What is formatting short answer?

Definition of Short Answer Questions

Short answer questions require a response ranging from a phrase to a few sentences. Unlike multiple choice questions, short answer questions force the student to come up with the answer on their own without answer choices provided. As defined by the College Board, short answer questions typically ask students to explain, compare, summarize, describe, analyze, or evaluate. They test a student’s ability to recall specific information, analyze relationships between concepts, interpret input data, and derive logical conclusions. According to About.com, short answer questions allow instructors to test students’ knowledge of key details, terms, and facts.

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Common Formats

There are several common formats for short answer questions:

Fill in the blank. Students are provided with a sentence that has a blank they must fill in with the correct word or phrase. For example, “The _____ is the main legislative body of the United States government.”

Complete the sentence. Students must finish a sentence by providing the last word or words. For example, “The water cycle includes processes such as evaporation, condensation, and…”

Short phrase response. Students provide a phrase or term in response to a question. For example, “Name the process by which plants convert sunlight into energy.”

1-3 sentence response. Students provide a short 1-3 sentence answer in response to a question. This allows them to provide a bit more detail and explanation than just a phrase. For example, “Briefly explain the role of DNA in inheritance.”


Short answer questions have some advantages that can benefit both teachers and students. According to research from Oht Lu (2021), short answers demonstrate focused knowledge because they require students to write concise, accurate responses. This compels students to truly understand course material rather than just recognize answers. Additionally, a study on nursing students found that short answer tests align well with assessing application of concepts (Hickey, 2020). For teachers, Ben Clay notes short answers allow professors to evaluate critical thinking skills beyond just memorization. By necessitating brief but complete answers, short response questions test deeper comprehension of topics.


There are some key challenges with using short answer questions:

They can be difficult to grade consistently. Since answers are limited in length, there is less context for understanding the students’ responses. This makes it hard to evaluate if an answer is fully correct or not. Graders may disagree on scores for borderline responses. Clear grading rubrics and training can help improve consistency, but it remains a challenge (source).

Short answers allow for limited student expression. Students don’t have much space to fully explain their understanding, analysis, or reasoning. This restricts their ability to demonstrate deeper comprehension and higher-order thinking (source).

Formatting Guidelines

When formatting short answer questions, follow these guidelines:

Word or character limits – Short answer questions often have specific word or character limits, usually ranging from 50-250 words or a few sentences. Adhere to any specified limits.

Example response – Provide an example response demonstrating the expected length and format. This helps guide students.

Clear instructions – Give clear directions on how the response should be structured, such as: “Respond in 2-3 sentences summarizing the key points,” or “Provide a detailed paragraph explaining your reasoning.”

Formatting – Specify any formatting requirements like double spacing, size 12 font, etc.

Labeling – Indicate how students should label their responses, such as: “Response 1: [Response here]”

Scoring – Explain how responses will be scored and share a grading rubric. Emphasize key criteria like completeness, accuracy, reasoning skills, etc.

Practice – If possible, provide 1-2 sample short answer questions for students to practice responding to.

By giving clear, detailed formatting guidelines, you can set consistent expectations for students responding to short answer questions.

Scoring Rubrics

Scoring rubrics provide teachers with criteria to assess student responses on short answer questions. They establish guidelines on what constitutes a complete, partially complete, or incomplete response. Rubrics share this criteria directly with students so they understand expectations for their answers.

According to an article on Teachers Pay Teachers, rubrics for short answer questions often have four levels: exceeds expectations, meets expectations, approaching expectations, and below expectations. Points are assigned to each level. The rubric lists characteristics of responses for each level across categories like content, evidence, and coherence (Source 1).

The Texas Education Agency provides rubrics for assessing short answer questions on state standardized tests. These rubrics have a more simplified 3-level scoring system of full credit, partial credit, and no credit. They outline criteria for content and evidence (Source 2).

Design Considerations

When designing short answer questions, it’s important to avoid ambiguity, test key concepts, and vary complexity. Here are some tips:

Avoid ambiguity – Be as clear and specific as possible. Do not use vague phrases that could be interpreted multiple ways. Define any key terms upfront.

Test key concepts – Focus on assessing students’ understanding of the most important topics and skills covered in the course or unit. Avoid fringe or trivial details.

Vary complexity – Have some questions that require simple, concise answers to test basic knowledge. Also include some questions that compel deeper reflection, analysis, and synthesis from students.

“How to Design Good Short Answer Questions” recommends crafting questions that require about a paragraph’s worth of writing or 2-5 sentence responses. This tests key takeaways without overwhelming students.

Additionally, word questions carefully to elicit the desired knowledge and critical thinking. Leading or loaded questions often result in vague, confused answers.

Overall, well-designed short answer questions should be concise, focused, appropriately challenging, and avoid ambiguity. This allows efficient and accurate assessment of students’ learning.

Good Practices

There are some key good practices for designing and implementing successful short answer questions:

Give students practice with short answer questions before high-stakes assessments. Let them try some sample questions and review model responses so they understand the expected format and level of detail (Crowdmark).

Provide feedback on practice attempts, identifying areas for improvement in content, structure and expression. Go through some sample responses and explain what makes them strong or weak (RMIT Training).

Allow enough space for students to provide a thoughtful, well-developed response with the necessary level of detail. Too little space may hinder their ability to demonstrate understanding (Education Corner).

Common Mistakes

There are several common mistakes to avoid when designing and formatting short answer questions:


One mistake is asking vague questions that are open to interpretation. Questions should be focused and specific to elicit the desired response. Ambiguous questions often lead to vague answers that are difficult to accurately score.

Another mistake is not providing scoring guidance. Without a clear scoring rubric or guidelines, short answer questions can be scored inconsistently. Providing a detailed rubric with criteria for what constitutes a complete, satisfactory answer is important.

Additionally, question writers sometimes overestimate the difficulty of a short answer question. It’s important to pilot test questions to ensure they are appropriately challenging without being excessively difficult for students to respond to thoroughly.


While short answer questions have their benefits, there are some good alternatives to consider as well:

Multiple choice questions allow for objective automated grading and can test a broader range of content. However, they are limited in assessing deeper knowledge and understanding. Source

Essay questions let students demonstrate in-depth knowledge in their own words. But they require more time to grade subjectively. Source

Oral exams, such as presentations and interviews, allow personalized assessment of communication skills. Yet they are time-consuming and need criteria to standardize grading. Source