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Item Writing Guidelines

Assessment Item Guidelines

Written by Aimée Gott
Updated over a week ago

Guiding Principle:

A good test item can be answered by a qualified candidate by reading only the context and stem. If more information is needed, the item probably needs revising.

The following guidelines are based on those presented by Rodriguez, M.C. (2016). They have been adapted to apply to DataCamp’s specific use and format of assessment.


  1. Each item should test only one concept as specified by the associated learning objective

  2. Items should not use content from DataCamp course/practice/project materials, new materials should be used to test higher-order thinking

  3. Items should be independent of one another

  4. Items should test important concepts and not overly specific content e.g. the difference between two very similar functions should not be tested

  5. Avoid opinions

  6. Avoid trick items


The following are additions to DataCamp’s style guidelines which should also be followed.

  1. Linguistic complexity should be kept appropriate to the level of the test takers

  2. Minimize the amount of reading in each item, avoid window dressing

  3. Items should be based around a real life-situation to test test higher-order thinking

Writing the stem

  1. State the central idea clearly and concisely in the stem and not in the options

  2. Word the stem positively, avoid negative phrasing

Multiple-Choice Item Guidelines

  1. Use only options that are plausible and discriminating, three options are sufficient, four are preferred

  2. Ensure that only one of the options is correct

  3. Vary the location of the correct answer

  4. Give options in logical or numerical order

  5. Keep options independent. They should not overlap

  6. Avoid the use of “none-of-the-above”, “all-of-the-above” and “I don’t know”

  7. Word options positively, avoid negative words

  8. Avoid giving clues to the right answer

    1. Keep the length of options roughly equal

    2. Avoid specific determiners (e.g. always, never)

    3. Avoid pairs of triplets of options that clue the test taker to the correct choice

    4. Avoid blatantly absurd or ridiculous options

    5. Keep options homogeneous in content and grammatical structure

  9. Make all distractors plausible. Common mistakes and misconceptions can be used to write good distractors

  10. Avoid the use of humor

Fill-in-the-blank item Guidelines

  1. Use only options that are plausible and discriminating, three options are sufficient, four are preferred

  2. Ensure that only one of the options, or combination of options, is correct

  3. Only leave blanks that test the learning objective.

Typing item Guidelines

  1. Ensure that all possible correct solutions will be accepted as correct, test takers should not be penalized for use of an equally correct answer

  2. Ensure that no answer, a partial answer, or the wrong answer will always return an incorrect answer

  3. Ensure that the correct answer is not revealed in the output code e.g. a model formula isn’t printed in the output

Graphics in items

  1. Avoid reference to specific colors (e.g. “The red line shows the median”)


Rodriguez, M.C. (2016) ‘Selected-Response Item Development’ in Lane, S (ed), Raymond, M.R. (ed), Haladyna, T.M. (ed) Handbook of Test Development 2nd Edition, Routledge, pp259-273

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