolina State University, in his tip-laden article, Designing Tests to Maximize Learning (2002).

Felder makes the case that being perceived by your students as having been unfair in the design of your exam, particularly in a quantitative discipline, is not unjustified if your answer to any of the following questions is less than satisfactory:

  • Were any questions asked, or problems posed, to which the answers/solutions were not expressly covered in class or homework assignments?
  • Were there any trick questions to which the answer required an extended effort or time allotment?
  • How harsh was the grading? Was there little distinction, point-wise, between major concept and minor calculation errors?
  • Across the board—from student to student—were points detracted consistently for identical mistakes?
  • Were you able to finish the test in the allotted time?

It's a fundamental question of fairness. The Golden Rule, treat others as you would be treated, is as appropriate in test designing as it is everywhere else in life. One way to find out whether you've been fair or not is to turn the tables—take the test yourself. Alternatively, have a colleague take the test.

By putting yourself in your students' shoes you are able to evaluate how well you fulfill the twin responsibilities of being both disciplinary gatekeeper and academic coach (Elbow, 1986). These sibling rivalries—setting high standards on the one hand, and doing all in your power to see that students meet or exceed them on the other—are always going to do battle.

In the end, testing students and grading the results is going to remain one of the most challenging aspects of teaching, but with Felder's tips both of Elbow's objectives are within reach. To learn more, read Felder's entire article, Designing Tests to Maximize Learning.


Felder, R. M. (2002). Designing tests to maximize learning. Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering Education & Practice, 128 (1), 1-3. Retrieved June 19, 2007, from public/Papers/TestingTips.htm


TILT thanks Engineering Professor Darrell Fontane for suggesting the link to the article mentioned in this Teaching Tip.