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Questions, questions, questions

Why creating good questions is important

If e-learning includes a test, then the questions should test the trainee on their understanding of the subject whilst being fair and unambiguous. It's easy for authors to fall into the trap of spending a long time writing the training then bolting on a few hastily created questions at the end – and it shows.

To try and avoid some of the pitfalls that can make questions confusing, illogical or easy to guess the correct answer, some commonly seen issues are described below.

Implausible answers

Implausible answers are those where even someone who is not an expert on the subject can see that only one answer could possibly be right and the others are glaringly wrong. Here's an example:

What should you do with a sharp after it's been used?

  1. Put it in your pocket
  2. Leave it where it is
  3. Put it in the waste paper basket
  4. Put it in the designated sharps bin

A better test of knowledge could be the multiple choice, multiple answer question where all the answers are correct, but at least the trainee will need to think about the options:

Why should you put sharps in the designated sharps bin after use?

  1. To avoid contamination with other equipment
  2. To avoid injury
  3. For safe hazardous waste disposal
  4. To avoid passing on infection

The longest answer is the correct answer

With regard to computers, what is a microchip?

  1. Memory
  2. A set of electronic circuits on one small flat piece (or "chip") of semiconductor material, normally silicon.
  3. Processor
  4. A disk

Answer b) is the correct answer – taken from the first line of Wikipedia's definition. It stands out as it's much longer than the others and written in a completely different manner. Answers should either all be written in detail, or written in short form, or something in between. Below is an example of the last option:

With regard to computers, what is a microchip?

  1. A device capable of storing information
  2. A set of electronic circuits
  3. The part that executes all programs
  4. Rewritable magnetic media

This makes it harder to guess which is the correct answer just by looking at how long it is and will force the trainee to read all the possibilities.

Negatives

Try to avoid negatives, or even worse double negatives. This can be confusing for the learner who may know the answer but hasn't understood the question. For example, when would you not expect to do a full health check? Or worse still, when would you not expect a full health check to be unnecessary?

All of the above and none of the above

Try and avoid an 'all of the above' answer. When trainees see 'all of the above' they may be tempted to choose that answer without looking at the others as in the majority of cases it will be correct answer because why else would the author have included it!

Also in the following example, 'all of the above' has been marked as the correct answer, but technically speaking all of the four answers are correct, which doesn't make much sense if the trainee can only select one:

Queen Elizabeth II is

  1. Queen of the UK
  2. The longest serving monarch in British history
  3. Supreme Governor of the Church of England
  4. All of the above

Furthermore, the trainee only has to identify that one answer is correct in order to select 'all of the above'.

'None of the above' should never be used as the trainee only has to identify that one answer is incorrect to know that 'none of the above' is the answer the author is looking for. It doesn't test the trainee's knowledge only their logic!

Similar sounding answers

When a question has two answers that are very similar, often an antonym like left and right, or good and bad, there's a very good chance that one of them is the correct answer as why else would the author have included both options. Here's an example where it's fairly obvious that the correct answer is either a) or b) (even if the last two answers were sensible):

What is a vixen?

  1. A female fox
  2. A male fox
  3. A model of car manufactured by Vauxhall
  4. A hen belonging to Vic

Words in question rather than in answer

Make your questions and answers simpler and quicker to read and understand by not repeating words in answers that could be in the question:

What is a Clydesdale?

  1. A horse used for dressage
  2. A type of horse traditionally used for draft purposes
  3. A breed of race horse
  4. A horse ridden at show jumping events

A simpler alternative:

A Clydesdale is a breed of horse that is traditionally used for what purpose?

  1. Dressage
  2. Draft
  3. Racing
  4. Show jumping

Grammatical clues

Watch out for giving the correct answer away with grammatical clues. The example below makes it fairly obvious what the right answer is:

Galileo Galilei was an…

  1. President
  2. Astronomer
  3. Physician
  4. Mathematician

Inconsistent phrasing

Reread your questions and answers several times to make sure there is no inconsistency in the phrasing and that the answers follow on from the question correctly. The answers in the question below haven't been written correctly:

In plants, what is photosynthesis?

  1. Uses oxygen and produces carbon dioxide
  2. Absorbed water transported through the roots to the rest of the plant
  3. The process used to convert light energy into chemical energy
  4. Is evaporation of water from plant leaves

The correct answer is c) and it the only one written correctly. If we say 'photosynthesis is' followed by the possible answers this is the only one that makes sense. Not only are the others incorrectly phrased, it may also allow the trainee to guess which is the correct answer.

Here's the same question with the answers phrased correctly. All of the answers can follow 'photosynthesis is':

In plants, what is photosynthesis?

  1. The process used to create energy from oxygen and emit carbon dioxide
  2. The process used to absorb water is transported through the roots to the rest of the plant
  3. The process used to convert light energy into chemical energy
  4. The process used to evaporate water from the leaves

Overlapping answers

Look at the question and answers below and at first glance there's nothing wrong with it:

What was the average house price in the UK last year?

  1. Over £100,000
  2. £100,000 to £200,000
  3. £200,000 to £300,000
  4. £300,000 or more

However, the answers overlap as the prices are repeated. If the average house price was £200,000 the trainee wouldn't know whether b) or c) were correct. Also strictly speaking answer a) is correct whatever the author marked as the correct answer as b) c) and d) are all over £100,000.

Shock value question

The example below shows what I call a 'shock value' question:

From 2006 to 2016 deaths related to drug misuse rose, but by how much?

  1. 58%
  2. 65%
  3. 77%
  4. 120%

The answer is actually a) the lowest figure. However, there is a tendency for authors to always put the correct figure in as the highest figure to show how extreme it is. Maybe because there's a worry that if trainees find out that the lower figure is the correct answer, trainees may think at least it isn't xxx. Trainees cotton on to this and just select the highest figure because they know there's a good chance it will be right.

Ruth Sunderland | 4 September, 2018

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