How can I get the best from my questions?

When you’re creating an e-learning course, where do you start? You might begin by creating the overall theme or concept. The ‘look and feel’ and design mock ups are probably developed fairly early on. You write your storyboard content and this leads on to decisions about functionality and technology. Soon after this you might select your voiceover artists or video actors.

But what about the assessment or knowledge test? This might come after everything else in the course but this is no reason for it to come after everything else in the development process.

The knowledge test is usually a fairly critical element of an e-learning course. It gives the organisation information about how effective the learning is. Of course, it only does that if the test itself is effective. And the test is only effective if the instructional designer has devoted time to creating questions that genuinely do test the learner and tie in to the learning objectives.

In fact, it’s not just the questions in the end of unit test that need this level of attention. Anyone who’s reasonably familiar with Saffron probably knows that we’re fans of what we call the ‘test and tell’ theory. It’s a pretty simple technique based on pretty simple observations about how people learn – in a nutshell, information is much more likely to ‘stick’ if you’ve had to think about it and work it out yourself than if you’ve just been told it. So rather than just telling learners something and then a few minutes later asking them a question on it, we turn it around – we ask them what they think first.

So – regardless of where the question appears in the course – how do you make it a good one? Take a look at Cathy Moore’s blog for a brilliant illustration of how not to write questions, and keep in mind these top tips:

  • Focus on behaviour – The very best e-learning changes behaviour; enabling your people to actually do the right thing is far more important than enabling them to simply repeat facts and figures they’ve recently read. Make sure each one of your questions relates to one of your behavioural learning outcomes and to what the learners do every day.
  • Challenge the learner – Run your question past someone who isn’t at all familiar with the subject matter; if they get the answer right, your question probably isn’t hard enough. Most likely, the right answer is three times as long as the wrong answers or the wrong answers are more likely to make the learner laugh than think (I know, I know – coming up with plausible wrong answers is harder than it sounds, but it’s worth the effort).
  • Don’t trick the learner – Now run the question past someone who knows the material inside out; if they get the answer wrong, your question is probably too hard. Negative questions or options that are identical except for one word are not the fairest or most effective way to test your learners. Nor is asking a question on something that wasn’t actually covered in the course.
  • Avoid ‘yes/no’ questions – Giving the learner a 50% chance of simply guessing the right answer isn’t really great question writing. If you do need to include a yes/no type of question, make it a bit more challenging by adding a couple more options and qualifying the answers (“Yes, because….”). That way, even if the learner guesses the answer is ‘yes’, they still have to know why and choose between the two ‘yes’ options.
  • Avoid ‘all of the above’ answers – Again, if the learner sees this as an option, they’d usually assume this is the correct answer – and they’d usually be right. Coming up with wrong answers might be more challenging for you, but ultimately it’s more challenging for the learner – and therefore a more effective question.