“making” a test

I am now writing a textbook for the prep school I’m working at.  This book will be used for the novice – intermediate  learners of English (high school freshmen) with or without an intent to take TOEFL in the future. Three instructors take their own responsibility for each part of the book. Mine is to make questions (and answers) that are similar to those of the actual TOEFL test.

Sounds like a routine job that bears nothing worth mentioning. Well, I feel the very opposite.

I can get correct answers to the actual TOEFL reading questions (or whatever section), so just reading a given  passage and thinking about correct answers does not give me any new knowledge or deepen my understanding of the TOEFL. That’s when making, as opposed to answering,  questions works. If you try to make appropriate questions for the reading passage, you will have to take into consideration far more things than just answering questions.

First, a type of question should be determined. Should I ask an “Inference question” to give learners an opportunity to think really hard? Should I ask a “factual question” so that the learners can practice skimming for the relevant information quickly?

Second,  part of the passage to be singled out for the question should be determined. If I want to make the question harder, I will pick up a sentence that is harder to understand. At the same time, I want to make sure that the learners understand what the passage is all about, so maybe I should choose a sentence that shows the main idea of the passage. If I do this all the time, however, the questions will be similar to one another. There need to be some details to be asked for a change.

Third, I make four answer choices. This is where the test-“maker” can (or cannot) show his ability to test the learners’ ability. It is important to know how they misunderstand the sentence in question, and what phrases they find misleading. It is well-known that the correct answer choice, if made by a layperson, tends to be longer than the other three choices. I should avoid that, too.

Finally, which of the four choices should be correct? This is a matter of psychological issue which I don’t know much about. In Q1, the answer was B. Then, what should be the answer to Q2? A? C? D? or B, again? I have a certain formula for this, but I will not share this here (for obvious reasons).

I should also mention how lucky I am because the school has already given me passages from which I can choose for the text. If I had to choose (or write!) passages for the textbook from scratch, the entire task would take 3~4 times longer.

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