Quizzes: Can’t Live With Them, Can’t Live Without Them in Online Courses

Confession #1: I’m not a big fan of quizzes as a method of assessing student learning. Quizzes tend to measure lower level learning objectives focused on knowledge recall. Higher level learning objectives focused on applying knowledge, synthesis of knowledge, and evaluation of ideas are better measured via things like project work, essays, case studies, etc.

Confession #2: In just about every eLearning project on which we work – whether in higher education, the corporate world, or the non-profit sector – online, automated quizzes are deployed. On the corporate or non-profit side, automated quizzes may be the only form of learner assessment. In higher education, they are usually a significant part of the learner assessment mix, especially for large-enrolment courses.

Why the contradiction? Because when you have hundreds of learners and limited resources for assessing and providing feedback to them, automated quizzes offer undeniable efficiencies. Hey, I live in the real world, and I understand these pressures.

So what can we do to make quizzes as effective as possible? Here are some tips to remember next time you are constructing a quiz.

Make the Questions Relevant and Focused
An easy trap to fall into is to create quiz questions that merely focus on the trivial. For example, I have seen questions in workplace health and safety courses that ask learners what date a particular piece of labour protection legislation was passed. This is a useless piece of trivia. It does not really assess whether the learner has a grasp of key concepts related to workplace health and safety and what needs to be in place to ensure compliance with relevant laws. To move away from trivia questions, use the course learning objectives as the starting point when constructing quizzes. (Note: if memorizing dates of legislation is one of the learning objectives, then there are bigger problems afoot.)

Ask Deeper Questions
Most quizzes tend to depend on “what” questions, asking learners to demonstrate that they have a basic understanding of facts. Try mixing in some “how” and “why” questions as well, which can measure some higher level learning objectives focused on applying new knowledge. Following up on the example above, these three types of questions may look something like this.

“What” Question: What is the XYZ clause of the Health and Safety Act?

“How” Question: How is the XYZ clause of the Health and Safety Act relevant in the case of a worker’s refusal to work in an unsafe environment?

“Why” Question: According to XYZ clause of the Health and Safety Act, why would a worker be justified in refusing to work?

There is always a place for “what” questions, but “how” and “why” questions allow you to dig deeper into the learner’s comprehension of course material.  

Make Quizzes Difficult, but not “Tricky”
Easy questions with obvious answers don’t really measure a learner’s competence. Any incorrect answers provided as options should sound plausible. Correct answers should be unambiguous. Try to avoid overly complex questions that do not lend themselves to straightforward choices, and definitely do not pose any “trick” questions (e.g. using double negatives) to try to catch learners out. Such questions only serve to sow confusion and shift the focus to the learner trying to figure out your logic, versus focusing on the question at hand.

Provide Useful Feedback to Learners After the Fact
Quiz feedback that says “correct” or “incorrect,” without explaining why is not very helpful to learners. After all, someone may have gotten the right answer merely by guessing. And what good is it for a learner to know they answered a question incorrectly, if they do not learn why it was incorrect? Useful feedback and/or debriefs after quizzes make these exercises more than checkpoints for learner assessment. These exercises then become learning opportunities in themselves.

If you take a little time to ensure that the quizzes you construct are challenging, and are focused on key learning objectives, you can achieve the best of both worlds. You can automate part of your student assessment process while still engaging your learners fairly deeply and helping them realize key learning objectives.

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