Tips for Writing eLearning Quiz Questions

Quizzes are a popular evaluation tool used within eLearning all the time. As an eLearning professional, I’m always on the hunt for new ways to measure the knowledge and retention of my learners. If I learned anything about working in “Corporate America,” it’s that reliable data is worth its weight in gold.

As most of us know, when it comes to measuring knowledge retention, it’s not always easy to find data that supports the ROI of our eLearning efforts. Sure, we can survey the learners after they complete the course, but that’s still only data based on an opinion.

So, the natural and most popular solution has been to test the learners on the content they’ve received by placing a quiz at the end of the course. On the outside, this makes sense – the learner receives the information, then we test them on it, and then we have a measurement of what they’ve learned.

Tips for Writing E-Learning Quiz Questions

Although this seems to be the most logical and simple solution, I have two major issue with this line of thought:

  1. First, most of the questions being used to measure the learner’s knowledge, could easily be answered by someone without having ever receiving the content in the first place. This means the questions aren’t only ineffective, they’re just downright bad.
  2. And second, even if the questions being asked are effective, when you present a quiz to the learner immediately after they’ve received the content, you’re only testing them on what they know at that very moment – what’s in their short term memory. You’re not capturing what information is being retained for the long term; and more importantly, what information is being applied on the job.

So, this is what I want to address in today’s post. First, how you can write more effective quiz questions; and second, how you can better time the delivery of your quizzes to measure the true retention of the learning content.

Anatomy of a Quiz Question

Before we talk specifics about improving your quiz questions, I’d like to cover some information that I believe most people, especially new eLearning professionals, are unaware of.

Up until a few years ago, I had no idea that there was a science behind the structure of a quiz question. I found this to be so interesting, as it told me that there was a methodology for writing quiz questions, just like there is a methodology for everything else that we do. What I mean by this, is that there’s industry recognized standards, methodologies or practices for most of the things that we do (i.e., instructional design, slide design, etc.); but, we rarely hear anything about standards for writing quiz questions. At the time, I knew that my questions could be better, but I had no idea where to start – until I was presented with the below information, which switched on the light bulb in my head.

For the most part, all quiz questions have these simple elements in common:

Tips for Writing E-Learning Quiz Questions

As you can see, the structure of a standard quiz question is pretty simple. You have the question stem, the options, the distractors and the answer. For the most part, this basic structure applies to almost any question type and it’s the foundation of understanding how we use each of these components together to write strong quiz questions.

Writing the Question

Obviously, the most important aspect of any quiz, are the questions. What questions you decided to include and how they’re written are very important. Here are few basic rules for writing better quiz questions…

1. Only write questions that support the learning objectives.

It’s imperative that you only write questions that relate back to and support the learning objectives of the course. Often times, we like to litter our quizzes with “filler” questions that don’t really accomplish anything.

For example, you’re developing a course on Professional Communications in the Workplace, and in the introduction you provided some fun statistics about how the methods we use to communicate with each other are ever changing. You might think it to write a fun quiz question about one of these statistics; however, you should stop and ask yourself if that question supports and directly relates back to a learning objective or not.

Although this question might tell you whether or not the learner was listening to your course, it’s not relevant to learner’s professional communications skills and serves no real purpose in helping you evaluate the knowledge of the learner. You should not include this question in your quiz.

2. Keep the questions clear and simple. Never try to trick the learner.

Have you ever taken a test or a quiz where you had to stop and slowly reread the question (sometimes out loud) three or four times before you understood what was actually being asked? If so, I’m sure you’ll agree with me when I say that I hate these types’ questions! Also, it should come as no surprise that our learners also hate these types of questions. For this reason, you should never try write confusing or trick questions. If the purpose of a quiz is to measure the knowledge of the learner, you never want a learner to get the question wrong because the question was too confusing.

Keep the questions simple and edit, edit, edit. The question should be as simple as possible and contain only the necessary information – remove anything and everything that’s not needed to answer the question.

Also, on this same note, stay away from any questions that start with “What is not…” or, “Which of the following is not…” Let’s be honest, I hate these types of questions, you hate these types of questions, and so do our learners. They only serve to confuse people.

3. Use ‘true/false’ questions as minimally as possible.

Although many people may disagree with this, it’s my opinion that when writing quiz questions, you should stay away from true/false questions as much as possible. These types of questions may be easy to write when compared to other types of questions; however, they don’t do much in the way to testing the learner’s knowledge. When the learner has a 50/50 shot at getting the right answer, they’re more likely to simply guess the answer and move on. This could easily skew your measurements.

