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Five things to avoid when writing online assessment questions

Wednesday 6th October, 2020

In developing your online learning course, you want your students to have the most engaging and relevant information, activities and environment to optimise their learning. You may spend weeks (if not months) creating and fine-tuning the content.

But, all that work can be undone by poorly designed assessment.

Besides making sure your assessment is addressing the learning goals, you want it to be engaging for your learners. This is a chance for them to get an idea of what they know and how that knowledge can be useful to them in their lives.

Here are five things you don’t want to do in your assessment design:

A group of people co-designing elearning

1. Using only multiple-choice questions

Multiple-choice quizzes can be an excellent way of gauging your learner’s knowledge and providing immediate feedback but when they are the sole type of assessment, both you and your learners are missing out.

You might think you're winning with the automated marking and checkbox approach to addressing learning goals, but as with all life and learning, your students will disengage without variety.

So add in some short-answers, matching, cloze questions, or activities that require learners to move beyond basic recall and give them an opportunity to analyse and create.

2. Short-answer questions that ask for lists (from the textbook)

Being able to recall information is the first step in learning.

But, when you ask your student to list off anything they could find in the textbook, are you really assessing your student’s recall? Or are you simply checking their ability to cut and paste?

In online learning, where students have access to information at their fingertips (and often complete assessment without invigilation), asking them to list off criteria or factors is not giving you (or them) any evidence of their learning.

Give your students an opportunity to show you they can apply their learning by asking questions that require some real-life examples.

3. Unclear instructions

You’ve written a mix of multiple choice, short answer and interactive activities – but in your short answer assessments, it’s not clear what is being asked of the student.

Do they have to upload a file? Create a video? Write an essay? 

Be very clear about what is required to complete a task. And don’t overcomplicate.

Break multi-task activities into smaller individual tasks to minimise the cognitive load.

4. “Students must answer to the satisfaction of the assessor”

Let’s not forget about providing clear instructions for assessors.

If your assessment is being manually marked by a human then for the fairness and benefit of both students and assessors, be clear in your marking guidelines.

“Students must answer to the satisfaction of the assessor” is wonderfully trusting of your assessors and liberal in its interpretation of what is a “correct” answer but it also leaves your students open to assessor-bias.

Give your assessors clear guidelines for what constitutes a satisfactory answer.

5. All of the Above

Possibly the most useless assessment question of all is the multiple choice question that gives the option of answering “All of the above”.

While this might appear to be a quick and easy way to present questions that have multiple answers, its structure means that when this option is available, learners aren’t necessarily showing that they know the answer but that they have partial knowledge or merely eliminated other options.

If a question requires a more nuanced, multiple-answer response then a short answer question (or even an extended check-all-that-apply multiple choice question) provides a full-knowledge assessment.

Well-designed assessment enables your learners the opportunity to get feedback on what they know, how they can apply it in real life and what they need to focus on to meet their learning goals. It creates online learning that is supportive, engaging and effective.


Contact us today to start designing and developing online learning tools for your learner group.