Strategies for Writing Quizzes

April 23, 2012

What This Post Is About

Some strategies for developing effective quizzes to help engage learners and assess understanding/knowledge at the end of your lesson/content.

What This Post is Not About

This is not a detailed discussion on using frameworks (e.g. Bloom’s Taxonomy) to develop questions, although this is mentioned in passing.

Here is a Summary

Developing quizzes seems to be a perennial pain for instructional designers. Recently, I have seen some comments and posts bemoaning a sort of “writer’s block” to developing quizzes. Quite often, this occurs because IDs get very excited about developing the content, and forget that really, the quiz is the only thing that can tell us whether a learner has achieved their objectives.

Here Begins the Post

Nearly every instructional designer I know has at some time bemoaned the writing of quiz questions for learning content. Often, quizzes are seen as a “come-down” after the dizzying heights of scripting according to learning objectives and some overall content strategy (which determines the level and mode of interactivity to be used).  The race is often to get content that covers the objectives. Quiz questions (at best) are left to questions that are intended to elicit a response which is some sentence from the middle of the content (indeed, this sentence works hard for its existence, often being the feedback as well).

So, here are some strategies I employ for writing quiz questions…

Goals, Objectives, Content. Base your questions on these, in this order:

Goals – the overall goal should be a clear (although it may be complex) statement of some task the learner should be able to perform, or piece of information they should know. This is really the most important thing to test. But how do you test it, using Multiple Choice Questions, True or False, or Matching questions?

Refer to Blooms (or other) taxonomy for help to determine the type of question you should be asking.  Of course, you should have done this to define your objective – but let’s pretend you have done that.

Consider the verb:

  • What action is it that the learner must be able to perform?
  • Do you need them to recognise a statement of truth?
  • Do you need them to interpret data and identify the best statement to describe that?
  • Do you need them to interpret information (data/facts/statement) and identify a statement describing the consequence of that?
  • Do you need them to identify how certain concepts relate together?

Consider the conditions and information/tools to be used:

  • Do they need to know these, specifically?
  • Do they need to identify how conditions and information/tools change or should be considered with a different verb?
  • Do they need to identify how the conditions themselves will change the information/tools should be used?
  • Do they need to know the mechanism by which the information/tools should work?

Objectives are the simplified statements that make up the overall (complex) goal for a course.  Often (and it is certainly how I learned), it is the objectives that people tell you to quiz on. If you have well-defined objectives, your questions are simple: rewrite your objective so that a question mark can sit at the end. However, you should think about:

How different objectives combine to make up the overall goal – can you ask questions that relate to 2 or 3 objectives, and also attend to the overall goal? Isn’t this a better indication of whether the learner understands your content?

In what context are your objectives useful (again, you should be looking at the verb, conditions and information/tools required)? Your quizzes should test that a learner understands how to apply information (or use tools) in the right context. Quite often, an instructional designer will chase the ghost of a detailed, complex description of the operation of a tool, or the content of an idea. However, this could be quite as useless as knowing the innards of a cars engine, when actually what you need to know is when to change gear.

How can you “string” or “combine” questions, such that a series of questions can be used to take a learner through steps or the separate parts of a complex idea. This can always be a useful route to developing scenarios, which bring us closer to developing content, which makes the whole exercise more enjoyable for the instructional designer. Think about:

Whether there are a series of steps to be performed

What it might mean if a step is omitted – perhaps this can be a good way to highlight the result of an omission?

Whether it is important for the learner to understand why each step is important (and remember – sometimes it is not – for the purpose of completing a task, sometimes you only want a learner to know the requisite steps)

What about complex ideas? These might include interpreting an interface, alerts or other information that a learner may encounter. In these cases it is worth considering whether they need to know how different pieces of information relate to each other (e.g. if you get an alert here – do you need to check something else? How will inputting information at this point impact on some other system? What do you need to tell a customer about a process before you initiate it?).

Content – this is the heartbreaking work of staggering genius that you have devised to communicate important information to learners. Usually, I rail against asking questions based on content alone (from an ID point of view – always tell the learner you are asking questions based on the content – but from an ID point of view, to cohere to your syllabus and curriculum, you need to return to the objectives to base your questions).

However. (Always a however). The content can be used to guide how you put together questions and how the questions you write might relate to each other within the context of a quiz.

Using your content as a framework can help you to build the bridge between the objectives (as very specific pieces of information you need to ask about to confirm learning/understanding) and the goals (as the overall task or complex operation that the learner should be able to perform). This is where you can find the context to ask questions about how information or tools should be applied. Also, how you might string some questions together to cover more complex tasks, steps or information.

Also consider writing your questions backwards. Seriously, this works. Sometimes, having written your learning content, you go back to the beginning and can stare at the content and the objectives and wonder “What is it I was going to say?” On the other hand, if you start at the end, and move backwards toward the start, you can see new ways of considering the information and its importance. The information will also be fresher in your mind.

Well, sin é (Irish for “that’s it”). I hope some of these tips help. Please do leave a comment, question or query and I’ll answer as soon as possible.


2 Responses to “Strategies for Writing Quizzes”

  1. Terry Golightly said

    It occurs to me that many of these strategies can apply to formulating discussion questions as well as quiz questions. With the discussion questions, the question itself must be open-ended and leading to conversation

  2. Brendan Strong said

    Hi Terry, thanks for reading and for your comment.

    It is interesting you say this, as I often use “leading” questions in the eLearning I develop to try and set a context / draw on learners previous knowledge when introducing (or developing) a new subject.

    I think perhaps I do use these strategies in creating these questions also.

    Of course, in online learning, the questions do have a very specific end (i.e. a correct answer), but it is an interesting application to use them for a more open ended discussion.

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