Writing the Options

Now, this may come as a bit of a surprise, but the hardest part of writing any quiz, is writing the options. The options can easily make or break your entire quiz. I can say from experience, I’ve had instances where I’ve spent more time trying to come up with the right options, than I did writing my first draft of narration. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, on one particular project, a business partner and I spent a full three days working on a simple 20 question test – most of this time was spent writing the options.

Here are a few basic rules for writing the options for your quiz questions:

1. The distractors must be plausible.

Recall the “distractors” from the above graphic showing the anatomy of a quiz question. When developing the various options for a quiz question, the distractors are just as important as the correction answer – and sometimes, even more important than the question itself. It is the distractors that will truly test the learner’s knowledge and help you develop accurate measurements.

When you’re developing a quiz question, and it comes time for you to write the options, take your time to only develop distractor options that are plausible. This means that each of the distractors must be something that could actually happen as a result of the question. You want to stay as “true to life” as possible.

When you have a quiz question littered with implausible distractors, it allows the learner to easily guess the correct answer with little knowledge of the content. It is these implausible answers that we call: “throwaway answers.”

Tips for Writing E-Learning Quiz Questions

2. Keep each of the options the same length.

As humans, when we look at something, our brains look for patterns and other visual cues to help us process the information. When it comes to our quiz questions and options, we can easily give away the correct answer simply by the length of the options.

For example, how many times have you taken a quiz and the correct answer was either the longest/most complicated or shortest/simplest answer out of each of the options? This happens all the time and can be very damaging to the success of a quiz, as it may allow a learner to successfully guess the correct answer without even reading the question.

3. Avoid ‘all of the above’ and ‘none of the above.’

As I mentioned earlier, never try to confuse your learners or give away the answer. Typically, if a learner come across a question that has either of the options for ‘all of the above’ or ‘none of the above,’ one of two things will happen; they will ether feel this is a trick question, or it will give away the correct answer.

If you need to ask a question that has multiple correct answers, try using a multiple-select question instead.

Timing the Delivery of your Quizzes

Lastly, I’d like to briefly share my thoughts on how to better time the delivery of your quizzes and how it relates to capturing measurable results.

As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, the most common “quizzing philosophy,” is to include a quiz at the end of the course. Sometimes this is your only option; however, my issue with this is that you’re only really testing the learner on the information that’s been freshly stored in their short-term memory. With this method of testing, you really have no indicator of what’s being retained for long-term memory; and more importantly, what’s later being applied on the job.

I believe, if you really want to measure the true effectiveness of your training, you should wait to test the learner until after they’ve had a time to process and apply the information. I don’t believe there needs to be an exact time frame for how long you wait; however, when you do finally test the learner on the content, the long-term effectiveness of the training should better reflect in test results.

Tips for Writing E-Learning Quiz Questions

The information you obtain through this can help you in a few different ways:

  1. First, you’ll know whether or not the training was effective and what information was retained for the long-term.
  2. And secondly, if you find that the learner scores low on the test, this may also be an indicator that the information wasn’t relevant to their job (which speaks to bigger issues needing to be resolved in the initial needs analysis).

By taking the time to analyze this information, you’ll be much better prepared to draw hard-conclusions regarding the true business impact your training has offered.

Conclusion

Writing good quiz questions doesn’t have to be a chore; however, if you use any type of quizzing features in your eLearning courses, you should really take the time to figure out why you’re using them and how you can make them better work for you.

Remember, the purpose of a quiz should be to help you create a measurement of the learner’s knowledge. If you’re using a quiz solely to add more interactivity, I’d highly suggest finding a different method to create learner interaction.

However, if you use the tips I provided above, I think you can have your cake and eat it too – obtaining measurable results and improving the overall learning experience.

Tim Slade
Hi, I’m Tim Slade, and I’m a speaker, author, and award-winning eLearning designer. I’ve spent nearly a decade working to help others elevate their eLearning and visual communications content. I’ve been recognized and awarded within the eLearning industry multiple times for my creative and innovative design aesthetics. I also speak regularly at national eLearning conferences, and I’m a recognized Articulate Super Hero and co-author of the popular E-Learning Uncovered book series.

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