In Pursuit of ABC Explanations—Accurate, Brief, and Clear Instructions on Tests


Posted by Denise Seguin.

It’s the end of another semester and teachers are busy writing their final tests, exams, and assignments. The pursuit of the “perfect” instructions begins in earnest.

I’ve been surprised when what I thought was a perfectly clear instruction has caused a few raised hands in a test. I hurried over to each student, and with dismay watched as they pointed to the instruction on the test and began with those dreaded words, “Does this mean I’m supposed to . . . ?” I would answer the question and then walk away muttering silently to myself. Why didn’t I think of that? How come she thought it meant . . . ? Sometimes, the student was way off base. But sometimes the student wasn’t. I would make notes to myself hoping that the next time, the instruction would be perfect!

We know that for some students any assessment causes stress. When students are under stress they don’t always read carefully. Even when some of them read our carefully worded instructions, they are experiencing anxiety and don’t always comprehend what the instruction is telling them to do. For those students, a verbal confirmation of the written instruction is like their comfort blanket. There will always be those that need a little hand holding. But, for the rest of the class, a clear explanation will mean fewer raised hands and more time for you to just proctor the test.

Explaining tasks or concepts clearly is at the heart of teaching. Stop and think about how often you have to provide an explanation in a typical teaching day. The number of times may surprise you. Next, think about how often you have actually thought about and considered how to be more clear in your explanations. In the classroom you watch for cues from the students that tell you when to restate something more clearly. Experienced teachers can say the same thing three different ways and then even conjure up a few more on the spot when necessary.

But in a test or exam, the opportunity to respond to visual cues from the students and restate a task or concept is not possible. So, here’s a few tips for writing ABC (Accurate, Brief, Clear) explanations:

  • In the academic world, complex language and jargon are common. In most courses, jargon is plentiful. For writing a test instruction, avoid multisyllabic complex words and industry jargon. Keep the language simple. You want to test the student’s understanding of the course content; not the student’s ability to make sense of a complicated sentence telling him or her what to do. Keep the language at their level—not yours.
  • Avoid writing lengthy scenarios that give background leading up to a task you want the student to do. Unless the scenario is necessary because you are assessing the clues the student is supposed to pick out of the scenario, leave it out. Exception: If scenarios have routinely been used in the course, feel free to use them on a test but still try to shorten the length.
    • Make sure each instruction is as brief as possible. Cut, then cut some more. Lengthy instructions are better if they are split up into multiple steps.
  • Put the action and the criteria as close to the beginning of the sentence as possible. Examples:

Download the test data file testfile.docx from . . .

Write three reasons in point form for . . .

List four symptoms of . . .

Add a new customer to . . .

  • Make sure each instruction is accurate. This is critical for a computer applications test. I always go through and do a computer test after it’s written to make sure each instruction works as I expected it would. There’s nothing like test-driving the test—don’t let the students be the first to try out the instructions!
  • Give yourself enough time so that you can set aside the test for a day or two. Go back after a few days and read it again. You’ll probably find something you can say more accurately, briefly, or clearly.

We all strive for that perfectly constructed test. The one where we will never hear “Do you mean you want me to . . .” Good luck! Let the ABC writing flow.

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