Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Writing Distractors for Multiple Choice Questions

By Shelley A. Gable

Multiple choice questions – whether used throughout an eLearning lesson or in a knowledge assessment – are often frowned upon as unrealistic and limiting. But when written well, multiple choice questions can be quite robust.

It’s like eLearning. Poorly designed eLearning lessons that are text-dominated, page-turners tend to be unpopular. Highly interactive eLearning lessons that present relevant content in realistic contexts tend to be well received and effective.

Let’s briefly look at two common multiple choice offenses to avoid...

One common offense is using a multiple choice question when you really ought to use a different type of interaction. For instance, if you need learners to identify what button to click on to begin a procedure in a system, don’t write a multiple choice question where the options are names of buttons. Instead, use a hotspot question in which an image of the system screen displays and the learner must physically click the correct button in the image. Clearly, the hotspot question more closely simulates the visual recognition and physical navigation that one must perform on the job.

Another common offense is offering distracters that are obviously flawed. A good option surrounded by three really bad ones is often easily recognized, even by someone who may not understand why the correct answer is the best option. Simply writing “bad” statements as distracters misses an opportunity to show learners valid examples and non-examples of applying a skill.

So how does one write good distracters?

First of all, it’s worth pointing out that the best multiple choice questions are typically scenario-based. In other words, they present learners with a situation and ask them what they should do next. Earlier posts on this blog explain how scenarios can make quiz questions more relevant and how to write realistic scenarios.

So when it comes to writing distracters...

Ask SMEs for common mistakes. Subject matter experts (SMEs) who are close to the action and frequently work with your target audience are ideal here. Simply ask what they’ve seen newbies do in the scenario’s situation. Or how they’ve heard colleagues say something incorrectly. And probe for specific examples. If you receive a response that simply reiterates pointers to keep in mind, you’ll still end up writing the distracters yourself. So, probe for examples that are specific, detailed, and concrete enough to immediately write as a distracter.

Writing distracters with a SME is really an ideal approach, because it ensures that your distracters are options that people might actually consider. And as an added bonus, SMEs tend to recall common mistakes quickly and easily, so you don’t spend as much time trying to create fiction from scratch.

Align distracters to cautions stated during training. If the training directed learners not to do certain things, write distracters that emulate those undesired behaviors. But, don’t lay it on too thick. For example, if the training included three things not to say while discussing employee compensation, don’t write a distracter that includes all three items – chances are, most people don’t make all three mistakes at once, making the incorrect answer unrealistically obvious. Instead, write a distracter that illustrates just one.

Omit best practices without making it sound bad. Suppose the training includes three things learners should say when closing a phone call with a customer. A well-written distracter might simply miss one of those items, but still sound polite. In other words, a distracter doesn’t have to be an obviously bad choice; it can simply be a less optimal (i.e., not intentionally terrible) choice because of an important component it lacks.

What other tips can you share?

Although instructional designers with plenty of experience may feel that the suggestions above are relatively basic, the truth is that most people have to work at developing this skill. And when it comes to writing multiple choice questions, writing feasible distracters is often the most challenging part. So, what other tips do you have for doing this well?

1 comment:

  1. "The best multiple choice questions are scenario based" seems a bit sweeping to me. Doesn't it depend on what is being taught and what is being tested for? Do you mean that multiple choice questions are best when applied to behavioral training? Or that multiple choice questions when applied to behavioral training are best when "scenario based"?


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