Two and a Half Ways to Make Your Next Test More Readable

Math questions are hard to read.  It’s easy to mix up numbers, mis-attribute modifiers, confuse powers with multipliers, etc.   Unless you’re testing for reading skill, it’s important to put work into making questions as readable as possible.  Here are two (and a half) ideas you can use on your next test.

One: Repeat the Question in an Answer Box

My test questions include space for work and a very specific location for answers: the Answer Box.

The answer box is the dark box you see in the lower-right corner of the question area.  I pre-print that box on every test question I ever give so that, regardless of the sloppiness of a student’s work, I can see what they thought the final answer should be.  I indicate the type of answer I expect right in the box.  My hope is that even a student with low English-reading skills will be guided by that indicator to provide at least the right type of answer.

Two: Provide a graphical representation with your text, where possible.

In this problem I wanted to test students’ ability to transform parabolas.  I accompany the text with a picture of what I mean.

Without the picture, “compressed by a factor of 2” is ambiguous.  When a student answers y=\frac 1 2 (x+2)^2 +1 I don’t want to have to guess if he doesn’t know what to do or if he just got right and left mixed up.  In the previous example, the MS clipart of a die reminds ELL students what a die is (not obvious from the word itself!).

Two and a Half: Easy Stuff

Actually, more like five tenths of a big idea:

  1. Use large fonts (obviously easier to read)
  2. Include grids on your graphs (the grids above are more obvious in print)
  3. Use the same format every time (students know what to expect even when they don’t command the language)
  4. Number and name questions with the standard they are testing (make double-sure ELL students know what you’re asking)
  5. Leave room between things (not only room for work.  Spaces help us separate ideas)

If you don’t make your questions crystal clear, you can’t be sure you’re testing what you think you’re testing.  Reading is hard, everyone messes it up occasionally, and students who have only been learning English for a couple years need more help than you think!

Of course, I’m just a math teacher, not a design expert or language coach.  What have you used to make your print materials more readable?

4 thoughts on “Two and a Half Ways to Make Your Next Test More Readable”

  1. I agree that for students with difficulties reading and understanding language (IEP/ESL) that making clear what type of answer you want and keeping everything the same is a good idea but I don’t know if I embrace that idea for everyone.

    I think it is important a student know what sort of answer they are looking for and what sort of units it should be in. I also think they need to be able to understand that not every question they see will be framed in exactly the same way. This is especially important for standardized tests.

  2. I like these ideas, though as Sean points out many of these aids won’t be available on standardized tests. Eventually, we need to teach students how to interpret even badly written test questions.

    I would quibble that in your first example question, saying “expected dollar value” would be better, since my first interpretation of your question was the expected value of the 1-6 roll (3.5, since the die is a standard 6-sided die).

    Thanks for thinking and posting about this issue!

  3. I hear your point, Sean, but remain unconvinced (to be fair, my school places almost zero emphasis on standardized tests). In a test like this one I want to know if a student can calculate probabilities. It’s too hard to test multiple things at the same time, and I am not interested in testing reading and synthesizing skills while I test for expected value skills.

    I do agree that we need to teach the interpretation skills as well. In my class we use those skills during class, in projects and presentations, and other things that don’t actually make it into my students’ final grades.

    Kate, I think you’re right – it should say “expected dollar value” or “expected prize” or something like that. An interesting question: what grade would I give to a student who answered 3.5?

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