Early last week I suddenly began to feel feverish and aching and suspected I might have been struck down by the dreaded disease of the moment, swine flu. After leaving work early and trying to sleep it off at home I decided that it was pointless waiting for the symptoms to get worse, instead I should call the wonderful government hotline and get an official diagnosis. With my housemates lurking at a safe distance in the next room and my head pounding like a policeman at the door, I dialled the number. After a short wait a young man with a thick Scottish accent answered in a dead-pan voice not dissimilar to that of the man who reads out the shipping reports. I soon realised why – he had the longest list of questions for me and was clearly sick of asking them.
“Are you calling on behalf of the patient or are you the patient yourself?”
After telling him I was the patient he then said,
“Is the patient currently having breathing difficulties?”
I informed him that no, I, the patient, was not having any breathing difficulties. He then said,
“Is the patient conscious and able to talk coherently?”
Now if I’d been my normal belligerent self I would have retorted by asking him whether he thought I, the patient, was currently talking to him coherently. But with a temperature of 38.5ºC I really didn’t have the energy for such rhetoric. His next question nearly changed my mind though,
“Is the patient currently having a fit or a seizure?”
Well I didn’t know about a medical fit but I, the patient, could certainly feel a big fit of rage coming on.
My point? Well, it’s not just the types of questions you ask that’s important, it’s the way you phrase them too. I know the man on the phone had to follow a list of questions, but surely he could have made the effort to stop referring to me in the third person? And, instead of asking if I was having a seizure, why didn’t he re-phrase the question to make it more of a friendly confirmation that I wasn’t having a seizure?
I made a mental note to remember these thoughts for when I got back to the office, as writing successful questions for a course is one of the biggest challenges of our job as instructional designers. Often we get fixated on whether the answers are plausible, or whether the questions are relevant and continue to engage the learner. We often forget that the actual way the question is phrased or the language we use could also have a big impact on the learner’s engagement in the course. So, the next time I’m writing questions I’ll remember my Scottish swine flu interrogator and ensure that the phrasing and language I use don’t get in the way of a good question.