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Avoid these mistakes when writing knowledge checks


Avoid these mistakes when writing knowledge checks

Jonathan Baude

To assess a learner's understanding of the content in your training, you'll want to include strong knowledge checks. But all knowledge checks were not created equal. Just because you write a multiple choice question somewhat related to the subject matter of the course, that doesn't mean you've necessarily crafted a question that will truly check the learner's knowledge. To be effective, knowledge checks should be thoughtful, specific, and challenging. 

I've written more multiple choice questions than a BuzzFeed intern, so take it from me: There are a lot of pitfalls you'll want to avoid when writing knowledge checks. You want to write questions that are interesting, not infuriating. Here are a couple of my biggest pet peeves that can lead to ineffective knowledge checks that sell your learners short.

Questions Whose Options Triangulate on the Right Answer

To complete this order, you just need to process the request form. What's the proper procedure?

A. Fill out the 6064-O form, get the account manager's signature, and place the form in the Requests folder.
B. Fill out the 4740-I form, get the purchasing manager's signature, and place the form in the Requests folder.
C. Fill out the 6064-O form, get the purchasing manager's signature, and place the form in the Orders folder.
D. Fill out the 6064-O form, get the purchasing manager's signature, and place the form in the Requests folder.

There's an old Simpsons joke: Principal Skinner walks into Lisa Simpson's classroom and says, "Good morning, class. A certain agitator—for privacy's sake, let's call her 'Lisa S.' ... No that's too obvious ... Uhh. Let's say 'L. Simpson'—has raised concerns about certain school policies."

That same attempt at lame half-measures, where each incorrect option pivots just one step away from the correct option, can lead to some seriously weak knowledge checks. Don't make this mistake. These sorts of questions are easy to write, because you just start with the correct answer and change out one part to make it incorrect. However, when you do that systematically with each piece of the answer, it's painfully obvious that you used that formula, and everyone can tell what the right answer is.

Questions that Miss the Point

A patient suffering from a heart attack may show signs of neck, jaw, or back pain. How many bones are in the neck?

A. Four
B. Seven
C. Nine
D. Twelve

This would be a perfectly fine question if you were writing a bone-counting course. (Though I feel like writing such a course might put you on a federal watch list or two.) But more often, we're tasked with writing about really important concepts, where vital details matter, and it can be easy to overlook what's important when writing a question about it. 

I think most often this impulse comes from the desire for a clear right and wrong answer. It can be challenging to write a thoughtful question that deals specifically and accurately with a slightly abstract concept. Instead, we look for hard numbers and data we can quiz learners on, because it's easy to say what's right or wrong. However, this does a disservice to learners and doesn't lead to real change. When you're writing a quiz question, try to focus on what really matters to help learners understand the content.

Questions that Are Just a Little Funny

What figure from Greek mythology is said to have had "a face that launched a thousand ships"? 

A. Helen of Troy
B. Pandora
C. Andromeda
D. Kourtney Kardashian

Okay, this is a pretty obscure objection, but this honestly might be the one that bothers me the most. Writing a question this way basically says to the learner: "I couldn't think of enough plausible wrong answers." Including one silly distractor on your quiz isn't just pointless, it's distracting for modern, adult audiences. For learners who are actually trying to learn from their training, this little joke is likely to throw them off and even irritate them as they attempt to focus on the actual content.

I love any and all attempts to make the training experience more fun for learners. I love finding places to put in levity, but it shouldn't be at a disservice to the content. If you want your question to be funny, then go ahead and write a funny question. But be purposeful about it. Write with style. Make the entire question humorous, or don't bother!

These are just some of the potential pitfalls of lazy knowledge checks. Don't be afraid to dig in a little deeper and get a little tougher to give your learners challenging, thought-provoking questions that help them really learn.