Common Types of Tests in College

Learning Outcomes

  • Identify common types of tests given in a college class and their purposes

The Purpose of Testing

You are a unique person. No one else is exactly like you. You have particular ways of learning; you are interested in certain subjects; you have approaches to interacting with others that are special to you. You are an individual.

Your instructors need to know as much as possible about what you know, think, and can do. Testing is one way to gauge how you learn, what you learn, and what you can do with what you’ve learned. By knowing more about these aspects of you as a student, your instructors are better able to teach you.

Three columns of folded paper. Each is split lengthways and the top half is shifted slightly left

What are your instructors looking for that will yield clues about your individual learning? Mainly, your instructors are seeking, through testing, to confirm that you grasp the concepts or skills they are teaching. They want to know that you are achieving the objectives they set out for you. Their objectives may pertain to cognitive skills such as remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating. In addition, your instructors are always pleased to see good grammar, thoughtfulness, creativity, accuracy, and interesting citations.

Your professors are not the only people who need to know about your learning. College administrators, such as deans and provosts, also need to be informed. Student performance gives them useful information that they use to make decisions about textbooks, teacher training, professional development, and other education or resource needs. There are a lot of stakeholders invested in seeing students be successful.

That said, your instructors are really the front line when it comes to collecting and interpreting student learning data. Tests, quizzes, homework, and other activities and assessments are often the best way to find this data. Ultimately, the data your instructors collect help them refine the teaching and learning process so that everyone succeeds—students and instructors alike. Your instructor’s goal is to determine whether or not you’ve gained proficiency with the course materials, and testing can help evaluate your proficiency or lack thereof.

What’s Being Tested

There are many ways to understand how tests and exams fit into academia and college culture. One way is to ask what purpose the tests serve. For example, what is your professor trying to achieve if she gives you a survey-type test on the first day of class? How might the purpose of that test differ from that of, say, a practice quiz given before a midterm? And what is the purpose of a midterm?

Obviously, each survey, quiz, practice test, midterm, and final exam can serve different purposes. Depending upon the purpose, the assessment will fall into one of the following three categories:

  1. pre-assessment
  2. formative assessment
  3. summative assessment


Tests in this category are used to measure the beliefs, assumptions, knowledge, and skills that you have when you begin a class or before you begin working on a new topic. With pre-assessments, your professor gathers baseline data to use at a later time to evaluate change—that is, by comparing former knowledge or skills against what you learn in class.

One approach to pre-assessment is for a professor to ask students at the start of the term to describe a term or concept that’s foundational to the course. Then, later in the course, the professor revisits that data to determine how the instruction changed your understanding of the same concept. Comparing what you know or believe before and after a course or lesson is a productive way to gauge how successful your learning was and how successful the teaching was.

Formative Assessments

Tests in this category are typically quizzes, pop quizzes, review questions, and practice tests. With formative assessments, your professor’s goal is to monitor what you are learning and get feedback from you about what is needed next in teaching. Did students do well on the quiz? If so, it’s probably time to move to the next topic. If they didn’t do well, it suggests that more teaching time should be devoted to the concept. Formative assessments help the instructor to better meet your needs as a learner.

Summative Assessments

Tests in this category are the assessments that students are most familiar with: midterm and final exams. In a summative assessment, a professor is evaluating how much you actually learned at the end of an instructional unit by comparing it with a benchmark of what you should have learned. Summative assessments can be stressful, but they can be an effective measurement tool. Most summative assessments are graded.

In college courses, tests are usually verbal or written. In a verbal test, you might be asked to give an oral presentation, for example. For a written test, you might be asked to mark or write out your answers on paper or on a computer. For special courses, you might also encounter physical tests in which you’re asked to perform a set of skills (like demonstrating the procedure for giving someone CPR, for instance).

Try It

Test Formats

Tests vary in style, rigor, and requirements. For example, in a closed-book test, a test taker is typically required to rely upon memory to respond to specific items. In an open-book test, though, a test taker may use one or more supplementary resources such as a reference book or notes. Open-book testing may be used for subjects in which many technical terms or formulas are required to effectively answer questions, like in chemistry or physics.

In addition, a test may be administered formally or informally. In an informal test, you might simply respond in a class to discussion questions posed by the instructor. In a formal test, you are usually expected to work alone, and the stakes are higher.

Below is a sampling of common test formats you may encounter. If you know what kind of test you’ll be taking, you can tailor your study approach to the format.

Common Test Types

There are three common test types: written tests, oral tests, and physical skills tests. Let’s look at the kinds of things you’ll be expected to complete in each test type.

Written Test

Written tests can be open book, closed book, or anywhere in between. Students are required to give written answers (as the name of this test type implies). Below you’ll find a table of the most common question types in written tests:

Most Common Question Types in Written Tests
Question Type Description
Multiple choice (objective) You are presented with a question and a set of answers for each question, and you must choose which answer or group of answers is correct. Multiple-choice questions usually require less time for test takers to answer than other question types, and they are easy to score and grade. They also allow for a wide range of difficulty.
True False
You are presented with a statement, and you must determine whether it is true or false. True/false questions are generally not predominant on tests because instructors know that, statistically, random guesswork can yield a good score. But when used sparingly, true/false questions can be effective.
You are presented with a set of specific terms or ideas and a set of definitions or identifying characteristics. You must match each term with its correct definition or characteristics.
You are presented with identifying characteristics, and you must recall and supply the correct associated term or idea. There are two types of fill-in-the-blank tests: 1) The easier version provides a word bank of possible words that will fill in the blanks. 2) The more difficult version has no word bank to choose from. Fill-in-the-blank tests with no word bank can be anxiety producing.
You are presented with a question or concept that you must explain in depth. Essay questions emphasize themes and broad ideas. Essay questions allow students to demonstrate critical thinking, creative thinking, and writing skills.

Oral Test

Oral tests (also called an oral exam or viva voce) are a discussion type of test. Often, there isn’t just one correct answer to the test questions.

The oral test is practiced in many schools and disciplines in which an examiner verbally poses questions to the student. The student must answer the question in such a way as to demonstrate sufficient knowledge of the subject. Usually, study guides or a syllabus are made available so that the students may prepare for the exam by reviewing practice questions and topics likely to be on the exam.

Physical Skills Test

In a physical skills test, you are presented with opportunities to perform specific tasks that require manual labor or physical skill. These tasks measure physical abilities, such as your strength, muscular flexibility, and stamina. Below is an example of physical abilities tests in the workplace:

You can view the transcript for “Physical Ability Test” here (opens in new window).

Learning Objectives

cognitive skills: capabilities such as remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating, any of which may be assessed by an exam

formative assessment: an inquiry into what a student is learning during a still-unfolding period of instruction

summative assessment: an inquiry into what a student has learned at the end of a specified period of instruction