January 30th, 2009

Helping Students Understand Verbs Used in Test Questions


I am cleaning up my office after the book. I think a good half of my teaching-learning books (and I have a lots) are off the shelves and on the floor, desk, and table. Putting them away is a chance to look again at old favorites and find things missed or not remembered.

For example, Linda Nilson, in the 2nd edition of Teaching at Its Best has a great list of “test” verbs and their definitions. We know these terms as well as the backs of our hands, but is what they mean all that clear to beginning (and even some not so beginning students)? Nilson suggests sharing these and definitions to students. I think it might be better to get the students actively engaged with the terms. How about a group quiz where they match terms and definitions? Or, a set of short answers to match with questions? I’d use actual course content in the answers and questions so the activity can function as a bit of a review as well. Or, for another review activity, distribute the terms and definitions and then ask students (individually or in groups) to generate a sample question using course content and the term. Finally, maybe students can generate their own definitions, which could then be subsequently compared with the teacher’s definitions.

Is taking time to help students understand these words a good use of course time? I think so. Test questions should be like clean windows. They allow the teacher to see clearly the level of a student’s understanding. What the student knows about the content area can be compromised if the student doesn’t understand what the question is asking.

Here’s a sample of the “test” verbs and definitions from Nilson’s list. You may want to fuss a bit with the definitions so that they reflect what you mean when you put the verb in a test question.

Analyze—break something down into parts, such as a theory into its components or a process into its stages or an event into its causes.

Assess/Criticize/Evaluate—determine or judge the degree to which something meets or fails to meet certain criteria.

Compare/Contrast—identify important similarities and/or differences between two or more elements in order to reveal something significant about them.

—give the key characteristics by which a concept, thing, or event can be understood.

Describe—give the characteristics by which an object, action, process, person or concept can be recognized and visualized.

—debate, argue, and evaluate the various sides of an issue

Explain/Justify—give the basic principles or reasons for something; make it intelligible.

Interpret/Explain—say what the author of a quotation or statement means.

Illustrate—Use a concrete example to explain or clarify the essential attributes of a problem or concept.

Reference: Nilson, L. B. Teaching at Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors. 2nd ed. Bolton, Mass. Anker, 2003. [now available from Jossey-Bass]

—Maryellen Weimer