Embracing Instructional Design to Create Effective Tests

Shemmicca Moore
Shemmicca Moore
Director of Secondary Instruction; Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from Gardner-Webb University
Close up of a teacher handing back tests with the grade “A” circled on top of one.

What Makes a Test Effective?

Summing up what ensures a high percentage of student mastery on academic content is one of the most debated issues in education. So, what makes a test and instructional design effective?

  • Increasing student engagement
  • Ensuring the presence of learning objectives
  • Common formative assessments
  • Periodic checks

The list goes on to what has been argued as the magic bullet for guaranteeing academic mastery. While I agree that all of the aforementioned items are essential, they all lie under the umbrella of instructional design. This leads me to believe that presenting those things in an intentional systematic format produces far greater results than them functioning in silo.

Tests should be developed to measure the students’ content acquisition and teachers’ material delivery. Effective student testing should highlight their strengths and weaknesses. They provide information on areas where the student needs additional support and where enrichment will be beneficial. For students, tests should be similar to a doctor’s prescription; following the steps and symptoms should improve what is lacking or not quite right.

For teachers, tests can be multifaceted. They can reveal areas in which remediation and enrichment are needed for their students, and strengths and deficiencies in their presentation of the curriculum. The effective utilization of tests will prompt teachers to ask themselves how they can change the way they previously taught the material to provide opportunities for a greater number of students to grasp the concept.

In stagnation, where teachers fail to make the appropriate adjustments according to testing data, assessments lose their power to be effective.

What is Instructional Design?

Instructional design is the development of curriculum presentation in a manner that leads to understanding and application of the content. It encompasses the “what” and the “how” of teaching and learning. The design process takes the “what”, which is the subject matter, and develops the “how”, which is the roadmap, that leads to a deeper understanding.

I would say that an effective instructional design and learning technology provides the greatest return in student learning. This is especially true when the design of instruction is constructed with the needs of all learning styles and abilities considered. The growth that I have referenced can be measured by student performance on tests apart from the instructional design. I believe that tests are the most crucial component of the instructional design in that they validate the strength of the process.

Using Instructional Design to Create Effective Tests

Research on instructional design models is varied in terms of components. However, certain elements are present in most models that could cause one to reason that those pieces are pertinent to the overall effectiveness. Therefore, I assert that careful consideration should be given to how they can be used when making assessments for students.

Objective Is Key

Knowing where you are going is the first step to getting to your destination. The objective in the design process provides that. It informs the teacher and the students of the lesson’s desired outcome; the objective clarifies what they should be learning and what they should accomplish.

For the teacher, it outlines where the instructional focus should be and what the students should be able to do after successful presentation. Well-written objectives are usually measurable and concise. The measurable portion of the objective should be used as a guide when developing tests.

An effective test must be constructed to mirror what the objective is stating. It directly measures how well the objective has been mastered and taught. When creating a test, the developer should first dissect the objective into small manageable parts and create questions that align to each part of the objective. The questions may vary in style and complexity but should not focus on content not directly related to the objective.

Identify Resources

After determining what students should know, identifying how to teach the material is a natural next step. Having materials and strategies that engagingly present the information is essential to content mastery. There should be an extreme commonality between instructional practice resources and the assessment that is used to assess mastery.

Therein, the resources that are used in teaching the content are essential to the development of tests. The importance lies in the style of questioning from the resources. When developing tests, it is important to be mindful that the goal isn’t to trip the students by surprising them with material and questioning styles that they have no exposure to. The goal should always be to develop tests that are identical to the resources and strategies you have used to teach the lesson.

I encourage pulling questions from your resources and formatting them into test questions. This adds validity to the assessment as it directly correlates to your learning objective, which directly aligns with your teaching resources. When your test questions mirror the information and style that the students have been exposed to, it provides a translucent glimpse into what they have indeed learned during the teaching and learning cycle. Furthermore, it allows the teacher to gauge how best to tackle remediation and enrichment.

Remediation and Enrichment

Remediation and enrichment are often overlooked as essential in the initial presentation of the information. Although remediation and enrichment can occur before final tests, they are vital parts of the instructional design process. I assert that as teachers explore what moves the needle for student learning, remediation and enrichment should be considered essential.

When designing instruction, it is important to plan for those students who will not master the content and those that will exceed your expectations. You must make sure that your test is married to the remediation and enrichment process; “married” in the sense that there is a direct correlation between the information you are remediating, enriching, and the final test. The goal is always to have the students demonstrate mastery of the assessment content.

When developing your tests, explore your plans for remediation and enrichment. Ensure that the goals are aligned and the information covered with the students is used on the assessment. Remediation and enrichment should be the practice shots you take before stepping up to the line with one second left in the game. There must be clear links between the remediation and enrichment process when building an effective test.

Test questions should be reflective of those practice shots. As remediation and enrichment directly result from student performance on formative and summative assessments, tests should be constructed to allow the students exposure to “test-like items.”

We do our students a disservice when we construct assessments filled with “gotcha!” test questions instead of thoroughly taught concepts. There should be minimal to no surprises when students take the game-winning shot!

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