Writing Stems

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Identify the one point that you want to test and write an aim statement. The stem should not test more than one point but the solution may require more than one step.

The stem should be either a direct question or an incomplete statement. Avoid phraseology which a student might recognise from a rote learning point of view without necessarily understanding the associated concept(s).

e.g. What is the biological theory of recapitulation? (Response: Ontogeny repeats phylogeny) Correctly answering the above question depends less on understanding than on recognizing familiar phraseology.

Avoid words or phrases which are irrelevant in terms of choosing from options.

e.g. A traffic light at a main junction uses three colours; which colour tells you to stop?

  • red
  • green
  • amber

...might be better phrased as

Which colour in a set of traffic lights tells you to stop?

  • red
  • green
  • amber

Avoid irrelevant clues to the correct option. In the example below, who points to a singular person not a group so the student is drawn to Marshall Mcluhan, i.e. the correct answer.

Who said "The medium is the message"?

  • The Situationists
  • Marshall Mcluhan

Include as much information in the stem and as little in the options as possible.

e.g. What is the name for a part of a sentence which modifies a noun by describing something about the noun?

  • an adjective
  • an adverb
  • a verb
  • a clause
as opposed to 

An adjective is...

  • a part of a sentence which modifies a noun by describing something about the noun
  • a word that describes a verb and answers the questions when, where or how.
  • a "doing" or "being" word that expresses an action or state.
  • a group of words that may stand alone as a simple sentence or form a longer sentence.
Restrict the use of negatives in the stem. Negatives in the stem usually mean that the answer is a false statement. Students are generally used to searching for true answers so this may introduce unwanted bias.

Avoid common elements in the stem and the answer which automatically draw the student to the key.

e.g. What led to the formation of the States' Rights Party?

  • The level of federal taxation
  • The demand of states for the right to make their own laws
  • The industrialization of the South
  • The corruption of federal legislators on the issue of state taxation
One does not need to know U.S. history in order to be attracted to the answer, b.