Best Practices for Subjective Test Questions

University students taking a test
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Students will often find that tests become more challenging when they advance from one grade to the next, and sometimes when they move from one teacher to another. This sometimes happens because the test questions they encounter move from objective-type questions to subjective-type questions.

What Is a Subjective Question?

Subjective questions are questions that require answers in the form of explanations. Subjective questions include essay questions, short answer, definitions, scenario questions, and opinion questions.

What Does Subjective Mean?

If you look up the definition of subjective, you will see things like this:

  • based on opinion
  • involves personal feelings
  • dependent on conditions of the mind
  • nonspecific

Clearly, when you approach a test with subjective test questions, you should prepare to pull from the class readings and lectures for answers, but you will also use your mind and your feelings to make logical claims. You’ll have to provide examples and evidence, as well as justification for any opinions you express.

Why Do Instructors Use Subjective Test Questions?

When an instructor uses subjective questions on an exam, you can believe he or she has a specific reason for doing so, and that reason is to see if you really have a deep understanding of a subject.

Why can you believe this with such certainty? Because grading subjective answers is harder than answering them!

By creating a test with subjective questions, your teacher is setting himself/herself up for hours of grading. Think about it: if your government teacher asks three short answer questions, you have to write three paragraphs or so worth of answers.

But if that teacher has 30 students, that’s 90 answers to read. And this isn’t easy reading: when teachers read your subjective answers, they have to think about them in order to evaluate them. Subjective questions create an enormous amount of work for teachers.

Teachers who ask subjective questions must care about whether you are gaining a deep understanding. They want to see evidence that you understand concepts behind the facts, so you must demonstrate in your answers that you can discuss the subject matter with a well-constructed argument. Otherwise, your answers are bad answers.

What Is a Bad Answer to a Subjective Question?

Sometimes students are baffled when they gaze over a graded essay exam to see red marks and low scores. The confusion comes when students list relevant terms or events but fail to recognize and respond to instructional words like argue, explain, and discuss.

For example, in answering the prompt “Discuss the events that led to the American Civil War,” a student might provide many full sentences that list the following:

While those events ultimately belong in your answer, it would not be sufficient for you to merely list them in sentence form. You would probably receive partial points for this answer.

Instead, you must provide several sentences about each of these topics to demonstrate that you understand the historical impact of each, and explain how each event pushed the nation one step closer to war.

How Do I Study for a Subjective Test?

You can prepare for a test with subjective questions by creating your own practice essay tests. Use the following process:

  • Look at headings and subheadings in your text or your notes to observe themes.
  • Formulate your own practice essay questions (at least three) based on these themes.
  • Write full essay answers to each question, incorporating all the important terms and dates.
  • Practice each essay a few times until you can write it out without looking at notes.

If you prepare in this way, you will be ready for all types of subjective questions.

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Your Citation
Fleming, Grace. "Best Practices for Subjective Test Questions." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Fleming, Grace. (2021, February 16). Best Practices for Subjective Test Questions. Retrieved from Fleming, Grace. "Best Practices for Subjective Test Questions." ThoughtCo. (accessed November 29, 2022).