The Art and Science of Item-Writing

A Q&A about the Q’s and A’s on the SHRM certification exams

By Rena Gorlin May 4, 2017

​Have you ever wondered who comes up with the questions on the SHRM certification exams? More importantly, how do they come up with the answers? SHRM exam item-writers are selected from among thousands of SHRM-certified professionals, educators and business partners all over the world. 

HR consultant Ben Haile, SHRM-SCP, of Grapevine, Texas, was one of 50 certificants to participate in an intensive, week-long item-writing workshop in 2016. The experience made such an impression on him that he urged all of his HR colleagues at Ethos Group Compliance Solutions to obtain their SHRM credentials.


SHRM: How did you come to be a SHRM item-writer? 

Haile: The SHRM certification team asked me to be an item-writer after I took the SHRM-SCP exam during the summer of 2015. Our [item-writing] group was very diverse geographically, with participants from all over the U.S. and seven or eight countries.


SHRM: What was the group dynamic like? 

Haile: Spending five days in the Washington, D.C., area with the SHRM certification team, the test vendor's team and other HR professionals was a rewarding and interesting experience. All of us were working together to create hundreds of new exam questions. A big event for me as a ninth-generation Texan was when we were snowed in during a blizzard! [See article from March 2016 issue, That's Dedication! Workshop attendees write exam items, build relationships (and snowmen).]


SHRM: What is the secret to item-writing? 

Haile: Item-writing is part art, part science. You have to use your imagination to create engaging items while staying grounded in source documents. The science is in providing explicit, documented proof of an answer from approved resources, down to the specific point, page and line. The art is in pulling from real-life experience to build an interesting question with a non-hokey story. It's not easy to do; that's why you need a group. SHRM's test vendor was so helpful in guiding us on matters of technique and style.


SHRM: How are SHRM exam items unique? 

Haile: SHRM certification is forward-looking. It's based on applying your life experiences to the test questions, not regurgitating information from a book. Exam items have the appropriate depth to get to the heart of a situation. Questions are honest, not tricky—they won't deceive you into giving a wrong answer. The SHRM exams just say: Here's the HR knowledge, do you have it? Based on your work and experience in HR, do you get it?


SHRM: Have you benefited from being an item-writer? 

Haile: The professionalism and endless attention to detail that went into the test-making process blew me away. Using the skills I developed during the workshop, I rewrote some of my company's online training materials to create better questions.


SHRM: Why did you decide to encourage your whole team to become SHRM-certified? How is that going? 

Haile: I had already found so much value in studying for the exam myself that I knew if we hired anyone else for our team, I would make sure they were SHRM-certified. I returned to the office after the workshop and shared my amazing experience with anyone who would listen. I think they felt compelled to get SHRM-certified as well—no cajoling! Before I took the SHRM-SCP exam, I studied independently using SHRM materials and online learning, including flashcards and practice tests. Team members who are preparing for the exam now are also doing so on their own.


SHRM: Has SHRM certification had an impact on your team? 

Haile: Knowing that we are SHRM-certified gives us and those we work with a new level of confidence in providing guidance. The simple act of adding the SHRM-CP or SHRM-SCP designation to our e-mail signatures allows us to share the benefits of SHRM certification with people outside the HR industry.


SHRM: What are your plans for recertification? 

Haile: With over 50 PDCs already documented, I'm well on my way to keeping my credential up to date. Regularly attending HR-related webinars, luncheons and conferences makes it pretty simple to collect credits for recertification. 

For information on how to become a SHRM item-writer or how to participate in SHRM research, send an e-mail to or 

Rena Gorlin, J.D., is an independent writer and editor in Washington, D.C.

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